We live in a scary world. Research shows that medical errors are third on the list of leading causes of death in the United States. And it’s no surprise that people are looking for different ways of dealing with health issues.
But with debates everywhere about the effectiveness of alternative treatments, things can get really confusing, really fast.
And if you are one of 30 percent of Americans who turn to alternative medicine over conventional treatments, you’ve probably asked yourself this question:
do essential oils work?
I understand your skepticism.
In this article, I am going to break down whether essential oils are actually effective. I’ll be going over the history, what research has found, and keep my opinions out of it.
And by the end of the article, you can determine for yourself whether you believe essential oils actually work.
Deal? Let’s get started.
What are essential oils and aromatherapy?
In simple terms, essential oils are plant extracts. They come from the roots, twigs, leaves, flowers, fruit, and more through processes like distillation and expression.
Aromatherapy is a popular complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modality that has been gaining traction in recent years. But essential oils have been around since Biblical days.
On the surface, they are liquids that smell good.
However, if you started peeling back the layers and delving into the history and chemical composition of these oils, a whole new world will open up before you.
You would begin encountering terms like aldehydes, ketones, oxides, and sesquiterpenes.
You would find out that gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS) tell us about these phytochemicals.
You would find more than frankincense and myrrh from the Bible, encountering gems like cedarwood, spikenard, cinnamon, and pine.
You may also be surprised to learn that the same cinnamon, among other oils, was in the original recipe for Coca Cola!
You would see that Pliny, Dioscorides and many herbalists through the medieval era used plants and their oils as astringents, antibiotics, sedatives, expectorants, and so much more, long before those treatments and words existed as we know them.
It is well known that many people survived the plague through a combination of oils that literally became known as ‘thieves oil.’
And all throughout history, up to the present day, you would learn that people from ancient times to the mom down the street have used these oils to treat what ails them.
Multi-level marketing companies even have thousands of representatives that will be happy to ‘prescribe’ them for all sorts of ailments.
You have probably heard of Young Living oils or wondered at some point does doTERRA work for this or that ailment.
That’s where things get tricky…
How did aromatherapy even become a ‘treatment’?
René-Maurice Gattefossé began the aromatherapy movement as we know it today in the early 20th century. He did in-depth studies on treating ailments with essential oils, and coined the term “aromatherapy.”
His foray into the study of oils as medicine did not begin as many believe.
Anyone who has gotten into aromatherapy has likely heard the famous story of him plunging his severely burned hand into a vat of lavender oil, which in the end, healed him.
It’s a great story and one that many people who sell oils or dabble in aromatherapy tell.
But it’s not true.
Yes, he did burn himself severely. However, he put himself out by rolling on his lawn. He quickly began to suffer from gangrene, and he used lavender oil to heal himself.
Still amazing, but doesn’t quite pack the same theatrical punch as the rumor.
Unlike the rumor, this was also not the catalyst for his research. He later went on to work with French surgeons treating wounds on soldiers in the battlefield.
These events are all detailed in his book, Aromatherapie, from 1937.
Another doctor, Jean Valnet (find his books on Amazon), treated soldiers extensively with essential oils. He dedicated his life to medicine and plants, and produced many books, essays, and research about the healing effects of oils.
These two men had a large impact on the study of the essences that have been used throughout history. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Western world began to take notice and catch up.
What do essential oils do?
If you ask 50 people if oils really work and what they do, you will likely get 50 different answers.
These people will range from those trying to convince you that they don’t do anything to the passionate oil user swearing it cures cancer.
But are essential oils legit?
Where in all of the answers is the truth?
There are many ways people are using oils these days. For instance, diffusers for oils are all the rage.
But do diffusers really work? Sure, they make your home smell amazing, but do they provide any other benefits?
Inhalation through diffusion is one of the most popular ways to use volatile oils. The reasons to diffuse oils are as many as the types of oils themselves.
People love how quickly the oil molecules are released into the air, how fast their moods can change and how long the aromas last.
The way the oils work on the respiratory system is fairly straightforward.
You breathe in the molecules, they enter your lungs, and then your bloodstream.
The way the oils work on the mind, however, is more of a mystery. Is it a placebo effect, or something more?
Researchers at University of Warwick in England have been researching smells and their effects on humans since 1971. They believe there are many factors that affect how we react to smells, including instinctual hard-wired responses, and soft-wired ones that grow as we do.
Members of this team like Dr. George Dodd are pioneering Scientific Aroma Therapy™. Their newest scent is not a medicine, but may be beneficial for anxiety because of the way Oceanic Amber™ affects people’s moods.
Another member of the team is researching how scent can be used for weight loss. Professor Sudhesh Kumar is studying the effects of aromas on curbing the appetite.
