Sensory Delights

There was something stinky in the kitchen trash, but kids were already sitting down for breakfast and I wasn’t wearing shoes to take it out, so we opted to diffuse some essential oils to mask the smell.

It being fall (at last!), we decided to try some fall scents – and arrived at a blend that delighted us all day long.

See my diffuser there? I’m no essential oil enthusiast (MLM + uber-questionable health advice = Rebekah’s not a fan) but I’m allergic to a lot of fragrances, so blending my own smells lets me screen out the stuff that gives me sneezes!

I liked it so much, I put it in again today just for the joy of it (no stinky trash needed.)

In case I forget, it was 4 drops cedarwood, 4 drops cinnamon bark, 2 drops cloves, and 10 drops orange.

Essential Oil Books

Yesterday, I posted a very long review of the current state of research on essential oils. My conclusion was that

“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.”

Those who read yesterday’s post will likely be unsuprised to find that my reviews of the following books about essential oils tend to be critical, especially of the health claims made within.

Even while I am skeptical regarding supposed health benefits of essential oil use, I tend to think that most essential oils, when diluted minutely and administered either topically or by inhalation (such as being diffused into a room), are unlikely to be dangerous. There are few documented adverse effects of essential oils in their usual uses, so I would feel much more comfortable using them in the “usual ways” than in some novel dilution or route. (I would be extremely cautious of using essential oils internally, as this is NOT a common use and therefore more of an unknown as far as potential toxicity goes.)

The Essential Oils Book: Creating Personal Blends for Mind & Body by Colleen K. Dodt

This is the first book I read on using essential oils – and the subtitle accurately represents what you’ll find within. The bulk of the book is “recipes” for essential oil blends to be used as cosmetics, bath blends, cleaning solutions, and the like. There are a wide variety of recipes, some using specific oils (particularly the ones for use on the body) and others simply giving direction to add “15 drops essential oils” (generally the cleaning or room freshening recipes).

The author is clearly fond of aromas and she shares her enthusiasm not only by encouraging the use of essential oils but also the use of fresh and dried flowers and herbs. That was fun. On the other hand, the author also seems pretty flaky and frequently mentions pseudo-scientific things (which might just be the state of aromatherapy at this point) like detoxifying for weight loss.

The third chapter describes around 30 essential oils, giving its information in loose headings: “Nature”, “Benefits”, “Suggested Uses”, “Blending”, and “Cautions”. Some oils contain all these headings, others only a few. Often information that seems to best fit under one heading appears under another. Sometimes cautions that I read of other places aren’t given here. And, of course, very few of the claims can be supported by scientific literature.

Nevertheless, I found this to be a useful introduction into how essential oils can be (and are) used in a variety of ways both in personal care and in the home.

Essential Energy: A guide to aromatherapy and essential oils by Nikki Goldstein

This full-color “artsy” book ended up being a fascinating blend of historical and practical information about aromatherapy. The first chapters describe the use of aroma throughout history (and throughout the world) and how smell and touch work together to accomplish aromatherapy’s magic. This book too describes a list of around 30 essential oils, giving historical information, “benefits”, “safe use”, and “cautions” for each one in addition to giving the common name, the botanical name, the source of the essence, where the plant is cultivated, what the aroma is like, and which perfume note the essential oil has. Finally, the author describes multiple ways to use essential oils (massage, aromatherapy baths, infusions, compresses, etc.) and lists a variety of ailments along with the essential oils that are purported to treat them.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m skeptical of many of aromatherapy’s claims, feeling that there simply isn’t sufficient scientific evidence to encourage (or discourage) the use of aromatherapy. The “practical” portions of this book tend to make me more skeptical, as they give wildly improbable and unscientific potential mechanisms for aromatherapy’s action (smells don’t purify the blood, the liver does.) Furthermore, I struggle with all the contradictory results – oils that are both stimulating and relaxing? But that says more about the state of the science on aromatherapy than it does about this particular book.

For those interested in learning about the history of aromatics or in the steps to do a full-body aromatherapeutic massage, this would be a good resource. I enjoyed reading it.

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.