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.