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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Essential Oils cure everything? Only if it stinks.

Ok folks, it's time for another post about something that has been increasing in popularity over the last few years. I have been seeing more and more posts and articles about the healing power of essential oils. I've heard people say that they can help with everything from asthma and sleep apnea to helping with skin conditions and curing cancer. As the hosts of the Sawbones Podcast say, cure-alls cure nothing.So, as usual, I'll start with what essential oils actually are. I am going to say now that the research for this topic was not easy. Almost every search result took me to a lot of naturopathic and alt-med websites. I had to sort through a bunch of bullshit to try and find even a kernel of unbiased truth. There is a lot of misinformation or mis-interpretation in a lot of alt-med, and essential oils are no different.

What are essential oils?:

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, essential oils are defined as:

an oil that comes from a plant, that smells like the plant it comes from, and that is used in perfumes and flavorings

Essential oils are volatile compounds that quickly disperse throughout the medium they are used in. They are the basic component of most air fresheners, colognes and perfumes, and are very useful in baking. They are normally produced by extracting and concentrating the oils of various plants. Almost every plant has an oil component which can be extracted. As I said, some of these, such as peppermint oil, are useful in cooking and baking as they greatly enhance the flavor of the item. They a large part of any sort of odor based item you use everyday, and they are the major component of aromatherapy.


The history of essential oils most likely dates back to before recorded history. Various oils have always been used to eliminate foul odors and to prepare bodies for burial, cremation, or for mummification. Of course, they have been used as a means of protecting health or even curing various illnesses.  According to an article on, they are one of the oldest forms of medicine known to man. And this is correct, but if you continue reading the article, it quickly devolves into a Woo fest, talking about vibrations, energies, frequencies, and Egyptian mythology. So basically, it becomes a bunch of gibberish. And this is a main problem with researching this sort of thing. You find a bunch of crap with a few nuggets of truth. Of course, I looked to Wikipedia for more history on this topic. According to them, though they have been used all through human history, the earliest written record of how to produce them was from roughly the early 13th century. And that was about it. To be honest, I have not been able to find any dependable information on the full history of essential oils. Most of them start out being sensible, and then quickly dive deep into the quack pool. 

Actual uses:
There are honest, legitimate uses for essential oils. The most obvious are are air fresheners, colognes, and perfumes. Essential oils are what give most of these their distinct aromas. Because memory is strongly linked to the sense of smell, they can invoke a variety of memories, ranging from happy and pleasant to remembrances of sad or terrifying events. This might be part of why fans of aromatherapy believe them to have a curative effect. 
Essential oils are are beneficial to bakers and cooks. They are used to improve the flavor of a variety of foods such as cookies and cakes to roasts and vegetables. Vanilla and peppermint are probably 2 of the most popular flavors commonly used in the culinary arts.
There might be evidence that there are actual medical uses for essential oils. In a recent article in The Atlantic, they might be able to function as an antibiotic. If these initial studies pan out, then we might have a weapon against antibiotic resistant bacteria. This still has to be more fully evaluated, and the results reviewed. Of course, this is nowhere near what the alt-med folks claim that they can do.
Alt-med uses:
Proponents of essential oils make a variety of claims as to what they can do. The claims, for the most part, are completely unsubstantiated. The alt-med crowd will often say that essential oils can be used for respiratory problems, skin problems, cancer, and pretty much any other ailment that you might have. If you go to (and I really flamin' hate using this jackass as a reference!) and look up essential oils, he seems to have a fairly comprehensive list of essential oils and there supposed uses. Of course, like so many other claims made by Mercola, these are pretty much unproven at best and completely disproven or dangerous at worst. I have even heard of uses for essential oils in veterinary medicine. I know this is an anecdote, but unfortunately it's not the only time I have heard of people doing similar things. During the course of my day job, I occasionally interact with different veterinarians. During one visit, they had a litter of puppies that were diagnosed with parvo, which is a dangerous disease in dogs. A client came in, saw the sickly pups and informed the vet that she knew what would cure them. She told the vet to rub oregano oil on the stomachs of the pups and they'd be fine. I seriously doubt that rubbing oregano oil on the stomach for a virus is going to have any sort of an affect.

