It is estimated that 77.9 million adults (1 out of 3) in the United States have high blood pressure. When over one third of the population is at risk for heart attack and stroke, we might consider that a pandemic. Medications can manage symptoms but they may carry with them frustrating side effects including cough, digestive issues, lightheadedness, impotence, headaches, nervousness and more. The medications also do not get to the root cause. Diet and exercise are the best means to truly correct the problem but lifestyle changes can be overwhelming and the effort required is not the immediate fix we are so accustomed to.
Aromatherapy has been gaining attention for its effect on hypertension. Studies dating back to the early 1900s demonstrate several essential oils have the ability to decrease blood pressure. Essential Oils have actions similar to those found in modern pharmaceuticals. They also have a positive impact on other factors that contribute to the problem including stress management and quality of sleep.
Calcium Channel Blockers and Vasodilators
Scientists have found that some essential oils act similar to calcium channel blockers, pharmaceuticals commonly prescribed for high blood pressure. By blocking calcium from entering the heart and blood vessels, calcium channel blockers relax and widen the cardiac and smooth muscles that control the heart and vessel walls. Blood and oxygen flow better and the heart is given a rest. Essential oils show similar vasodilating actions and it is thought to be due to calcium channel blocking effects.
Peppermint oil has demonstrated calcium channel blocking actions and is likely due to its major constituent, menthol, which dilates blood vessels after IV administration (1). Applied topically, menthol was found to reduce blood pressure. Constituents in Cinnamon Bark and Thyme oil have also exhibited calcium channel blocking actions (2,3,4,5).
Many other essential oils have demonstrated the ability to lower blood pressure. Among them is Lavender and its constituent linalool and Eucalyptus and its constituent 1,8 cineole (5). Geranium and Lavender lowered blood pressure when administered intravenously (6). Inhalation of a blend of Lavender, Ylang-Ylang and Bergamot resulted in lowered blood pressure in Korean patients after inhaling once per day for 4 weeks (7). Lavender, Marjoram, Ylang-Ylang and Neroli showed promising short and long-term effects on participants with high blood pressure (8). Clary Sage also induced a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (9)
Some essential oils have blood-thinning/anticoagulant properties. Since blood coagulation can be a factor for individuals with hypertension, these essential oils should also be considered. Birch and Wintergreen are two essential oils very similar in composition, both composed almost entirely of methyl salicylate. This constituent thins the blood when applied topically (10,11). Methyl salicylate is chemically similar to aspirin, often prescribed by doctors in connection with blood pressure management. Helichrysum oil is another known anticoagulant that has been reported to have a positive effect on high blood pressure. Essential oils from spices such as Clove, Cinnamon and Oregano may also inhibit coagulation. Anyone taking prescription blood thinners such as Warafin or entering into surgery should avoid using essential oils with anticoagulant properties both topically and internally.
Since stress plays a role in high blood pressure and heart disease, essential oils known for stress-relieving actions will play an important part in managing the condition. Upon inhalation, essential oils quickly impact the limbic system, a part of the brain responsible for emotions, mood, motivation, memory, hormonal secretions, and perception of pain and pleasure. As such, aromatherapy can be a fast-acting, simple and effective addition to stress management techniques.
Many essential oils used for stress relief also have a direct action on blood pressure. Lavender, Bergamot, Geranium, Marjoram and Ylang-ylang, all previously noted to lower blood pressure, happen to have aa profound effect on stress and anxiety. Essential oils can also lower cortisol levels in the body (cortisol is the stress hormone that among other things, leads to weight gain). One study found that Clary sage oil had the ability to reduce cortisol levels by 36% (12). Others oils of significance for stress and anxiety are Rose, Jasmine, Mandarin and Melissa (Lemon Balm). The studies conducted on aromatherapy’s role in the management of stress and anxiety are endless and it is not a wonder aromatherapy is utilized in nursing homes, hospitals and mental health practices around the world.
Quality of Sleep
There is a direct correlation between sleep and high blood pressure. While sleeping, the body performs various functions vital to good health including repairing the heart and blood vessels. Poor sleep can lead to increased blood pressure the following day (13). Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
Many of the same essential oils mentioned for stress reduction also aid in better, deeper sleep. Lavender has been used extensively to promote better sleep. Sweet Marjoram has been noted for inducing deeper sleep and reducing snoring, one common symptom of sleep apnea. Other oils include Valerian Root, Cedarwood and Sandalwood. Essential oils can be inhaled, applied topically and/or diffused at bedtime to promote better rest.
A Practical Approach to Manage Hypertension
A multifaceted approach to managing high blood pressure will achieve the greatest relief. A combination of diet and lifestyle changes can promote long-term success. Essential oils demonstrate a marked impact on blood pressure readings and should be utilized in hypertension management, possibly before resorting to modern pharmaceuticals. They can also play an important role in managing stress and promoting better sleep. Aromatherapy is fast acting and many of the oils mentioned assist with the many factors that contribute to hypertension in addition to having a direct effect on blood pressure. The addition of aromatherapy is easy and pleasurable for a patient to implement without the side effects associated with current medications.
Aromatherapy can be self-administered without a prescription. Although some of the studies referenced herein have administered essential oils intravenously, this is not necessary to achieve results. Among the studies, topical administration and inhalation were also used. A combination of both methods is ideal.
The molecular structure of essential oils is very small and they are lipophilic like our skin, making it easy for them to pass directly through the skin into the blood stream. An aromatherapy blend for daily topical use (up to 4% for full body and up to 25% for wrists, feet and/or pressure points) with a combination of oils selected for their calcium channel blocking, vasodilation and anticoagulant properties is recommended.
Stress, anxiety and sleep challenges are controlled by the limbic system. The limbic system is influenced by olfaction (our sense of smell). Aromas have a direct effect on our nervous system. Therefore, daily direct inhalation and diffusion at bedtime can play an integral role in managing high blood pressure.
Each of these methods alone will have a positive impact on managing high blood pressure and overall health. Together, these aromatherapy methods offer a multi-faceted, gentle, non-evasive approach and should be considered by those looking for an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions.
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