updated: July 8, 2016
This is a guest post by Dr. Eric L. Zielinski.
Please note: This is NOT a “HOW TO” article, but one that is focused on DEBUNKING THE COMMON MYTHS associated with the use of essential oils while pregnant.
I have a love-hate relationship with The Google. Just search “essential oils” and you’ll get every opinion humanly possibly thrown at you, which has stirred up a frenzy of confusion and misguided advice.
I also hold a love-hate sentiment about our beloved 1st Amendment. People can say whatever they want on their blog and this leads more people astray than you might think. Hey, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true, right? Wrong! There are several “Million Dollar Bloggers” (as I like to call them) out there with absolutely no training or qualifications whatsoever to write on health care issues, and they’re literally making tens of thousands of dollars a month in advertising and affiliate sales because they have amassed a huge following. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish that we didn’t have as much freedom of speech.
With that said, as the essential oil frenzy reaches fever pitch, it’s important to read everything we see with a grain of salt. This is particularly true with controversial issues like essential oil use in pregnant mamas and babies in utero!
Because of the mashup of information out there, it’s crucial to hold ourselves accountable by following one of the lesser known Bible commands:
“Test all things, and hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21)
So, let’s do just that…
An Evidence-Based Take on Essential Oils & Pregnancy
Although there are innumerable false claims on the Internet about essential oils and pregnancy, I have found that these 5 are the most misleading.
1. Certain oils are not safe during pregnancy.
There are several arbitrary lists of oils floating around out there claiming that several oils are NOT safe for use during pregnancy. Although this may be true in some, select cases, by far most essential oils are safe for aromatic, topical and in many cases internal usage.
It is important to remember that clinical trials testing the safety of essential oils and pregnant women are extremely limited. We also need to keep in mind that some essential oils are harmful during pregnancy just as they are harmful for all people regardless if they are pregnant or not. However, that doesn’t mean that bloggers can run wild and arbitrarily advise against using certain oils and compounds without having a legitimate reason for doing so!
My wife, for instance, used both herbs in dried and essential oil form quite extensively during her three pregnancies and home births, and sings their praises. On the other hand, is it possible for someone else to experience an adverse reaction to the same herbs and oils that she used? Sure! Anyone could be allergic or sensitive to anything, but both cases are regarded as anecdotal evidence and conclusions cannot be made based off of them. The problem is that we don’t have the research to support or deny either case, and many people are basing their opinion off of anecdotal evidence.
Furthermore, to warn people to “err on the side of caution,” is misleading and instills fear that essential oils are dangerous or inherently harmful. When it comes to essential oils, I have found that they are a victim of misrepresentation because they are commonly referred to as concentrated versions of their original sources. Although this may be the true in some situations, it is not that simple. Let’s take frankincense, for example. It is generally understood that,
“Boswellia Species is reported to contain 60-85% resins (mixtures of terpenes), 6-30% gums (mixture of polysaccharides), and 5-9% essential oil. Resin portion is composed of pentacyclic triterpenes, in which boswellic acid is the active functional group.Gum portion consists of pentose and hexose sugars with some oxidizing and digestive enzymes. The essential oil is a mixture of monoterpenes, diterpenes, and sesquiterpenes. (1)
We see the same with all essential oils. They contain different biochemical makeups than their original sources and, because of this, the two are not synonymous. This is why some people have allergic reactions to cinnamon powder, let’s say, but do very well with cinnamon essential oil.