Now comes the fun part of the research for essential oils. Trying to determine if there is any evidence for the efficacy of their use. I found a website called childrensMD (here, MD stands for Mom Docs, not Medical Doctor and no way in hell am I going to link to them) that starts with an anecdote of a Harvard lawyer being at an essential oils party and promoting the products. They seem to think that a lawyer is going to have an understanding of basic science and medicine. Granted, she went to Harvard, but not to the medical school.Just because someone is highly educated doesn't mean that they are going to have any knowledge in areas outside of their expertise. Not a lot of research here. Looking through PubMeds, the NIH, and the CDC, the most I've been able to find is that there are preliminary studies that show they might be useful as an antimicrobial treatment. Nowhere could I find anything that shows essential oils are useful for treating asthma, sleep apnea, cancer, or most skin conditions. As with most alt-med claims, these can be dangerous, because people will think that they are treating an illness, and forgo actual medical treatment. They will often use The Argument from Antiquity, saying that because essential oils were often used by many ancient cultures that there must be a benefit to using them. They often ignore the fact that in the old texts, different cultures recommended different oils for the same thing. As a matter of fact, the same oils would often be used for exactly opposite conditions in different cultures. They also will use the Naturalistic Fallacy and claim that because the oils are all natural, refined, and purified, they are automatically good for you. (Arsenic, uranium, and meteors are all natural too) Trying to find dependable information requires quite a bit of digging, and a bit of scientific literacy. If you just go off of the first few hits on Google, then all your information is going to come from sites like NaturalNews, Mercola, NaturalMomma, and other New Age/spiritualism/alt-med pages.

Like most of the alternative medicine modalities, there is a risk of people not using conventional medical treatment and instead using the "all natural, no chemical (major misnomer there) , no side effects etc.." treatments. Which in turn can cause a minor, easily treated illness become a major, life threatening one. Unlike Woo based medicines like homeopathy, there can be very serious side effects from these oils, and some of them are just flat out dangerous if not used properly. Some of them interact poorly with medicines, and can even cause some severe side effects. Even inhaling some of them can cause the lungs to become more permeable to substances like nicotine or cause a drug interaction. If they are used on the skin, they can be absorbed and cause drug interactions with heart medications and a few anti-psychotics, and other prescription medications. On WebMD, they report that citrus based essential oils can cause phototoxicity and that some practitioners develop a contact allergy. Severe allergic reactions have been known to occur. Anecdotally, I suffer from an allergy to cinnamon, which can be an essential oil that is used in quite a few treatments. When my skin is even lightly exposed to cinnamon, I break out in hives. If an aromatherapist were to try one of these treatments on me, I would have a severe reaction which would cause me a good bit of pain. If essential oils are used directly on a baby or people with sensitive skin, they can cause chemical burns to the skin. Also, if a baby inhales essential oils, especially for extended periods of time, they can cause respiratory problems.

Essential oils, while smelling nice, helping to improve the taste of foods, and possibly being able to prevent or at least mitigate bacterial infections, really don't have a lot going for them when it comes to a persons health. They don't cure cancer, won't help with most skin conditions, and may actually cause skin irritation. They can be dangerous to the very young, cause severe and dangerous drug interactions, and have very little science or facts to back the claims that are made about their properties. The Argument from Antiquity and the Naturalistic Fallacy are not proof  for any type of medical treatment. There needs to be well controlled, testable, and repeatable studies done before anything can be said to be an effective treatment for anything. So, if you have an illness or condition, go and see an actual MD (Medical Doctor). Otherwise, you may just end up leaving a pleasant smelling corpse.

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