Many of us know instinctively that certain scents will lift our moods, and researchers are calling for more in-depth research on the therapeutic value of essential oils for depression and other emotional disorders.
Dr. Taz encourages people not to steer away from conventional medicine, but to find a middle ground using essential oils. Watch this short clip.
Is aromatherapy medicine?
The FDA states that if a product is marketed as a cosmetic, it does not have to acquire approval. However, once it is touted as a therapy, it does.
Essential oils are often sold for cosmetic purposes. However, they are also being used for therapeutic purposes.
Oils are used extensively in the food and beverage industry, perfumery, and in body care products. That being said, they have shown a lot of promise for health-related concerns.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), aromatherapy is not a medicine, per se.
It is a complementary modality to use in conjunction with other therapies for health management.
On PubMed, you will find 90 randomized controlled trials on humans studying whether essential oils work for certain ailments. Here are just a few of the results:
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is promising for pain management during a woman’s first labor.
- Enteric coated capsules of anise (Pimpinella anisum) oil can help symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It may also help with the depression that often goes along with IBS.
- Not many oils can be used by pregnant women. But anyone who has ever been pregnant knows the toll it takes on the lower back. Rose (Rosa damascena) can help ease lower back pain safely.
- College kids reported better sleep while wearing a lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) patch in a randomized control trial in 2015.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) proved to be as effective as two percent Minoxidil in regrowing hair in patients suffering from androgenetic alopecia after six months of treatment.
- In 2011, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) was found to lessen symptoms of dysmenorrhea in a study from Tehran University of Medical Sciences.
- A study in Thailand showed that aromatherapy coupled with Thai massage can boost the critical lymphocyte count by a whopping 11 percent as well as reduce symptoms like pain, fatigue, and stress.
The above oils proved themselves in those trials, right?
But essential oils don’t work all of the time:
- An essential oil mixture did not prove more effective than standard skin care in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy.
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has shown mixed results as a topical treatment for agitation and other issues with people suffering from dementia.
- Pediatric patients that just had their tonsils removed had a significant reduction in acetaminophen use when inhaling lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). However, there was not a significant reduction in waking up at night or pain intensity.
- Females undergoing urodynamic exams for urinary incontinence did not have a reduction in stress from lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) inhalation. There were, however, relaxation effects from clary sage (Salvia sclarea).
Researchers are becoming increasingly interested in the effectiveness of essential oils as medicinal treatments. If you look on ClinicalTrials.gov, for instance, you will find over 200 studies in the database that center around aromatherapy or an essential oil of some sort.
Cancer researchers are paying attention as well.
According to Cancer.gov, aromatherapy shows promising results in managing certain aspects of cancer.
- The oils are used to reduce side effects of treatment like nausea, fatigue, and pain.
- Aromatherapy is being used as a complementary treatment along with other alternative modalities like massage.
- The oils are administered through topical application or inhalation, but rarely used internally.
- Testing on the safety of essential oils have shown little to no side effects.
That being said, there are no studies about using essential oils as a “treatment” on their own for the disease as some people claim.
Why Essential Oils Work
Research has come a long way from just anecdotal evidence and speculation.
Today, we know that antibiotics fight against microorganisms that can have detrimental effects on the human body, and that can even kill us.
We have terms for everything that can go wrong, and know about the millions of bacteria and viruses and illnesses that we can contract. We know that emotional issues like stress can cause a host of physical problems.
Through studying essential oils, researcher have found that they possess numerous beneficial phytochemicals that possess therapeutic benefits.
Here’s a short list:
|Aldehydes||antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, calming, immunostimulant, sedative, uplifting|
|Coumarins||antispasmodic, calming, hypotensive, sedative|
|Esters||analgesic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, balancing, tonic|
|Ethers||analgesic, balancing, antispasmodic, sedative|
|Ketones||antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, decongestant, expectorant, mucolytic|
|Lactones||antifebrile, antiparasitic, calming, expectorant, immunostimulant|
|Monoterpenes||analgesic, antibacterial, antiseptic, decongestant, expectorant, immunostimulant, tonic|
|Oxides||antifungal, antispasmodic, decongestant, expectorant|
|Phenols||antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antiviral, immunostimulant, stimulant, tonic|
|Sesquiterpenes||anti-allergenic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, blood/lymph decongestant, stimulant|
If you consider that pharmaceuticals are nothing but laboratory-created chemical treatments for disease, you can begin to see how using a natural alternative can be so appealing.
And when you actually look into the chemistry of essential oils, you can begin to understand how they could work in staving off infections, reducing pain, or helping us sleep better.
While there are many benefits to these constituents, care must be taken with them as well.
Plant oils are highly condensed substances and possess the above in concentrated forms. Care must be taken with their use under any setting.
Natural does not always equal safe.
