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Essential Oils: Passing Fad or an Effective Home Remedy?


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.

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