Penny Lane DNP, CNM, IBCLC, has said it best, “It is true that essential oils are powerful substances, but used knowledgeably and with due diligence, pose little to no threat to one’s health.” (2)
“Due to the lack of clear information regarding the toxicity of essential oils during pregnancy,” The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) states, “It would be best to adhere to general safety guidelines” which is sound advice. (3) And, as such, general safety guidelines state that pregnant women would be wise to avoid these oils for a variety of reasons: wormwood, rue, oak moss, Lavandula stoechas, camphor, parsley seed, sage, and hyssop. (3)
If you’re concerned about oils, rest assured that many are regarded to be safe and NAHA confirms this. “Essential oils that appear to be safe include cardamon, German and Roman chamomile, frankincense, geranium, ginger, neroli, patchouli, petitgrain, rosewood, rose, sandalwood, and other nontoxic essential oils.” (3)
2. Essential oils are not safe for babies in utero.
The same thing can be said about the internal or topical use of oils on pregnant women harming their babies in utero. There is little to no research on this subject. In the words of the book Aromatherapy for Health Professionals,
“There is no available evidence that any natural essential oil has ever provoked mutagenicity or teratogenicity in an embryo or developing fetus. No tests have ever been carried out because the possibility of fragrant materials causing either genetic mutation or malformation is regarded as unlikely.” (4)
The bottom line is that, contrary to popular opinion, dangers linked with the internal use of certain essential oils in pregnant and nursing Mamas is not supported by the literature. Again, certain oils like blue tansy and wintergreen are always contraindicated for internal use, so let’s not throw the baby out the bathwater (pun intended). Women have and will continue to use essential oils and plant extracts while pregnant with no adverse effects to their babies. As long as they are used wisely and with standard safety guidelines in mind, all should go well. Keep in mind, however, that because they cross the placenta, everything Mama gets, Baby will get. In the case of essential oils, whether taken orally, topically or aromatically this can be a very good thing.
If you have any doubt, simply follow the safety guidelines of established experts and national organizations like NAHA and you can rest assured that you will be in good hands. More on that below…
3. Peppermint is a uterine stimulant promoting premature birth & will decrease milk supply.
The theory about peppermint being a uterine stimulant is simply not founded on science. In fact, just the opposite. Clinical research has actually shown that, like geranium and lavender, peppermint essential oil is a spasmolytic; meaning that it helps relieve smooth muscle spasm and can calm the uterus. (5)
Same thing with the claim about decreased milk supply. An article published Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research emphatically states that, “It has not been reported any data about toxic effects of using peppermint during pregnancy and breast feeding.” (3)
I’m telling you, I’ve searched far & wide to find anything about it in the literature and it just doesn’t exist. It’s an old wives tale. My wife bagged over 1,000 ounces of milk in her first month of nursing, and she regularly used peppermint oil and drank peppermint tea – BUT this isn’t “proof.” I cannot make the blanket statement that women use peppermint oil to boost their supply simply because of my wife’s experience. Likewise, I will not deny the possibility of a mother experiencing adverse effect to peppermint and producing less milk.
There are a plethora of benefits pregnant women can be enjoying with the regular use of peppermint tea and essential oil, yet many are so afraid of the supposed side-effects, they avoid it like the plague!
A 2004 article published in the Complementary Therapies in Nursing Midwifery sums it up best. Comparing ginger, peppermint and cannabis the researchers discovered that,
“Only ginger has been subjected to clinical trials among pregnant women, though all three herbs were clinically effective against nausea and vomiting in other contexts, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and post-operative nausea. While safety concerns exist in the literature for all three herbs with regards to their use by pregnant women, clinical evidence of harm is lacking.” (6)
The bottom line is this when it comes to peppermint side effects:
- They are not proven clinically.
- I have never heard of it personally in our midwifery/home birth circles.
- It’s a disservice to instill hesitancy in women because of hearsay.
4. Frankincense essential oil stimulates uterine blood flow, and can cause menstruation or miscarriage.
Another myth that throws me through a loop, there is absolutely no research suggesting that frankincense essential oil is an abortifacient or emmenagogue (meaning that it can stimulate uterine blood flow and cause menstruation). Nothing in PubMed or any university website that has any reputation worthwhile will report this.
The only decent information that I could find to help sort out this nonsense comes from a LIVESTRONG article. Again, nothing peer-reviewed, but at least this writer seems to have a level head on her shoulders.
