Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Essential Oils, Nutrition & Health: Harmful, Helpful or Just Hype?

Essential Oils, Nutrition & Health: Harmful, Helpful or Just Hype?

Like you, I have been approached by many who are promoting ‘nutritional’ oils to relieve all types of health conditions. I am skeptical and have many questions about the safety and effectiveness of essential oils. Not to mention how much they will cost me to gain their ‘benefits’.

I began to wonder if they are really essential to my life and others who are spending large amounts of money on essential oils, aromatherapy products and devices to use the essential oils.

One business publication reported that sales in the Essential Oil Manufacturing industry are growing faster than the overall economy. It appears that this industry ranks in the billions in sales.

What we all want to know is what is the true effect of essential oils on our overall health? Are there real benefits, are they just a way to feel better through relaxation, massage and beloved aromas — or is it all just more hype?

What Is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are released when a fresh herb is compressed or subjected to chemical extraction and is used to provide aromatherapy. The oil itself is usually highly concentrated and used either topically through a skin application or inhaled. In the US, it is discouraged to ingest any essential oils by mouth.

Because essential oils come from plants, the extraction of the oil is done by a process of steam distillation or cold pressing. Plants have been used for thousands of years as health remedies but little is really known about their properties or effectiveness.

The active chemicals in essential oils are absorbed by permeating the skin. It has been shown that the use of massage and heat will aid absorption. Inhaled essential oils sends a message to brain receptors resulting in a physical response such as changes in heart rate, breathing, stress, hormones, and possibly memory. They can be inhaled through diffusers, steam, spray or dry evaporation.

There are wide varieties of essential oils being sold including some you have heard of and some with which you may not be familiar that can have many uses according to their promoters including scenting the air, clearing your breathing passages, cleaning around the house, aid digestion, calm your mood, relieve headache, boost immunity, antioxidant health, age related nutrition balance, weight loss, increased energy, improved complexion, stress relief and sleep.

Are these claims backed by any research showing their effectiveness? Should anyone stop taking medications prescribed by their doctor when starting essential oils as several of these companies suggest? Should they be used in place of a healthy diet? Are they worth the cost? Are they safe to use for everyone?

Little Science-Based Research on Essential Oils

Unfortunately, as we may all guess, there is little independent and reliable research published on the effectiveness of essential oils. There are many reasons why this is true. Because of industry pressure to get some results, there are many companies worldwide working towards research results at this time.

Here are some obstacles in the way of more testing:

  • The Food and Drug Association (FDA) does not regulate essential oils so there has not been a reason to provide data in order to bring these products to market in the US. Anyone can sell them without standards for what is inside the bottle or to produce safety data.
  • Because oils are unregulated and plants are variable in their makeup depending on where they are grown, when they are harvested, and how they are stored, there is no standard plant product to test in the lab making research conclusions difficult. To perform research on plants, there are standard ranges for concentrations of the oils which must be met before being tested in order to be valid. When treated after harvest to make the plants similar, essential oils are no longer natural.
  • Different study participants react to aromas differently based on personal experience and scent associated memories. This makes research difficult as the control group is biased with their own scent emotions.
  • Because the cost of research and development of these plant products can’t be recouped due to widespread use of plants, pharmacological companies do not want to fund the research. The usual path of research to be valid begins with animal studies and then humans, but humans are already using these products further impeding agencies from initiating research.
  • Determining the exact cause of the change after using essential oils such as reduced stress is difficult when researchers can’t tell if the benefit comes from an oil or the art of massage. Because there are numerous compounds in each different plant oil, researchers find it hard to isolate which portion is resulting in positive outcomes.

Research Results So Far

What does the research show up to this point? Here are some studies I was able to find but they were small in size and not yet definitive.

  • Using an inhaled essential oil in order to produce a reduction in agitation in people with dementia, researchers studied a senior facility emitting scent on the unit and found that aroma impacts were difficult to measure as many with ALZ DZ have a decreased sense of smell. Using a massage oil to allow for skin absorption was shown to be more effective than inhaled oils to reduce some agitation and calm people with dementia. This study used massage oils with lemon balm, geranium oil, rosemary, and lavender. It was undetermined if the relaxation came from the oil or the massage in this group.
  • When headache sufferers were given Tiger Balm (camphor, menthol, cajaput and clove oil) in place of and addition to acetaminophen to relieve a headache, the balm was shown to be as effective and more rapid acting than acetaminophen for control of tension headaches.
  • One study was able to show that peppermint oil was only minimally able to relieve nausea or lung/sinus congestion as proponents claim. No scientific correlation was found.
  • Lavender oil shows some promise to aid insomnia. In an interesting trial, 145 nursing home residents were randomized to wear a lavender-scented patch or an unscented patch for 1 year. Those who wore the lavender patch experienced fewer falls than the control group. Only the rate of falls were reported in this study not an improvement in sleep patterns.
  • Cineol (from eucalyptus) has shown some effectiveness for repelling mosquito bites.
  • Research studies do not indicate that these essential oils can work as antibiotics so any claims for this were not validated.

Are Essential Oils Safe To Use?

So far it appears essential oils are safe and free of adverse side effects when used properly. It is recommend that you never eat or drink essential oils. It is important to use as directed in the correct amount. It is important to know that some people experience an allergic reaction to essential oils.

It is very important to read the packaging to determine the purity level. What other ingredients have been added? Many oils include a carrier oil, usually vegetable oil, and this will be listed with the purity information. Be aware of what other ingredients have been added.

Do you need to dilute it? Be sure you use the correct strength. Should it be inhaled or applied on the skin? Know what you are buying and how to use it.

Some oils will cause you to be photosensitive or sunburn easily so use caution in the sun or if tanning.

There is the potential for harmful drug interactions between essential oils and prescribed medications so be sure to talk with your doctor about any regular use of these oils.

Beware using with children, as the dosage needs to be reduced. Do not use with babies and some oils should not be used with children under age six. Pregnant women should also take precaution because they can cross the placental barrier. There has been little research on the effects of these oils on the unborn baby. If you are breast feeding, be aware of the potential harmful effect of these oils on the baby.

Where Do We Go From Here?

There is very little scientific evidence available to support the claims being made by those people who are selling nutrition in a bottle.

I don’t believe essential oils will help me lose weight if I am not following a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity.

Will these oils harm me if I use them appropriately? There is no compelling evidence to think so. Will there be in the future? My crystal ball isn’t telling.

Will they cost me money I could be spending on nutritious food, a personal trainer or a stress-relieving vacation? Absolutely!

At this point, buyer beware. If you understand the health claims are unsupported, the essential oils are unregulated, have discretionary spending money and they may be harmful if used incorrectly or in certain people, then enjoy the scents! Allow them to bring back familiar and happy memories of childhood.

Who doesn’t feel the love from your mother when she used to put VapoRub on your chest? (VapoRub is a gel form of the essential oils of peppermint, eucalyptus and camphor.) Doesn’t the smell of peppermint remind you of Christmases past?

Remember to be safe – –  not sorry!

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