I have a few relatives and friends that seem to have the answer to everything. Got a headache? Rub this oil on your forehead. Can’t sleep? Dab some of this oil on your neck. Upset stomach? Put several drops of this oil on your tongue. Really? Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Essential oils have become the rage. You got a problem—they have an oil for it. Is there any research, any real science behind the craze, or is it snake oil and marketing?
The claims are that essential oils do a lot more than smell pleasant. When I was a boy, I suffered from the croup several times. If you’ve never had it, you’re lucky, because it can be pretty scary. You bark like a seal, and it makes breathing extremely difficult. At those times, my mom would spread some kind of VapoRub on my chest and throat, as well as put some in a vaporizer, and in no time all, like magic, I could breathe again. It was a real life saver.
Essential oils are sometimes called volatile oils, or aromatherapy, and are a class of herbal medicine. They have been employed worldwide throughout all history. My personal opinion is that if there was no substance to the claims, their use would have disappeared long ago, like blood-letting and leeches. Quality, double-blind clinical studies are made difficult by the fact that subjects have noses, so they can tell when aromatics are being used, which can create the placebo effect. Additionally there is little motivation for studies because essential oils are not patented or controlled by the FDA, so there is little money available for the research or the possibility of profit for the university or lab. What studies have been conducted had mixed results and conclusions. Children and animals make good subjects for trials because of their lack of preconceived expectations, but it is difficult to elicit their evaluation and description of benefits.
Essential oils are usually made utilizing one of two different methods: steam distillation or expression (the process of wringing or crushing the oil from the plant). They can be used in a few different ways: add a couple drops to a humidifier and inhale over an hour or so, apply it topically to the problem area, or take it orally in a meal. With thousands of species of plants there are a matching number of possibilities for essential oils, each with unique properties. There are, however, a few that have gained popularity for their perceived healing properties, and are in common use.
- Lavender has antibacterial properties and is used to calm the nervous system and fight anxiety (in one study as effectively as valium), help with insomnia, combat headaches, and diminish indigestion.
- Clove is useful for tooth and gum pain, earaches, congestion, and antiseptic for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites.
- Peppermint helps to soothe the stomach, decrease sore muscles, and sweeten the breath.
- Rose mitigates female hormone problems and promotes healthy skin.
- Lemon Balm is a mild antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and antivirus useful with herpes.
- Eucalyptus, also referred to as tea tree oil, is a common ingredient in cough and congestion remedies, repels mosquito bites, and improves athlete’s foot.
- Oil of orange peel was demonstrated in one British study to make significant improvements in anxiety and depression.
Published animal studies found stimulating and sedating effects, as well as positive influences on the immune system and behavior. One of the most popularly accepted theories for this is that essential oils impact the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain, thus accounting for the reports of improved mood, perceived health, and diminished anxiety.
Until there are more well-designed studies confirming these anecdotal benefits of essential oils, you’ll have to be the judge. But I like them, and there’s an oil for whatever might be ailing you.