Roses symbolize love, but could their connection with the heart be more than a sentimental Valentine’s Day tradition? Medical researchers and practitioners are rediscovering and demonstrating what traditional medicine has known for centuries — that rose heals.
Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties help with cancer and heart disease, it soothes digestion, and it’s been shown to reduce anxiety and lift depression. The traditional affinity with women may be more than just wive’s tales, too, as it helps ease menstrual issues. And the rose’s beauty translates to its power to heal skin problems such as rosacea.
The medical applications of rose essential oil, rose petal tea, and rose hips reveal the secret of the connection between emotions, loss, self-love, and how diseases manifest in the body. The most obvious link between mind and body, and rose’s healing power, begins with depression.
Calming Anxiety, Lifting Depression
A 2009 study looked at how rose (Rosa damascena) essential oil affects mood. Forty volunteers put on breathing masks so they couldn’t smell anything. They were split into a placebo group and a rose oil group, and researchers measured blood pressure, breathing rate, blood oxygen saturation, pulse rate, and skin temperature. Even without smelling the oil, those that were exposed to rose showed decreases in all the parameters, and reported feeling more calm, alert, and relaxed than the placebo group.
Some studies have even reported that rose oil helps lab rats relax!
Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist Carol Nace incorporates rose into nearly every treatment. Nace uses rose essential oil to help clients achieve balance in skin, digestion, and mind. “Rose is rejuvenative, restorative, and relaxing,” she said in a phone interview. “A perfume or essential oil calms emotions. Rose can be balancing for everybody, especially with heat.”
The Indian medical system called Ayurveda classifies the world into three elements: earth, air, and fire. “Rose is calming and cooling,” Nace said. “It can be good for almost anyone, but especially people with a lot of fire — a hot head.”
Studies of rose’s chemical compositions and their effects confirm that the flower’s scent calms anxiety and may alleviate headaches. Considering its effect on anxiety and depression, people suffering from tension headaches may want to consider inhaling rose essential oil for relief. Or spritzing their faces with rose water. Or adding food-grade rose water to confections. Nace said she gives patients a fig stuffed with rose jam after every session.
Living in the moment helps anxiety, but our rapid-paced world often keeps us away from the now. As Nace said, “We live in such a hot time, it’s good to cool down and stop and smell the roses.”
Healing The Heart, Bridging Loss, And Breast Cancer
What Ayurvedic doctors call fire, modern doctors might call inflammation. In that sense, modern scientific research affirms Ayurveda’s observation about rose’s cooling qualities, and reveals its potential in helping heal two of our society’s most dreaded diseases: heart disease and cancer.
These two seemingly unrelated conditions actually have more in common than just being the top two leading causes of death in the United States, causing 48 percent of all mortalities each year. Research shows a link between the two diseases, and chronic inflammation.
The body needs a balance between free radicals, also called reactive oxygen species, and antioxidant defenses. Reactive oxygen species are molecules that contain an atom of oxygen that can damage cells. The body neutralizes these free radicals with antioxidants. An imbalance of antioxidants in favor of free radicals leads to oxidative stress, which leads to chronic inflammation that researchers have observed transforms normal cells into cancer.
In the journal Nature, researchers from the Cancer Research Institute at the University of California wrote, “Inflammation is a critical component of tumor progression. Many cancers arise from sites of infection, chronic irritation and inflammation. It is now becoming clear that the tumor microenvironment, which is largely orchestrated by inflammatory cells, is an indispensable participant in the [tumor] process, fostering proliferation, survival and migration.”
The same mechanism applies to heart disease. Dr. Peter Libby, a cardiovascular specialist and professor at Harvard Medical School, wrote that there is “extensive and growing evidence that inflammation participates centrally in all stages of [atherosclerosis], from the initial lesion to the end-stage thrombotic complications.” Atherosclerosis is hardening of arteries. End-stage thrombotic complications may be interpreted as meaning fatal heart attack.
Rose contains numerous anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that have been shown to combat tumors at early and advanced stages — yet rose oil is not widely used as a medicinal treatment for cancer, and is largely disregarded in both scientific literature and among naturopathic doctors.
Medical research is not the only reason natural health practitioners use rose oil with breast cancer patients. Dr. Sharon Stills, a naturopathic doctor based in Tucson, Arizona uses it because it heals the heart and stills the mind. She says the mind-body connection is often missed when doctors begin to treat heart disease or cancer. Especially breast cancer. Her 15 year practice blends the latest findings in medical research of natural medicine with the ancient teachings of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
“Rose is good for the heart. Not just meaning that someone buys you roses to say, ‘I love you.’ It’s somewhat similar to hawthorn, which is in the same family — for a broken heart, loss and grief, lifting spirits, and helping women feel beautiful,” she said in a phone interview. “It works with emotions.”
“I don’t treat patients with just rose, but I’ll use it in a formula with hawthorn, or lily of the valley, or digitalis,” she said. “But I’ll especially use it if I can correlate it with traumatic emotions — a loss, for example, if a patient had a divorce and six months later cardiovascular disease started.”
“A lot of disease processes have a mind-body link,” said Stills, who works mostly with women, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. “I spend an hour with every new patient and can often find a correlation, such as a husband [who] suddenly, tragically died and 6 months later the disease set in.”
Stills looks at a patient’s emotional state, diet, exercise habits, and sleep, since lifestyle is often correlated with inflammatory diseases such as cancer and heart disease. She’s had emotionally healthy patients who needed to change their diets and exercise more. But often it’s deeper.
