Aromatherapy massage and massage with carrier oil alone reduced psychological stress and fatigue more than a period of rest, according to recent research.

In the study, “Differences Between the Physiologic and Psychologic Effects of Aromatherapy Body Treatment,” 13 healthy adults received one of three different interventions in random order on three separate days: aromatherapy massage, massage with a carrier oil alone and rest. The aim of the study was to examine the physiological and psychological effects of aromatherapy massage on healthy adults.

Participants were given a stress-inducing task before and after each intervention. The task was the Advanced Trail Making Test (ATMT), a computerized visual search using a touch-screen monitor. During the test, the numerals one through 25 appeared in circles on the screen and moved around randomly. Subjects were required to find and place the numerals in sequential order five times in each test.

Baseline physiological and psychological measures were taken before the ATMT on each of the three trial days, immediately before the three interventions and immediately after the interventions.

Psychological measures included the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory Form to assess anxiety; a visual analog scale to measure subjective feelings of fatigue (physical, mental and total), relaxation, refreshment and satisfaction; and the 20-step Face Scale to measure changes in mood.

Physiological states were measured by testing cortisol and secretory immunoglobulin A concentrations in participants’ saliva. Generally, increased cortisol indicates higher levels of stress, while salivary immunoglobin A (s-IgA) increases after pleasant and relaxing experiences and decreases after chronic psychologic  stresses.

Each of the three interventions lasted 45 minutes. The massage with carrier oil alone used macadamia nut oil and Swedish massage applied to the posterior of the participants’ legs and back in a prone position, and then to the shoulder, neck, arms and hands in a supine position.

The aromatherapy massage involved the same sequence, with three essential oils added to the macadamia nut carrier oil. The oils—orange sweet, true lavender and marjoram sweet—were mixed into the carrier oil with the ratio of 2:1:1.

On the rest day, each participant rested for 45 minutes on the same massage table the other two interventions had taken place on.

Results of the study showed the massage treatments decreased anxiety and psychological feelings of fatigue and increased positive and comfortable feelings, irrespective of the use of essential oils. However, the aromatherapy massage did produce long-lasting, fatigue-relieving effects not shown after massage with the carrier oil alone.

As to the physiological effects of the three interventions, there were no significant decreases in cortisol after any of the interventions. However, there was an increase in s-IgA after each of the three intervention types.

“Massage treatments are superior to rest in terms of psychologic, or subjective evaluations, but are equivalent to rest in terms of physiologic, or objective evaluations,” said the study’s authors. “Beneficial effects of aromatherapy body treatment with a 1 percent% concentration for healthy subjects largely depend on the effects of massage treatment, rather than the effects of the essential oils. In addition, aromatherapy has long-lasting, fatigue-relieving effects independent of massage treatment.”

Authors: Hitomi Takeda, Junzo Tsujita, Mitsuharu Kaya, Masanori Takemura and Yoshitaka Oku.

Sources: Department of Physiology, Department of Health and Sport Sciences, Hyogo College of Medicine, Hyogo, Japan; and Liberal Arts Center, Hyogo University of Health Sciences, Hyogo Japan. Originally published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2008) 14 (6): 665-661.