Essential oils are one of my very favorite alternative therapies, and so many are too quick to judge their usefulness before even trying them. I for one have found them to be imperative in my everyday life. I couldn’t imagine living without them for all they can do.
There is a lot of information floating around out there about essential oils, and some of it is completely untrue, but on the other hand, much of it is true as well. With all the testing being done, it’s no wonder they are becoming a more trusted source of healing in the US, something that’s already been a mainstay around the globe. We are finally catching up….
Here’s a piece from scentedaromatics.com:
What Does the Research Say About Essential Oils?
Who is doing the research?
A significant body of research on essential oils has been conducted by the food, flavoring, cosmetics, and tobacco industries. They are most interested in the flavor, mood alteration, and preservative qualities of essential oils. Some of these companies have also conducted extensive research on the toxicity and safety of essential oils.
Although much of this research is proprietary and not generally available to consumers, some of it has made its way into cosmetic and plant product journals. These journals are important sources of information as we accumulate a growing body of knowledge on essential oils. Most of the studies that have been published in the English language scientific literature have been conducted in laboratories and they have not been tested on humans, but this is changing.
What are some issues in conducting research on essential oils?
There are some unique issues in conducting research on essential oils.
- Essential Oils Are Not Standardized: The chemistry of essential oils is influenced by the local geography and weather conditions, as well as the season and time of day when the plants are harvested, how they are processed, and how they are packaged and stored. Each plant is unique in its chemistry so essential oils are never exactly the same—this is different from pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced to be identical every time.
Essential oils can be altered to achieve standardization (for example, a certain chemical that was found to be at a lower concentration in the whole oil in a particular year can be added to make it the same percentage as last year’s batch). The problem with standardized essential oils is that they are no longer natural, genuine, and authentic. This variability in essential oils by time, place and conditions is a big challenge to conducting valid research. Currently the International Standards Organization sets standards for each essential oil that include a range of acceptable concentrations for its major chemical constituents.
- It Is Difficult to Conduct Blinded Studies with Aromatic Substances: Typical research studies involve testing two groups – one group gets an experimental substance and another group gets a placebo, or inactive, substance (this group is referred to as the “control” group). When using aromatic substances, it is very difficult to conduct a blinded study. Some researchers have used masks or other barriers to blind participants. Other researchers have used alternate scents assumed to have no therapeutic properties as controls. These approaches are problematic, however, because people associate smells with past experiences. Thus, it is difficult to account for individual variation in how essential oils affect people.
- It Is Difficult to Get Approval and Funding for Research on Essential Oils: Essential oils have been used on humans for thousands of years. As a result, they don’t fit into the conventional clinical science approach of testing a substance in the lab first, then on animals, and then on humans. As a result, if a researcher proposes to test an essential oil with humans first, they may be turned down. This is because research review boards tend to approve research studies that follow the more usual scientific research path.
Many conventional drug studies are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. There is little motivation for these companies to fund research on natural plant substances because they cannot easily be patented, limiting the potential for profit. Thus, finding funding for essential oils studies can be challenging.
- It Is Difficult to Tell What Caused the Outcome: In conventional research studies, it is important to be able to determine exactly what caused the outcome. In essential oil therapy, the oils are sometimes applied with massage, which makes it difficult to tell whether or not the outcome was due to the essential oil alone, or the massage, or the combination. Also, essential oils are composed of hundreds of chemical constituents, and it is hard to determine which ones may have produced the desired effect.
What does the research say?
Research studies on essential oils show positive effects for a variety of health concerns including infections, pain, anxiety, depression, tumors, premenstrual syndrome, nausea, and many others. The articles included below are meant to highlight a few examples.
There is considerable international literature on the effects of essential oils against a wide range of bacterial, viral, and fungal microorganisms. Study results suggest that certain essential oils and components have strong bactericidal action, some even against antibiotic resistant microorganisms. Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil in particular has a wide range of research studies that report its anti-microbial properties.
Some studies have been conducted on the use of aromatherapy for pain treatment. These studies suggest that essential oils may be effective for reducing discomfort during childbirth, headaches, gastrointestinal procedures, and for wound pain.
There are some studies on the psychological effects of essential oils. These studies suggest that essential oils may be effective for reducing anxiety and mild depression.
Toxicity and Sensitivity
Published reports suggest that a small proportion of individuals may develop sensitivity to topically applied essential oils. In addition, toxicity can result from accidental or intended ingestion.
Other Interesting Studies
There are other studies that examine the use of essential oils for such purposes as mosquito repellency, the potential to treat skin cancer, alopecia areata, and to affect glucose and insulin levels.
Expert contributor: Linda Halcon, Ph.D., M.P.H., B.S.N., R.N.