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Essential Oils: Passing Fad or an Effective Home Remedy?

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Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD - published on 03/17/15

The new hot thing

Americans spend $34 billion dollars per year on complementary and alternative medicine, and Catholics are a big part of it.  
A growing trend among my patients and friends is the use of essential oils for medical care. Do they really work, or are they just over-priced, fragrant quackery? I would have assumed the latter, until I got an invitation to an essential oils party from a friend who’s a Harvard educated lawyer. A shop-at-home party for alternative medications was the least likely place I expected to find her, let alone me. So I hit the evidenced-based research, expecting to prove her wrong. Here’s what I found…

An essential oil is concentrated plant oil with a distinct scent, such as oil of clove, mint, lavender, or citrus. The term "essential" in this case means “essence-of”. These oils are used in perfumes, soap, lotions, incense, household cleaning products, and as flavorings for food and drink. Essential oils have passed the test of antiquity—they’ve been used medicinally since the beginning of recorded history. Frankincense, an essential oil, is believed to have been a gift of the Magi. Today, we still use them regularly. In fact, if you’ve ever used Vick’s Vaporub, you’ve used essential oils. Vicks is a mix of essential oils suspended in petroleum jelly (although some of the oils may be made synthetically by the Vicks company—they don’t specify).  

It is difficult to call essential oils a passing fad. Why then, haven’t they been integrated into western medicine?

Modern medical literature includes limited research on their efficacy, but since 2000 there have been a growing number of research studies on essential oils popping up in traditional medical journals, with 1,045 PubMed listed articles in 2013.

Here are seven reasons why essential oils have returned to American medicine:  

1) There is money to be made in the essential oil market.

There is a growing market for essential oils intended for home medical use, with prices ranging from $12 to $80 for a 5 milliliter vial. They can be ingested, aerosolized, used topically, or put in a bath or shower. Medicinal essential oils are expensive, subject to limited regulated, and supposedly treat everything from headache to cancer. There is real money to be made in the market, and so I suspect America’s interest in essential oils will continue to grow.  

2) Modern medical research shows they work…sometimes.

The antibacterial qualities of essential oils are quantifiable and make for easily published research, but if you had any doubt, consider the following story from the citrus industry: The American citrus industry struggles to get citrus waste to biodegrade because it contains oils with natural antibacterial qualities. Limonene, specifically, is actually removed from citrus waste to promote biodegradation. Now you can buy this citrus “waste” product as an essential oil for $12 per 5 ml vial and take personal advantage of its antimicrobial benefits.  

Essential oils have been shown to have antiseptic properties against drug-resistant bacteria, and can work synergistically with existing antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections. This is, perhaps, the most promising role of essential oils in western medicine.  

Like any antibiotic, certain oils are effective against certain bacteria. There is no one-drug-kills-it-all or one-oil-kills-it-all, however, and some essential oils actually promote the growth of bacteria and fungus.  

3) Essential oils supposedly treat frustrating conditions that western medicine fails to treat well.

Advocates say essential oils can treat anything and everything: migraines, cancer, stress, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, viral illness, memory, dementia, even aging. But the research just doesn’t exist for all of this.

Moms of kids with ADHD are shelling out big bucks for oils that supposedly provide natural improvement for attention and behavior. They’re tired, they’re frustrated, they don’t want to put their child on stimulants, so they’ll try essential oils. This is where I start to get angry with the essential oil market. The purported research quoted by online oil vendors is by people like Dr. Terry Friedmann, a physician who also writes about astrology and has no research published in any PedMed listed medical journal. I can’t find any reputable research that shows efficacy of essential oils for ADHD. (I welcome your comments below if you know of any research published in a peer-reviewed medical journal that shows efficacy of essential oils for ADHD treatment.)

Cancer is perhaps the most contentious area. Some oils, such as Thymoquinone, are shown to be effective anti-tumor agents. These oils are chemotherapeutic drugs with toxic effects. Should they be studied and used by qualified individuals to treat cancer patients? Yes. But chemotherapeutic drugs should not be purchased online or from a friend. Just because a drug comes from a plant does not mean it’s safe.  

The FDA has started to crack down on online vendors who state that essential oils can treat conditions like ADHD and cancer, but the FDA can’t regulate what goes on at shop-at-home parties.   

4) Who doesn’t like a nice-smelling medicine to massage onto their skin?

If you’ve spent ten minutes reading about essential oils you’re probably ready to try them—in a warm bath, as as massage, as aromatherapy—it all sounds good. And that’s the point—just feeling good helps sick people feel better. The potential placebo effect is difficult to determine because using any essential oil is pleasurable. 

5) Americans don’t care about population studies; they care about themselves.  

If it works, who cares about the research? I can jabber on about PubMed research, but most people don’t care—they’d rather try it for themselves. Here’s the problem with that approach: Once you spend $79 on a tiny vial of frankincense, you’re going to be looking for it to work. You’ll note every little improvement in your condition and attribute it to your lovely smelling treatment. But could you have achieved the same outcome with a hot bath, massage, and scented candle? Maybe.

6) Essential oils give people control over their medicine cabinet.

No prescription, no doctor’s appointment, no insurance pre-authorization needed. For frustrated sick people, a medicine cabinet full of essential oils brings autonomy and control. You can throw out over-priced cough medicine that didn’t work and try something that you at least enjoy using. Educated, intelligent people are tired of yielding to doctors and bureaucrats when it comes to their healthcare decisions. Alternative medications are a welcomed relief—especially if they work, or seem to work. 

Essential oils have returned to American medicine, and I suspect they’re here to stay. I find the antimicrobial properties most promising. I’d be very cautious about toxicity, especially if you’re ingesting essential oils. I don’t have any good advice about how to pick a reputable source forl oils, and I worry that what’s in a bottle may not be what’s on a label. I’m hopeful we can continue to research and use these drugs safely and effectively, but for right now I consider them just that—drugs.  

In general, the risks are limited, especially when used topically, but these oils are being marketed before they’ve been well researched. Sadly, they are targeted to the sick, frustrated, and vulnerable—people desperate to improve the quality of their lives. I’m not yet convinced that essential oils are the best way to serve this population.  

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at: KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.

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