By Kathy Sadowski, MS in Aromatherapy, RA, LMT
This article originally appeared in the NAHA Journal (Winter 2019) and it is republished here according to the NAHA Writer Guidelines 2019-20 copyright statement.
You may be wondering, “How can an aroma help reduce indigestion…wouldn’t it be more effective to ingest a botanical extraction if your gut aches?” Certainly, many studies have demonstrated that ingesting key herbs can aid in alleviating a variety of digestive complaints. But the internal use of essential oils can pose a significant health risk.
Essential oils, which can be 100 times more potent than the same plant’s herb, are considered unsafe to ingest without the advice of a trained expert, unless using a commercially formulated blend with internal usage instructions (1). With that being said, the therapeutic margin is small, and contraindications with medical conditions and medications taken must be considered.
Aromatherapy via inhalation can offer a gentle and effective alternative to help reduce digestive complaints. The pathophysiology of nausea / indigestion can be quite complex, going beyond just issues with the digestive system organs. Anxiety and mood can affect gastrointestinal tract motility. Thus, calming the nervous system with aromatherapy has shown in multiple scientific studies to be safe and effective in reducing nausea.
A variety of essential oil aromas have shown in human studies to help with indigestion. Ginger, and blends with ginger have shown in a significant number of studies to be very helpful, with extremely minimal negative side-effects. This article will review the physiology of how aroma can reduce indigestion, with studies demonstrating ginger aromatherapy can gently help with digestive complaints.
The Physiology of How Aroma can Improve Digestion
Stress can have a gut-wrenching effect! Digestive processes are controlled by the nervous system. When we are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode, and can cause digestive cramping, acidity, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. Long term stress can contribute to diseases like digestive tract inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, gastric reflux, and ulcers (2).
Reducing stress can help with indigestion. Getting our nervous system back into parasympathetic mode, also nicknamed “rest and digest,” improves our body’s unconscious bodily functions, including digestive activities.
Essential oil scents have shown to help reduce stress. What are some possible physiological mechanisms for this effect?
Human Studies on Ginger Aroma for Nausea
Ginger essential oil aroma may have both a psychological and pharmacological effect to aid in digestive malfunctions. Below are brief summaries of several human studies where the scent demonstrated a reduction in nausea.
In summary, ginger aroma can be an effective and gentle way to help reduce nausea. Upon entering the nose, it may have both a phycological and/or a pharmacological effect. Multiple human studies have demonstrated this therapeutic action.
Additional essential oil aromas have also shown significant potential, including peppermint, lemon, and lavender. As a result, I would recommend this aromatherapy recipe to help with indigestion:
Indigestion Aromatherapy Recipe
Mix equal parts of each essential oil and safely store in a small amber bottle, labeling the date and ingredients.