Rational Thinking About Essential Oils

This is the second of three posts that I plan to write about essential oils. In the first, I discussed the dangers of using essential oils in place of proven medications for serious medical conditions. My goal today is to discuss everything except the evidence that is available. (I’ll cover that in a later post.) Before you continue, if you haven’t read my post Reframing Complementary and Alternative Medicine, please do; it provides a framework for the following discussion.

What essential oils are

Let’s start with the basics. These oils are called “essential” not because you just have to use them, but because they embody the “essence” of a plant. They are compounds collected from various parts of plants–perhaps from the seeds, leaves, roots,  or flowers. Most frequently, this is done using a method known as steam distillation to liberate and concentrate the aromatic compounds that give the plants their fragrance. Chemically speaking, essential oils contain a diverse group of organic molecules that share very little aside from their plant of origin. I’ll skip over the organic chemistry lesson, because it has little relevance except to show that “sandalwood oil” isn’t a single chemical entity, but rather, a mixture of chemicals found in that specific plant. Each plant produces its own combination of chemicals, but this combination varies based on where the plant was grown, the time of year when it was harvested, and the process used to extract the oils. In contrast, conventional medications consist of a single ingredient at an exact dose designed to ensure consistent results.

Historical use

Despite the overwhelming popularity of essential oils over the past few years, they aren’t new at all. There’s a long list of ancient civilizations that used essential oils: Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and Persia, just to name a few. In these civilizations, plant-based oils were expensive and highly-prized. They were used medicinally, cosmetically, and in religious ceremonies. They even made the short list of gifts deemed appropriate to welcome the Messiah. Today, companies that sell essential oils make a huge deal about their long-standing history…but I’m not convinced that it’s all that impressive. The fact that people did something a long time ago doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Our understanding of the human body and how it works has changed a great deal since then–you know, little things like anatomy and the germ theory of disease, all the way to genetics and cell biology. When ancient civilizations used oils, there were no other choices; electing to use them today is quite a different story. As an example of the fallacy of this logic, in the not-too-distant past, teething was treated with gum-lancing and leeches, but I doubt that many of you would try that on your kids if your Facebook friends recommended it. Appealing to the wisdom of people who knew less than we do simply isn’t an ideal argument.

Natural sources

People who promote essential oils also tend to focus on the fact that they are “natural,” which leads to a very important point: “natural” things are not healthier. Healthy things are healthier. I certainly agree that eating fresh, local produce is a better idea than eating a Little Debbie cake–but it’s not because of the source; it’s because of what they contain. There are plenty of natural substances that can be quite harmful. Arsenic, mercury, and radon are all naturally-occurring. Our planet plays host to a bewildering variety of toxic plants. And then, of course, there’s the whole subject of pathogenic organisms that medicine exists to defeat; we didn’t make those either. By the time a substance reaches the cells in your body–whether by ingestion, injection, inhalation, or topical application–it doesn’t much matter where it came from. Your body doesn’t care if a molecule was born in a meadow or a lab; it cares only what it is.

Biological plausibility

Before taking on the time-consuming and expensive task of performing clinical trials about essential oils (or any intervention), we need to know whether we’re likely to find a benefit. It’s an important question to ask: Given our current understanding of how the body works and how substances interact with it, does this even make sense–does it pass the test of biological plausibility? We typically need to have some understanding of how a treatment might work before we test to see if it does work. That’s not to say that we understand everything, or that something we don’t understand definitely won’t pan out. But still, it’s an important first step, because most things that don’t make sense simply aren’t true.

The biological plausibility of essential oils varies wildly with their proposed use. For instance, some oils are promoted as having anti-microbial effects and recommended for topical use for minor skin infections. It certainly makes sense that this might work. After all, plants don’t make oils for you; they do it selfishly. Plants produce chemicals to protect them from assaults by insects or microbes, and it makes sense that those chemicals may have some anti-microbial uses after extracting them from the plant as well. The bigger challenge is getting them where they need to go. Showing that an oil can kill bacteria in a petri dish is much different from showing that diffusing or ingesting it can cure deep-seated infections.

Other proposed uses for essential oils run the spectrum from reasonable to absurd, and it’s important to keep those things in mind before you consider using them. As I’ll discuss in a later post, there’s very little evidence to guide us in this area, so rational thinking is key. While topical use for bug bites or minor skin infections may be plausible, it seems unlikely that oils would do much to affect your immune system’s function, cure cancer, or improve the function of your liver. Using oils in place of proven medical treatments for serious medical conditions is probably a bad idea.

Financial motivations:

It’s interesting to me that many of the same people who avoid using conventional medicines because of concerns about profit-driven pharmaceutical companies don’t raise an eyebrow at the $20-100 price tag on a 15mL bottle of doTERRA oils. Young Living offers a “KidScents” collection that includes 6 small bottles of blended oils designed exclusively for children for “only” $157.57 (but they do throw in a convenient carry case).

I’ll go ahead and get my biases out of the way:

  1. That sounds like a lot of money.
  2. With names like “GeneYus,” “Owie,” “Bite Buster,” “TummyGize,” “SniffleEase,” and “SleepyIze,” I have a hard time taking these seriously.
  3. Whatever research there may be about the safety and efficacy of specific oils, there’s certainly none to indicate that these combinations are worth your money.

Corporations like Young Living and doTERRA, among many other companies, have capitalized on the distrust of conventional medicine and pharmaceutical companies, and have become quite successful. The multi-level marketing model employed by some of these companies is designed to generate revenue. People who sell essential oils–from your mommy group friend all the way the to CEO–are motivated by money. That’s not inherently bad, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. If your opposition to conventional medications is based on avoiding padding the pockets of pharmaceutical executives, you may also want to reconsider spending money on an alternative treatment that hasn’t been shown to be safe or effective.

Quality and dosing

If essential oils have medically useful effects, the quality and concentration would almost certainly be important. The dose-response relationship is one of the basic principles of pharmacology. Simply stated, it means that at too low of a dose, a substance won’t have any effect. As the dose increases, we reach the desired benefit; at even higher doses, we begin to see toxic effects. Because of this principle, accurate dosing is crucial; with essential oils, this is difficult because there is very little standardization. Claims like doTERRA’s trademarked “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade” are marketing hype–their oils may, in fact, be purified to a higher degree than those available elsewhere, but there’s no external organization that enforces essential oil purity. (doTERRA’s disclaimer confirms this.) Functionally, it’s really no better than saying “our company makes good stuff.” Further, without research to guide us, we really have no idea what an appropriate dose of cedarwood oil might be.

In conclusion

There’s a lot that we don’t know about essential oils. I don’t doubt that some of them have beneficial effects. But they are not entirely without harm–either directly, or indirectly when used instead of proven treatments. And it is extremely unlikely that their benefits are as great as the companies that sell them would like you to believe. As I’ll cover in a later post, the evidence in this area is sparse, and it isn’t likely to improve as long as sales remain strong without it. In situations like this, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism, to think rationally, and to recognize that even “natural” treatments can have unintended consequences. And as always, please discuss any over-the-counter or alternative treatments with your doctor.

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