As far back as 1000 AD, mechanical presses or steam were used to extract essential oils from plants. Today, we apply highly concentrated oil-infused lotions on the skin through massage, lotions or bath salts, where the compounds are directly absorbed into the blood stream. Or, aromatherapy oils are diffused into the air where, after inhaling, they bind to smell receptors and send chemical messages through nerves to the brain’s limbic system.
Essential oils are popular in Austria and other European countries, where some physicians prescribe and use some 100 oils therapeutically as a part of their care. There has been surprisingly little scientific research on essential oils. What do we know about them?
Note that these essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Little research has been done to prove a multitude of claims, although interestingly, a significant amount of what research there is has been conducted by the food, flavoring, cosmetic, and tobacco industries. Much of this data, however, has not been made available to the consumer, and most of the studies published in scientific literature have been conducted only on animals.
More recently we are seeing some controlled human trials. Hospitals and clinics are increasingly using oils for stress, pain and nausea relief, and to prevent bedsores. At least one local hospice agency is offering essential oils for anxiety and pain, as an alternative to prescription medications and their associated significant side effects.
At this time, the limited science indicates that there may be a number of benefits. Further testing is clearly called for. Some promising areas include:
relief from anxiety and depression
improved quality of life for those with chronic health conditions, including dementia
Essential oils with some science behind their use include tea tree oil, which has been shown to be effective in the treatment of acne, and peppermint oil, which shows some promise with irritable bowel syndrome. A multitude of claims have been made about lavender oil, and data does support its use with anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
What do we know about the safety of essential oils? When oils are applied to the skin, side effects may include allergic reactions, skin irritation and sun sensitivity. Children and breast-feeding or pregnant women have not been studied. Interactions with medications have not been studied.
If you are considering using essential oils, consult your doctor and look into their risks and benefits. I am constantly reminded that many patients view alternative treatments as inherently safe and naturally beneficial. I urge you to treat alternative therapies with the same concerns and balanced judgment as you would any prescription medical treatment.