For instance, coumarins can cause photosensitivity to ultraviolet light, and phenols can be an irritant to mucosa and skin.
This is why there are warnings to not ingest oils or use them undiluted on your skin unless under the direction of someone qualified in their use.
How do essential oils work?
We know that we can get the benefits of oils, real or imagined, through inhalation, topical application, or ingestion.
But how essential oils work is a lot more complicated. The phytochemicals in the volatile oils of plants can number into the thousands.
These chemicals all work together to provide health benefits that many times just cannot be replicated in a lab, as it is impossible to get all of the naturally-occurring elements together in the same way that nature does.
Even researchers cannot answer the question of ‘why do essential oils work?’ in many cases. It is hard to tell how all of the building blocks work in the body to help us physically or emotionally.
There are just too many factors, and a lot more research needs to be done in many cases to prove more than just if they work.
Science needs to figure out just how essential oils work and why they have the effects that they do.
Modern medicine has come a long way, but it can be downright dangerous. Looking to alternative methods of treating symptoms and diseases is becoming increasingly popular.
As you can see, there is a long history of the use of plant essences to cure what ails us dating back to the beginning of recorded time. The Western world is taking notice of aromatherapy and for good reason.
Medical research and clinical trials are showing much promise in the use of essential oils to manage symptoms and in some cases, treat certain ailments.
When we look at what plant oils are made of, we begin to put the pieces together and see how they can help us in a myriad of ways.
So do essential oils work or are they just another medical sham?
I will let you make an educated decision based on what you have learned, and let the science guide you.
If you have found that they really work for you as many people have, you can rest assured there is scientific evidence backing some of those results.
Nonetheless, for them to be recognized as “medicine,” much more essential oil research needs to be done for them to become mainstream applications.
It must be noted that not all essential oil claims are real.
Then again, not all of the information that is put out by people debunking essential oils as gimmicks is real, either.
There is plenty of evidence based information serving as proof that essential oils work at least to some degree.
So are essential oils worth it? Does aromatherapy really work?
Let me ask you this:
do essential oils do anything for you? Perhaps that is the best question.
If you decide they are right for you and your family, and they work for you, that is wonderful. But, remember that at their core, they are chemicals.
Just because they are natural, it does not make them automatically safe. After all, you wouldn’t just go into the woods and eat any berries you find or rub random plants all over your skin, right?
It’s the same thing with oils. Consider what they are, and be safe when using them.
What’s your take? Do you think essential oils really work? Or is it just a gimmick?
I was skeptical until I read stories of oils helping horses with fear and anxiety. There is no placebo effect with an animal. Then I read that oils raise your electromagnetic field and that it goes way down when you are sick. the oils have such a high frequency that they can help the body fight off sickness. I’m sold. A sick person is at 80, a well one is 150 and frankenscense is about 320 or more.
Conrad Novak says
I believe that a holistic approach is extremely important no matter what the illness. The problem is that modern day medical professionals do not take the entire narrative into consideration when helping a patient. I find a lot of the herbal remedies to be very helpful.
Cinchona Bark (Cinchona spp.) is an antiprotozoal agent that can be used in the treatment for infectious diseases. Cinchona Bark contains many alkaloids but two of the most active compounds are Quinine and Quinidine. It is a bitter and can be used to protect against GI infections. It is very useful in the treatment of Malaria but can be used as a treatment option for many other symptoms. The bark is used to reduce fevers, as an appetite stimulant, spasmolytic and an astringent. The Quinidine compound is used as an antiarrhythmic and the Quinine is used as an antimalarial.
Glenna Peterson says
Thank you. Good information and excellent questions anyone using essential oils needs to ask; themselves and the sellers. We are such good consumers in other areas. We need to be the same here.
Lisa Jemus says
Hi there, fantastic article and great resources! Honestly appreciate this a ton. Are you an aromatherapist? And if so where did you go to school? I am considering taking that step.
Suzanne Daley says
Great article on essential oils! I like the “phytochemical” aspect.
I understand the financial impact it presents for Pharma for individuals looking for answers to medical issues like pain, allergy, infection to put up a fight to keep their financial model running. What I have found in my research is that these companies look to “natural medicine” and find a way to alter the potent chemicals in those medicines and modify it’s chemical structure so they can patent it (for financial gain). I have a little problem there for their effort. They are a business and research takes big money. What I am concerned with is the side effects they enter into a pill (due to financial gain needs )and because of that, how there is a negative spin going on for natural essential oils or even harvesting raw materials that they used to base their “drug” on. There is reference to essential oils that can be read from a scientific standpoint, not marketing (neither Pharma nor sellers marketing essential oils)
Essential Oil Safety…(available Barnes n Nobel/Amazon etc). If you are seriously looking into this, read up on the subject.