“In TCM, we see life themes with breast cancer. Often there is a loss of a male. Abuse by a father or uncle, [or they’ve been] cheated on by [their] husband, bad divorce,” she said.
“Again and again I see givers. You know, women who are always taking care of others and don’t nurture themselves, and just give, and give, and give. A breast is meant to love and nurture children. I see women who never take care of themselves. They’re a doormat.” She paused. “I know it sounds crazy, but the gift of cancer is having no choice but to take care of yourself.”
She recalled a breast cancer patient who died, but who illustrates how important lifestyle and emotional health are. “She was so strong, and she smoked and ate M&Ms, but she did the emotional work, and she came to terms with the emotional connection with her cancer. Even though I wished she would trade the M&Ms for broccoli. Before her treatments she would stand outside and finish her cigarette.” Stills added that she has many patients who have cured their cancer, through a mix of natural therapies, lifestyle changes, and emotional work.
Stills said rose reduces anxiety — and not just because a medical journal says so. “I will tell patients to go out and buy roses for themselves, to literally stop and smell the roses. Just stopping to be mindful, slowing down, being in the moment, decreases anxiety and boosts mood.”
Women shouldn’t underestimate the power of self-love, especially with breast cancer. Stills said, “Don’t wait for someone to buy roses for you.”
Soothing Skin And Women’s Health
Stills recommends cancer patients undergoing radiation apply rose cream to protect skin. Rose heals wounds, and its antioxidant properties and scent make it a popular cosmetics ingredient.
Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist, said rose’s antioxidant properties help minimize damage to collagen and DNA, preventing sun and pollution-related skin damage.
“There are so many studies that have demonstrated how topical retinoids (Vitamin A) can help reduce the signs of aging by increasing cell turnover, thickening skin, reducing pigmentation and minimizing fine lines,” she wrote in an email. “Rose hip and rose oils contain high levels of plant-based vitamin A, which can be a natural way to exfoliate dull skin, reduce the appearance of scars and uneven pigment and regenerate fresh, new skin cells.”
Dr. Stan Headley, a naturopath, said rose’s gentleness makes it good for dry, sensitive, and aging skin. “Rose has an astringent effect on the capillaries just below the skin surface, which makes it useful in reducing redness caused by dilated capillaries, as in rosacea,” he wrote in an email.
Jeiran Lashai, an acupuncturist in Los Angeles, recommends rose oil for breastfeeding women who have the beginning stages of mastitis. Lashai’s practice centers on women’s reproductive and hormonal issues, and for her, rose is very important. She’s also a native of Iran, possibly the world’s most worshipful culture of roses.
“My whole life has been influenced by roses, such as rose petal jam and rose tea. In Iran, if you have some cramps, your grandmother would say, ‘Here’s some rose petal tea.’”
In TCM, roses move energy and blood, and Lashai often uses it in formulas for digestive problems and “almost anything women’s reproductive issues,” she said, except not pregnant or breastfeeding women who don’t have mastitis. “I use it almost daily and I use it all the time.”
Rose always brings us back to the mind-body connection. “It has to do with stress in the body,” Lashai said in a phone interview. “In Los Angeles, my patients have a lot of stress just in their daily lives, getting from point A to point B.”
“Just last week I had a patient who was pregnant, stressed, and not getting a lot of sleep. It was an emergency situation. Her blood pressure and heart rate were going up, so I used rose oil on her pulse points to calm her down, and gave her rose petal tea to take at night, along with magnesium and passion fruit. I have a three and five year old myself, so I have rose tea to calm down, too.”
Safety And Contraindications
“Rose is safe to use every day, just not too much,” Lashai said. “It’s like orange. One orange a day is safe, 20 in a day will start to wreak havoc on your digestive system.”
Rose is in the same family as many antioxidant-rich fruits, such as cherries, strawberries, and raspberries. Roses are edible and widely used in Indian and Iranian culinary traditions.
Roses grown for sale at florists are not food grade. They are usually grown with fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, and sometimes fumigated when imported to the United States. They should not be eaten, or put in a bath for soaking.
Also, some products called rose essential oil sold for fragrance may be synthetic, which do not contain rose’s medicinal qualities. Rose oil is expensive, so a cheap oil is likely synthetic.
Rose essential oil or rose hip oil should be therapeutic or food grade [hips are the fruit of the rose plant, which form after the flower is pollinated]. Rosewater for adding to food is easily found where Indian or Iranian groceries are sold. Many natural health stores will carry a rosewater hydrosol, with aromatherapy benefits at a cheaper price than the essential oil.
Medicinal-grade roses may be cultivated, but gardeners should grow them organically and try to find varieties with the highest concentrations of therapeutic oils. Iranian strains have been noted in some of the research cited in this article within the Rosa damascena species.
Rose and rose hip oil and tea show promise for treating cancer and heart disease in preliminary research, but they are not yet widely used. Fortunately, rose is gentle enough to enjoy as a tea, so people curious to integrate roses into their daily diet can purchase dried food-grade rose buds or petals and brew them as a tea, and add them to bathwater for a relaxing soak.
And people who are concerned about heart disease or cancer may want to integrate plenty of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods into their diets. Enjoy spices such as cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, and sage; fruit such as apples, blueberries, blackberries, and plums; and vegetables such as beets, artichokes, broccoli, spinach, and bell peppers.
Rose’s history is long, its symbolism rich, and its future as a medicine may just be beginning.