Essential Oils: Worth the Buzz?

I think you’d have to be living under a rock to have not heard of the powers of essential oils (popularly abbreviated “EOs” on natural living blogs). DoTerra or Young Living are the next Tupperware – parties where you can receive demonstrations of the amazing powers of essential oils and where you can plunk down cash for your very own starter kit.

I tend to live under rocks and managed to not notice or ignore the trend for, well, I’m not sure how long it’s been a buzz – but I first started looking into them at the beginning of this year when a friend recommended Young Living’s Thieves oil as a cold preventative. Then I talked briefly with a sibling who uses oils internally. Since then, I’ve browsed a few online articles, primarily linked from Pinterest; I’ve attended a Young Living party (where I bought nothing); I’ve read two books about essential oils and aromatherapy (I’ll post my mini-reviews tomorrow).

And I’ve spent somewhere between 20 and 80 hours exploring PubMed’s database for research on different essential oils and reading the most recent research regarding essential oils.

While I’d originally intended to simply write a brief introduction summarizing my thoughts regarding essential oils prior to my short reviews of the books I read, I scrapped that idea once I realized how LONG that would make my review post. Instead, you get two full-length posts (Oh joy!)

I think it’s important that you realize that I am a skeptic regarding complementary and alternative medicines. I don’t have any special affinity for “natural” (or, for that matter, for “artificial”) things. Rather, I am a practitioner of Western Medicine (inasmuch as dietetics is medicine) – and believe strongly in evidence-based medicine. Furthermore, while I believe anecdotal evidence is worthwhile as a spur for further research, it is NOT appropriate as a source of practice recommendations. (For example, a supercentenarian attributes her long life to 3 beers and a whiskey daily – but that doesn’t mean we should start recommending 3 beers and a whiskey daily.) So, recognize that I am much less likely than the average “all-natural” mom to recommend the use of, well, anything for treatment of disease or health-enhancing properties.

As I’ve conducted extensive reviews of the existing literature regarding essential oils, I’ve seen that the study of essential oils (from a scientific standpoint) is in its infancy. A few essential oils have been studied in detail but most have four to five studies altogether – and each study might be looking at a different proposed property for the essential oil. Many of the most rigorously designed studies have been conducted with petri dishes or animal models – which have inherent difficulties with translating to human use. And of the studies that are done with humans? The study designs tend to be quasi-experimental and involve a small sample size (not many people in the study). In other words, in most cases, there simply isn’t enough information to make evidence-based practice recommendations for the use of essential oils.

That said, there are a number of areas of research regarding essential oils that show promise:

  • Many EOs have antimicrobial properties. This is where those petri dish studies come in. Some essential oils kill bacteria, some kill fungi, some kill fly larvae, etc. This is exciting. EOs show promise for reducing antibiotic dependence and offer new options for things like food safety. The majority of applications that are being studied so far involve using EOs in animal feed (chicken feed, especially) rather than antibiotics to promote animal health in confinement and using EOs as rinses or sprays on cut fruits and vegetables to keep them from going bad before you get a chance to eat them. It’s important to note that, while this research shows promise and while some applications have been developed that may be effective, we do not have any information so far about whether a few drops of an essential oil in a household cleaner will prevent germs. Nor do we have any information about oils rubbed on the skin or diffused through the air. Almost all antimicrobials have specific effective doses – and unless that concentration is reached (usually for a certain length of time), there is little or no antimicrobial effect. Also, if something is powerful enough and concentrated enough to kill bad bugs, there’s no guarantee that it isn’t powerful enough and concentrated enough to also have potentially damaging effects to human cells. Until we’ve got research on humans, we just don’t know what might happen.
  • Some essential oils have an effect on the central nervous system (CNS). Inhaled lavender oil seems to be a CNS depressant – lowering blood pressure, decreasing basal metabolic rate, and slowing brain activity. Inhaled grapefruit oil seems to be a CNS stimulant – raising blood pressure and basal metabolic rate, and increasing alertness. As such, these have potential to treat conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, panic attacks, or narcolepsy. Except that they haven’t necessarily been studied for the treatment of those conditions – they have POTENTIAL to treat, since we know that the central nervous system is involved in those particular disorders, but we don’t know whether they actually WILL treat those conditions.
  • Odors can affect mood. This is something we’ve known for a long time. It’s nothing new. We know that smelling fresh-baked bread or chocolate chip cookies sells houses because people generally have positive associations with those odors and therefore feel that a home that smells like that is more “homey”. The difficulty is that everyone has different associations with different odors. If your grandma wore lavender, you might associate the smell of lavender with trips to the children’s museum with your grandma, or you might associate it with the smell of a dying woman. The highly individual nature of odor associations means that, if we want to use EOs to affect mood, we won’t necessarily be able to just look up a use in a book. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that you might find a smell that calms you or that makes you hungry or… well, all sorts of things.