Conclusions about the safety of frankincense during pregnancy are conflicting. Frankincense has sometimes been classified as an abortifacient or emmenagogue — a stimulator of absent menstrual flow and thus possibly at times an early abortifacient. Until further research is conducted, herbalist Denise Tiran recommends that potential emmenagogues, including frankincense, be generally avoided during pregnancy, at least during the first trimester. Aromatherapist Maria Lis-Balchin considers it safe for pregnant women to inhale frankincense, but advises caution in massage with the essential oil, which in the laboratory it is known to relax uterine muscle. According to Simon Mills and Kerry Bone’s herbal safety manual, frankincense has received an Australian government pregnancy category B1 classification. In other words, according to limited human and animal studies, there is no evidence to date that frankincense causes fetal harm. If you are pregnant, ask your doctor whether and which form of frankincense is safe for you and your baby. (8)
It seems the claim that frankincense essential oil can cause a spontaneous abortion is not necessarily about the oil, but about frankincense as a whole. With that said, it is interesting to note that:
- Nearly 30% of Iranian women use frankincense during their pregnancies, which suggests that it is extremely safe; or else one-third of their population would be regularly exposed to mutagens and become diseased. (9)
- According to a 2013 article published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, learning and memory performance is enhanced in the offspring of the mothers who consumed frankincense extracts during their pregnancy. (10)
- A study published in the journal International Journal of Preventative Medicine this past May explained similar results. “Oral administration of Boswellia extract during pregnancy and lactation strengthens short-and long-term memory in infants in field models. Further, administration of the extract during pregnancy causes an increase in the size of the neurons in pyramidal cells of the hippocampus CA3 area as well as increase in the number of dendritic process in these cells. Extract administration during lactation promotes memory function in infants through increasing cell volume, neurotransmitters release and number of synaptic contacts.” (11)
The bottom line is that, as we have seen above, the many forms of frankincense (essential oil, extract, and resin) are widely used across the world and there is a growing body of research supporting its use in pregnant women. To refrain from enjoying its benefits because of misguided myths that it can cause an abortion, seems absolutely absurd.
5. Contact your OB/GYN or midwife before you use them.
When you read the disclaimer, “Contact your OB/GYN or midwife before you use essential oils” on a blog, someone is trying to evade the legal responsibility of giving medical advice. We all do it, but it really means nothing. In many cases, like the recommendation of having people ask their doctor or midwife about oils is quite misleading and, in fact, is a cop-out.
As a licensed chiropractor, I am trained primary care physician and I can tell you this with certainty: DCs, DOs, and MDs do not learn about essential oils in school. Sadly, all three curriculums focus on toxicology and how pharmaceuticals interact with the human body. If, by chance, alternative therapies like essential oils are mentioned in chiropractic college or medical school, it’s a cursory approach at best and nothing in depth is discussed.
As a trained public health researcher, I can tell you we are taught how to evaluate and summarize data from medical studies; not give advice on clinical matters. It has taken me several years of coursework, personal mentorship and a lot of trial & error to help me understand research in a way that makes sense. Yet, that still does NOT qualify me as an “essential oils” expert.
Even my aromatherapy training doesn’t qualify me as an “expert.” And the problem with listening to Aromatherapists is that their opinion is largely based off the geographic location where they studied. U.S. aromatherapy schools, for example, are traditionally reserved and most strongly advise against the internal use of oils. Whereas, European schools are much more liberal and enjoy a wider spectrum of essential oil usage. French and German Aromatherapists, for example, regularly give essential oils orally. (12)
Regarding midwives, they receive very little (if any) “formal” training of any kind that would qualify them as essential oil authorities.
Truth is, very few people truly understand essential oil chemistry, which would qualify them as a valid resource for use guides and protocol advice. And I am not one of them!
The bottom line is this:
- Take responsibility of your own health and the health of your family.
- Do your own homework.
- Be a voracious reader and researcher.
- Learn the basics.
- And don’t blindly trust anyone just because you see it in print!
At the end of the day, God has given each of us a discerning spirit and the cognitive ability to make wise decisions. My hope is that you discover that essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways for the entire family like we have. But don’t take my word for it! You need to come to this conclusion yourself.