Essential oils have certainly risen in popularity in the United States over the past few decades. Some people treat them as a cure-all, a replacement for modern medicine techniques. Others use them as a part of complementary therapy to other treatment methods.
As health care providers, it’s likely you’ll encounter people who use or are curious about using essential oils for their health benefits. Here’s what science says essential oils can do.
The Essentials of Essential Oils
First, a quick look into the details of essential oils. They might seem simple, but they can be a very complicated therapy to use.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are what happens when you extract parts of plants (the seed, leaves, flowers, or roots) into an oil. The extraction process varies, but most nowadays are made through the distillation process.
This oil smells and tastes like the original plant, because it has all the same chemicals you’d usually find in that plant, just in a concentrated form. These plants have been used in varying forms throughout history for a variety of reasons in addition to treating common health complaints.
How much plant is needed to make a usable quantity of an essential oil depends on the plant, but it’s typically a significant amount. For instance, you need about 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make one pound of rose oil, or 1,500 lemons to make one pound of lemon oil.
How Are Essential Oils Used?
People from many different cultures have been using essential oils for centuries. You can either apply the oils on to the skin or another surface, ingest them, diffuse them to inhale or use any combination of methods.
This is what’s known as aromatherapy, a commonly used holistic therapy. You might be most familiar with this type of treatment if you’ve ever used Vick’s Vaporub when you’ve been congested from a cold or flu.
Aromatherapy is very commonly used alongside other complementary therapies, like massages. For example, a study showed that using aromatherapy with hand massages helped hospice patients with terminal cancer better manage their pain and depression.
Are Essential Oils Safe?
Because essential oils come directly from plants, some people might assume they’re safe to use. However, just because they’re natural-based doesn’t mean they’re safe. Some can cause severe reactions, especially if not diluted, and some can even be poisonous.
- The FDA also does not regulate essential oils like they regulate medications. The actual contents of an essential oil will vary among brands and manufacturers.
- Some people have severe allergies to certain plants. One of the most commonly used essential oils, and one of the most common plant allergies people have, is lavender.
- Misuse of essential oils can cause severe reactions and lifelong issues.
- Some chemicals in essential oils can also have negative interactions if used at the same time as other medications or make a medical condition worse. Even though patients can buy essential oils easily, it’s still vital they talk to their primary care provider before using any essential oil.
Encourage patients to educate themselves on the potential negative side effects of essential oil use and how to safely use essential oils and aromatherapy. Used safely and appropriately, essential oils can be safe.
What Does Science Say About Essential Oils Health Benefits?
Aromatherapy is not a cure-all. However, essential oils can help manage or contribute to the relief of certain symptoms if used appropriately. They won’t work for everyone, but they might be able to help some people.
Essential oils have been the focus of many studies over the years. These studies tend to be smaller and more short-term and need further clinical trials, but they’ve shown that essential oils have the potential to provide some benefits and relief to some patients.
Here are a few examples of what some of those studies have found might work.
Melissa (Lemon Balm) Oil
Melissa essential oils are made from the melissa plant, also known as lemon balm. A small-scale study found that it can have positive effects in reducing agitation in patients with severe dementia when applied on the skin of a patient’s face and arms twice a day.
Lavender oil is perhaps one of the most commonly used and well known essential oils in the United States. Studies have shown that it can help heal wounds, reduce anxiety, help with sleep, and even have the social effect of helping people develop trust in others.
However, lavender oil might also negatively affect hormones in girls and boys, leading to abnormal breast tissue growth.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca) Oil
Tea tree oil has been used to treat acne for years. A 2007 study found that 5% tea tree oil gel applied to the face has significant effects on treating mild to moderate acne. It could also be useful in treating fungal infections, including athlete’s foot, or to help with insect bites.
Tea tree oil was also involved in the study showing it might inhibit hormones in boys and girls.
Peppermint oil is another common oil that’s been the subject of multiple studies. It can potentially help relieve gastrointestinal issues in a number of different ways, including in treating conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or postoperative nausea.
Another study found it improves patients’ ability to swallow and relieve pain if they have dysphagia and/or chest pain.
There are many citrus oils. Orange essential oil is a particularly common citrus oil and has been the focus of many small studies looking at its effects on athletic performance, pain relief, and anxiety or depression.
Citrus can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it so you’re likely to get severe sunburns very quickly when outside.
With the use of essential oils becoming increasingly popular, we as health care professionals should be aware of the benefits and drawbacks of aromatherapy to help guide patients to make the best choices for their health.