Essential oils
Health + Wellness Wellness

Essential Oils: Medical Myths and Facts

February 11, 2020

Essential oils are popular for addressing ailments from headaches to insomnia — but are they all they’re cracked up to be?

By Susan Peck

Photography from iStock

When Jessica Pulis’ young daughter was uncomfortable due to her first loose tooth, the 39-year-old Birmingham mom didn’t reach for the Motrin or Tylenol. Instead, she looked to a remedy that dates back more than 5,000 years: Thieves Oil, a mix of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus and rosemary oils. “After a little dab on her gums,” says Pulis. “We never heard a complaint again.”

Thieves Oil — which owes its name to a story about a band of thieves who reportedly used it to stave off the bubonic plague in 15th century Europe — is just one of more than 100 essential oils on the market today. Several millennia after ancient Egyptians and Chinese relied on essential oils for everything from beauty rituals and culinary uses to spiritual and physical well-being, modern consumers have turned the essential-oil industry into a $3 billion-plus business — a number that’s expected to grow in the coming years.

essential oil facts

“The present-day popularity of essential oils is happening because of the strong movement toward healthier and greener living solutions,” says Christine Voss of Royal Oak, who distributes products from Utah-based Young Living Essential Oils, one of the world’s biggest essential-oil companies. “Families today are cleaning up their nutrition, and carefully considering the ingredients in their health and beauty products and cleaning supplies.”

Voss has experienced a 34% increase in sales in the last year, a bump she attributes to customers who “are tired of the dangerous side effects of traditional medications” used for a number of everyday ailments like colds, upset stomachs, headaches and insomnia. Essential oils can be used for these things in a more natural way, which people find appealing, she says.

But does aromatherapy — the practice of breathing in essential oils, which proponents claim can yield all kinds of health benefits — really work? And are essential oils safe? According to Tanja Krupa, a certified aromatherapist at Be Well Holistic, a wellness center in Ferndale, users can see positive results with essential oils and aromatherapy. “The catch is choosing a quality oil, and using the right one for a specific need.”

Finding a Quality Essential Oil

Not all essential oils are created equally. Quality essential oils are aromatic, concentrated plant extracts harvested from farm- or wild-grown plants, flowers, herbs and trees. They’re obtained through steam distillation, cold pressing and resin tapping, and are 100 percent pure — meaning they contain no added, synthetic ingredients.

Some of the most popular essential oils are lavender, peppermint, lemon, eucalyptus, frankincense, oregano, ginger, tea tree, cinnamon and clary sage. They can be inhaled directly (or via a room diffuser, which spreads their scent through the air), or applied to the skin via oils, lotions or bath salts. Some manufacturers have oils that can be taken internally, but research on the safety and efficacy of this method is extremely limited.

The way aromatherapy and essential oils work has been attributed to the synergy between our bodies and minds. “After breathing in the aroma of the oil, it stimulates the smell receptors in the nose,” says Dr. Brett Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic. Those receptors, in turn, “send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions and memories.”

In other words, your sense of smell is uniquely connected to emotion and memory. That’s why aromas have the power to transport you to a particular moment in time — and why the scent of, say, homemade gingerbread cookies can make you feel like you’re a kid again, celebrating the holidays in your grandmother’s kitchen.

As for the actual health benefits of essential oils and aromatherapy, research suggests they might provide relief from many ailments commonly treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication.

In a Johns Hopkins University lab study last year, essential oils from thyme, cinnamon bark, myrrh, cumin, garlic and allspice berries showed strong killing activity against persistent forms of Lyme disease bacteria — a condition that affects an estimated 300,00 people a year. “We found the essential oils were even more effective than standard antibiotic treatment,” says the study’s senior author, Ying Zhang, of the school’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. “The results are very promising.”

Adds Bauer, “Studies have also shown lavender oil is particularly helpful in reducing pain from osteoarthritis of the knee, and kidney stone pain, and can also improve quality of life for people suffering from dementia.”

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Tea-tree oil can be used topically to combat athlete’s foot, and many other oils (such as thyme, clove, rose and eucalyptus) have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. What’s more, according to an analysis of multiple studies published in the journal BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies, peppermint oil — rather than commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs — might be “the drug of first choice” in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

Still, Bauer recommends caution when using essential oils. “While generally well tolerated by most, it’s important to remember essential oils aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration,” he says, adding that use may trigger side effects such as allergic reactions, skin irritation and sun sensitivity. “Further research is needed to determine their effect on children, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding,” he says.

Bottom line: Essential oils aren’t a proven a cure for diseases or illnesses, but they can be used as an alternative to conventional medicine for a wide variety of conditions — like Pulis’ daughter’s toothache. “The things I’ve learned during this journey with essential oils have been amazing,” says Pulis, who uses essential oils regularly in her home (she’s also a distributor for a national essential-oils company). “I’m forever grateful that I was introduced to them.”

Essential Tips

Thinking of getting into essential oils? Here’s what you need to know.

  • Dilute, dilute, dilute Before putting an essential oil on your skin, always dilute with a carrier oil such as jojoba or coconut oil to avoid overexposure.
  • Do a patch test Test a small area of skin for signs of sensitivity or allergic reaction before applying an essential oil.
  • Don’t buy “absolutes” If you see “absolute” on a label, it means that it is a petroleum-based byproduct of the essential-oil extraction process — not the high- quality you want.
  • Go organic Organic oils won’t expose you to pesticides and herbicides used in the conventional growing process. Also, look for third-party certification that verifies the oil contains the chemical properties it says it does.
  • Ignore “grade” scales If you see the terms “clinical grade” or “medical grade” on labels, these are just marketing terms — and they don’t have any bearing on quality.
  • Choose the right tools Look for diffusers that are made specifically for essential oils. Never diffuse oils in products made of plastic or Styrofoam, which can release plastic particles into the air you breathe.

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