Posts Tagged ‘Health’

Essential Oils: Worth the Buzz?

August 11th, 2015

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.

Book Review: “Over-diagnosed” by Dr. H Gilbert Welch and others

October 4th, 2011

A couple years ago, I wrote about my personal weight loss crisis. I’d lost weight and everyone was noticing it and congratulating me. Problem was, I was arguably at a healthier weight pre-loss than I was after losing (since lowest mortality is at a BMI of around 24).

I described how health promotion watchdogs kept lowering the BMI limit for “overweight”, capturing more and more people under the “overweight” term with little evidence that those people were actually at increased risk.

As a result, all sorts of people who were once considered to be at a healthy weight, were now labeled as overweight. And they were told that overweight puts them at risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. Problem is, the newly diagnosed individuals (with BMIs between the new “overweight” limit and the old one) aren’t necessarily at higher risk. They’re just now being lumped with those who are at higher risk.

These people are the “overdiagnosed”. They receive a diagnosis for a “disease” that has not harmed them and perhaps never will.

Over-diagnosedDoctors H Gilbert Welch, Lisa M. Schwartz, and Steven Woloshin address this problem in their book Over-diagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health.

The authors discuss multiple areas of medicine where the pursuit of early detection of disease has led to people being diagnosed with potential problems that haven’t yet caused them real problems (and maybe never will). Then, once a “disease” has been diagnosed, treatment begins.

If the treatment were only beneficial and had no side effects, this might be fine. Everyone would be undergoing treatment for all of their potential problems and their potential problems would never develop into real problems.

But that isn’t the case. Instead, each of these treatments has a variety of side effects-some quite dangerous. If someone actually has a problem (that is causing them a problem), the positives in increased life expectancy or absence of disease symptoms outweigh the negative side effects. But for the overdiagnosed, the people who are diagnosed with a potential problem that is destined to never become an actual problem, the side effects are the only effects–since they will not be helped by the treatment (for a disease they don’t actually have, or don’t actually have a problem with.)

Packed with good scientific explanations, this book makes a strong case for opting out of unnecessary tests–and for asking more questions prior to beginning treatment.

This is not an anti-medicine book. The authors are all Western medical doctors who believe in evidence-based care. But they question whether the ballooning spate of over-diagnosis is really evidenced-based care or whether it’s fear-based care.

This isn’t the easiest book to read (it can get fairly technical at times), but I think it provides some very important perspective that is rarely offered in today’s medical and health-promotion arenas.


I have read a couple of articles which referenced overdiagnosis recently. The first, regarding mammograms and mastectomies stated the following:

“While scientists did not investigate why mastectomy rates climbed in screened groups, study author Pal Suhrke said the main reason is likely “cancer overdiagnosis,” or the detection and subsequent treatment of tumors that might grow very slowly and not pose much of a risk.”

The second, detailing the results of a physician survey, stated that almost half of all doctors in the US feel that their own patients are overtreated.


Rating: 4 Stars
Category:Consumer Health
Synopsis: The authors describe over-diagnosis and the dangers associated with routinely testing healthy individuals.
Recommendation: The health-savvy consumer will definitely want to read this.

Book Review: “Live a Little” by Susan M. Love and Alice D. Domar

June 13th, 2011

Health information bombards us from a hundred directions. It’s on the television, in the newspaper, on the radio. It glares at us from billboards and public service announcements. Popular magazines tout the newest *amazing* health discovery, and the web has fifty thousand opinions on just about everything.

Every disease has a corresponding nonprofit with a corresponding day, week, or month to promote awareness. And every day, week, or month of awareness gives us another list of things to do to make sure we’re healthy.

And then there’s the government. We have the USDA’s new MyPlate which replaces MyPyramid which replaced the Food Guide Pyramid which replaced the four basic food groups. For professionals, there’s the corresponding “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. For Physical Activity, we have the “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.” Then various government agencies put out lists of recommended vaccinations, preventative screenings, what-have-you.

It’s absolutely overwhelming. And it means that many of us, women especially, are walking around with major complexes about all the healthy things we should be doing but aren’t.

Well, doctors Susan M. Love and Alice D. Domar (one a MD, one a PhD) have a word of advice to us all:

“Live a little!

In their book by the same name (written with the help of Leigh Ann Hirschman), these two health professionals seek to cut through the mess of health information and tell women what’s really important for health–and what’s not.

The authors set up what they call the “Pretty Healthy Zone” (or pH zone)–a balanced position between absolutely letting yourself go and being hyper-obsessive about your health. Then they go about helping women to understand what the “pH zone” is for six critical areas: sleep, stress, health screenings, exercise, diet, and relationships. In each of these areas, they offer a little quiz to help you determine whether you fit into the “pH zone”–or if you need to do some work to get yourself there. The final chapter describes what a pretty healthy life might look like decade by decade throughout a woman’s life.

As a health professional who is often alarmed at the extreme recommendations being thrown out by researchers and lay people alike, I am very pleased by this book’s balanced approach to health. Love and Domar critically evaluate the available research and weed out the good recommendations from the tenuous ones. Furthermore, they evaluate these recommendations in light of overall quality of life, in addition to simply evaluating disease avoidance.

For the woman who feels guilty that she [insert your own health “vice”: isn’t exercising enough/doesn’t do a breast self exam/doesn’t get 8 hours of sleep every night/eats Twinkies], this can provide a measure of relief–and some direction for how to make positive steps towards a healthier lifestyle.

For the woman who is obsessed with her health and spends every moment of every day counting calories in and out, calculating risk factors, and engaging in “prevention”, this book can provide a level of balance–and some direction regarding which health steps are most advantageous.

For the woman who doesn’t even bother about her health and has no idea what she should or shouldn’t be doing health-wise, this book can provide an entry-level intro to what healthy behaviors look like–and give some pointers for getting started in developing a healthy lifestyle.


Rating: 5 stars
Category:Women’s Health
Synopsis:Dr’s Love and Domar evaluate common health advice in light of good science and help women understand what a “pretty healthy” life looks like.
Recommendation: One of the best books I’ve ever read on health and prevention. This is definitely worth picking up.


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