The memory of the woozy woman slumped in her wheelchair still gets to Sandy McGurran, coordinator of integrative therapies for Fairview Homecare and Hospice.
McGurran was doing a home visit with the patient, who was recovering from a stroke and gagging from nausea.
"I asked her if she'd be interested in trying some aromatherapy," McGurran recalled.
The patient agreed, so McGurran dabbed a cotton ball with peppermint oil and told her to inhale like she was smelling a flower and exhale like she was blowing out a candle.
A few minutes later, the woman sat up, looked at her husband and said: "You have to get some of this tonight."
Essential oils are a hot item in today's holistic healing world — touted as a natural way to improve your mood, ward off sickness and treat ailments such as arthritis, dry skin and allergies.
Now, a growing number of hospitals are jumping onto the essential-oils bandwagon, offering them to patients to help manage pain, nausea and anxiety.
"It really is in every health care system," McGurran said. "We have clinicians who are very engaged in using aromatherapies because we see the outcomes."
Although research on the therapeutic benefits of essential oils is not conclusive, oil enthusiasts swear by their power. And the oils are increasingly moving into the mainstream. Although using oils derived from plants as medicine dates back thousands of years, they've now become big business, with marketing companies latching onto the trend.
"You can find them everywhere — on the shelf at the grocery store, on Facebook," said Megan Voss, a nurse at the University of Minnesota's Masonic Children's Hospital who also teaches at the university's Center for Spirituality and Healing.
Use is growing
Essential oils are on the menu of remedies offered to patients at the Masonic Children's Hospital.
The hospital started using them sparingly eight years ago to help patients relax, sleep and to relieve nausea symptoms. Since then, the university has expanded its oil therapy program and has developed its own special blends, using them in combination with massage and acupuncture.
"We're upping the ante," Voss said.
The hospital also uses essential oils to treat children's wounds. One notable example is in cases of children who have a rare skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). The hospital has a number of patients with this genetic condition that creates skin that's as delicate as a butterfly's wings, making scratching dangerous.
"In these cases, the parents are desperate for anything that will help their children," Voss said. A special formula of various essential oils applied to the skin of the children with EB helps relieve itching. Plus, it's anti-inflammatory.
Like other health care providers, Fairview Homecare and Hospice took a cautious approach to aromatherapy at first — using only two kinds of oils, lavender and peppermint. The oils were such a hit with patients who used them to help manage pain and soothe nausea that Fairview chose to grow its aromatherapy program.
The results were enough to convince McGurran.
"We've had patients who were actively vomiting do some inhalation and their vomiting stopped," she said.
Fairview worked with a certified clinical aromatherapist from the local nonprofit Healing Alchemy to create four custom blends of essential oil. Developed by Patricia Ronning, they carry labels such as "calming," "soothing," "uplifting" and "energizing." Fairview Pharmacies sells the blends — whose ingredients include lavender, bergamot, frankincense, lemon, ginger and peppermint — alongside traditional medicines.
Hospice patients at Fairview have reported that the calming essential oil significantly blunted their pain, McGurran said.
"We had patients saying they weren't taking their as-needed pain medicines because they were receiving relief from aromatherapy. And they were not having the side effects from pain medications," she said.
But McGurran stressed that essential oils are meant to be used to complement traditional medicine.
"We are not telling patients NOT to take their medications. This is in addition to what their doctors are prescribing," she said.
To understand how essential oils can affect wellness, think of what happens when you peel an orange, McGurran said.
"You get happy. You are inhaling the oil from the skin, and it goes up to the limbic part of your brain, which manages stress," she explained. "We're inhaling tiny molecules into our system."
For pain, the oils may help by distracting the brain to focus on the aroma.
A recent analysis of 10 studies on aromatherapy's impact on depression, anxiety, pain relief, dementia and hypertension found that "the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition."
Still, there's plenty of enthusiasm for oils. Kayleen Dennison, 20, of Roseville is a believer.
"I've had a lot of health problems my whole life," she said, noting a gluten allergy and migraine headaches. She heard about essential oils and, though skeptical at first, decided to try them.
"It worked and it was amazing," she said.
For her migraine headaches, she rubs peppermint oil onto her temples. To ensure a good night's sleep, she mixes lavender oil with water and sprays it onto her pillows at bedtime. And when she feels a sore throat coming on, she gargles with water and three drops of her favorite oil.
The only time using essential oils doesn't make her feel better is when she dabbles in floral scents. Those oils give her a headache.
"I've learned to stay away from those," Dennison said. "Pretty much everything else has been working for me."