Do Essential Oils Work? A Doctor Investigates

Jaclyn Tolentino, DO
June 24, 2019

If there’s one wellness trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, it’s essential oils. But are they really as powerful as some companies claim they are?

Essential oils enjoy a place in several world healing traditions, but their recent popularity can probably be attributed to a resurgence of interest in complementary healing modalities and the ubiquity of multi-level marketing companies selling essential oils. They may sound fun and appealing, but they’re not the cure-all solution some people make them out to be.

What are essential oils, anyway?

Essential oils are basically an oil that contains the very concentrated “essence” of a plant. They are usually made by distilling the chemical compounds of the plant, or expressing its natural oils. The important thing to understand about essential oils is how concentrated they are.

There is often an assumption that natural substances or compounds are always safe and an underestimation of potential harmful side effects. Because they’re highly concentrated, they can sometimes irritate the skin and lungs. Allergic reactions and toxicity are also possible with overuse, which is why it’s important to consult a physician or another experienced professional if you want to incorporate essential oils into any wellness routine.

Essential oils uses

Aromatherapy is one of the most popular ways people use essential oils. When essential oils are inhaled, they bind to olfactory receptors to stimulate the central nervous system, which is how they would theoretically achieve effects such as temporarily taming anxiety .

Essential oils can also be applied topically when blended with a carrier oil such as coconut, almond, or jojoba oil, but improperly diluted or applied oils can irritate the skin or even the respiratory system. They’re also able to enter the bloodstream.

Some essential oils may be safe enough to be ingested when diluted, but we just don’t know enough about every type of essential oil to know they’re all safe or effective. Research regarding their medicinal efficacy when taken this way is limited.

Moderation is generally a good philosophy when using essential oils, but benefits can quickly be outweighed by side effects with overuse or misuse. If you’re using essential oils occasionally, in low dosages in aromatherapy, as a complementary treatment to your wellness regime, read on. But if you’re considering it for oral, concentrated topical, or regular use, talk to your doctor before using.

Do essential oils really work?

Most clinical evidence related to the use of these oils involve essential oils for anxiety reduction, mood elevation, and relief for nausea, however they’re also used with other conditions.

Limited research exists to suggest essential oils might be an effective complementary therapy for conditions including anxiety and post-operative recovery, specifically nausea. A small study measuring post-operative nausea in 184 patients showed statistically significant improvements in nausea scores after aromatherapy treatment with lavender and ginger essential oils. Another study measuring the effects of aromatherapy on patients with high blood pressure demonstrated significant benefits in blood pressure, pulse, stress, anxiety, and serum cortisol level for patients that were treated with an aromatherapy blend consisting of lavender, ylang ylang, and bergamot once daily for four weeks.

A certain preparation of lavender oil, called silexan, has been studied on a small scale to be safe and effective for alleviating anxiety when taken orally. Other research has found that the scent of linalool, a compound in lavender extract, can be calming, though the same effect was not seen when it is inhaled.

Despite the tentative promise of these studies, research on essential oils remains limited, with much of it confined to the benefits of complementary aromatherapy treatments for a very narrow range of conditions.

There is also some research linking the topical use of lavender and tea tree oil to the development of breast tissue in prepubescent boys . The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences further looked into this and found that the compounds in these oils displayed a range of hormonal activities when applied to human cell lines in test tubes.

It’s clear that more research is needed before we fully understand the effects of essential oils. Any recommendations for a broader range of applications for essential oils, particularly for topical or internal use, are often anecdotal.

How to use essential oils safely

If you want to use essential oils, they should be used as a complement to a wellness regime, as opposed to the primary means of treatment, particularly for any serious condition. Essential oils should not be used in place of a visit to your doctor when you’re experiencing any serious symptoms, and they may not necessarily be the best first choice for dealing with mini symptoms either. What essential oils really work best for are enhancing an existing self care practice, such as mediation or self-massage.

At Parsley Health, we view essential oils as a complement to a doctor-designed treatment plan, if applicable. Since our treatment plans generally take a whole-body, 360-degree view of patient health, I might recommend essential oils as part of a therapeutic protocol to treat stress, fatigue , sleep issues, or to support digestion. But this is only one many possible tools in an overall therapeutic protocol for those issues, not a quick fix.

When to avoid essential oils

Pregnant women, the elderly, and children are really the groups that should be most cautious when approaching essential oils, but they should be more cautious about the types of oils and the dosages being used. When in doubt, it’s really best to consult your healthcare provider before incorporating oils into a regular healthcare regimen. Some essential oils can be harmful and even deadly to pets, so those with animals at home should take caution and consult a veterinarian before exposing your pet to essential oils.

Jaclyn Tolentino, DO

Dr. Jaclyn Tolentino is a board-certified Family Physician with a collaborative, holistic approach to practicing medicine. She specializes in hormone wellness, fertility optimization, and immune health. She has received extensive training through the Institute of Functional Medicine, and has additional experience in integrative oncology.

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