In conclusion, there’s a lot of buzz about essential oils these days – and essential oils show some promise for enhancing health. But, the current state of research is such that an evidence-based practitioner should be extremely cautious about making any recommendations regarding essential oils. We simply don’t know enough.

5 thoughts on “Essential Oils: Worth the Buzz?”

  1. I’ve been looking forward to what you’d share about EO. I haven’t used any yet either, but I do keep hearing marvelous things from friends. I tend to be skeptical until I know the scientific research behind it. But I’m trying to hold off judging for now.

  2. I’ve used lavender to help me calm down during panic attacks. I don’t really enjoy the smell, but I can feel my mind slowing down and my heart pounding less. I do have to be continually inhaling to notice the effects. I also had some in the bathwater during labor with Heidi and that helped me relax. I have also effectively used peppermint to help with morning sickness and Panaway for muscle pain (neckache). Haven’t experimented much beyond that.

    • From what I’ve seen, lavender is probably the most researched essential oil – and it has lots of potential uses, most of them probably related to its depressant effect on the central nervous system. It makes sense that it would help you relax, whether during a panic attack or during labor.

      Using peppermint for morning sickness is interesting to me. Because so many women experience a heightened sense of smell during pregnancy, many complained to me that they had lots of difficulty with nausea throughout their jobs or home life – dealing with stinky customers, food they were cooking for home or at work, etc. I often encouraged these women to see if an “odor mask” would help – putting a little lemon or peppermint extract on a handkerchief, for example, that they could then sniff when they smelled something that was turning their stomach. I mentioned lemon and peppermint because they’re often perceived as pleasant odors, yet they have a sharp/astringent (cleansing?) feel to them that tends to overpower other odors. I gave those suggestions anecdotaly, as something worth trying but with little hard evidence to back them up – yet I found one study that discussed sniffing lemon essential oil just as I described to counter morning sickness, and now you’ve described peppermint as helping.

      I’m eager to see more research into the various essential oils – they do indeed seem to show a lot of promise, and it would be wonderful if some were shown to be effective at treating disease or enhancing wellness.

  3. I appreciate your thoughts on this because I know your way of thinking and thoroughness of research will convey fact- and research-based answers. I’m wary of bandwagons generally, especially those in the area of health and medicine. I’ve seen some Facebook friends so excited about these things they seem to take over their posts. That makes me turn the opposite way, but I’ve felt that they probably do have some good uses, yet I haven’t had the time or interest to look into them. I’m glad to be able to look over your shoulder and see what you’ve found.

    I’d never heard of an “odor mask” before – great tip! And I agree that something that can kill bugs has to be looked at in terms of what it might do to humans as well. One other problem I see with these is that people might not think to mention using EOs when they see their doctor, but they might indeed be having an effect on their condition, good or bad. I was just reading this morning of a person’s husband who had serious low blood pressure due to a new medication he had been prescribed, and think how it might have been even worse if he was using an EO to lower blood pressure as well.


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