The following is NOT MEDICAL ADVICE and is intended for educational purposes only - to illustrate the science behind essential oils, how they might be applied in the real world, and to offer a foundation from which to speak to your doctor.
Consult your primary healthcare provider before using essential oils.
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts and SHOULD NOT be handled by anyone unaware of the RISKS and DANGERS they pose.
In my experience, many of the negative experiences associated with aromatherapy and essential oils have little to do with the science and more to do with negative experiences associated with misinformation and broken promises of multi-level marketers. In this article, I hope to explain where the bad reputation of essential oils and aromatherapy probably comes from, and where to get the real science that shows their true value.
For the purposes of this article, you should know that essential oils are concentrated plant extracts comprised of naturally occurring chemicals, and that aromatherapy is the use and application of essential oils for health and wellness.
Imagine, if you will, that you complain to a friend of a headache. It’s a pain you’ve felt before, so you’re not too worried, but you would also like some relief from the throbbing in your head. For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s also assume that you’ve never heard of aspirin, the common over-the-counter pain reliever. Your friend, who is sympathetic to your pain, reaches into their pocket, and pulls out a packet of pills labeled aspirin. They offer you a small pill, with a promise that it could help your headache, if only you take the pill home and sleep with it under your pillow. You’ve never heard of aspirin, so you give it a shot. You take the pill home, put it under your pillow, and fall asleep.
The next day, you may or may not have a headache.
The Essential Oil Connection
If you thought there was something a little off about the aspirin hypothetical I just shared, then you now know how I feel when I hear most people talk about essential oils and aromatherapy.
The problem with the aspirin in the hypothetical above is not that it’s based on pseudoscience, it’s simply that the actual science was ignored, and the aspirin itself was used incorrectly. I argue that most people are thinking about essential oils and aromatherapy the same way. The problem is not with the science behind essential oils and aromatherapy, the problem is the science is being ignored, and essential oils / aromatherapy are being misapplied.
A Growing Field of Study
At the time of this writing in 2021, essential oils and aromatherapy are slowly gaining more and more respect within academic and scientific circles, but this progress is slow moving and has been slow to come. The reason for this, as I see it, is that for many years essential oils and aromatherapy were simply written off as quackery and pseudoscience. This created a vicious circle. Nobody took essential oils and aromatherapy seriously because there was basically no serious research being conducted, and there was no serious research being conducted because nobody took essential oils and aromatherapy seriously. Over time, however, and thanks to the work of a growing number of researchers around the world, we are coming to understand that, in fact, essential oils and aromatherapy do have measurable biological effects, and those effects are testable and repeatable.
Take, for example, the work of Mori, Kawanami, Kawahata, and Aoki (2016), which showed how lavender essential oil could speed healing and reduce the appearance of scars when applied to an open wound (in animal testing).
Or the work of Jing et al. (2013) that showed how compounds found within grapefruit essential oil could reduce cholesterol (in animal testing).
Then there’s the work of Hsouna, Halima, Smaoui, and Hamdi (2017), that showed how lemon essential oil could make food last longer by fighting listeria in beef.
And these are just a few examples out of many.
A Growing Field of Study
According to PubMed.gov, the US government controlled repository for scientific and peer reviewed research relating to life science and biomedicine, just 42 papers were published in the year 2000 that contained the keyword “aromatherapy”. That number would rise to 174 papers published in the year 2020.
In the year 2000, also according to PubMed.gov, 323 papers were published containing the keyword “essential oil”. In the year 2020, that number would become 2,568 papers published.
The science is real, it is published, peer reviewed, and available for anyone who wants to read it. PubMed.gov is free to access, and most of the research is available for free as well. Sometimes the full research is behind a pay wall, but the pay walls can be easily circumvented. PubMed.gov results, even when papers are behind a pay wall, will display author names, research institutions, and sometimes even email addresses, and most researchers are more than happy to distribute their research for free if you contact them directly and ask for it.
While it is true that there is lots of research (and counting) on a variety of essential oils and applications for aromatherapy, please remember that essential oils are concentrated plant chemicals, and published research should never be used to self treat or self diagnose. The purpose of this article is to enlighten you to a growing field of study, not to replace your doctor.
If you are interested in adding an essential oil or aromatherapy to your health and wellness routine, then please talk to your doctor.
Ben Hsouna, A., Ben Halima, N., Smaoui, S., & Hamdi, N. (2017). Citrus lemon essential oil: chemical composition, antioxidant and antimicrobial activities with its preservative effect against Listeria monocytogenes inoculated in minced beef meat. Lipids in health and disease, 16(1), 146. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12944-017-0487-5
Jing L, Zhang Y, Fan S, Gu M, Guan Y, Lu X, Huang C, Zhou Z. Preventive and ameliorating effects of citrus D-limonene on dyslipidemia and hyperglycemia in mice with high-fat diet-induced obesity. Eur J Pharmacol. 2013 Sep 5;715(1–3):46–55. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23838456/
Mori, H. M., Kawanami, H., Kawahata, H., & Aoki, M. (2016). Wound healing potential of lavender oil by acceleration of granulation and wound contraction through induction of TGF-β in a rat model. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 16, 144. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-016-1128-7
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