The Essentials on Essential Oils and Your Health
Take one stroll through a natural grocery store or vitamin shop and you’ll most likely find an essential oil, or combination, that claims to cure any ailment — including cancer — and their popularity is growing rapidly. A quick internet search of aromatherapy in North Texas brings up thousands of links and a few dozen dots on the map, but what are essential oils and can they complement your health or potentially pose a threat?
Amanda Jimenez, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Flower Mound and Texas Health Internal Medicine, a Texas Health Physician’s Group practice, says natural remedies for treating illnesses have been around for centuries but because research is limited on the effectiveness of essential oils, consumers should use caution.
“Essential oils used for aromatherapy are extracted from various parts of plants and then distilled to form highly concentrated oils,” Jimenez explains. “Aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors that transmit a message to the limbic system in our brain, which is the center that controls emotions. Limited studies have shown that aromatherapy can assist in the relief of stress, anxiety, and depression.
“There are potential side effects to anything that is used for therapeutic purposes. Inhaled aromatherapy essential oils can potentially cause headaches and topical oils can potentially cause skin irritation.”
If you do plan on trying essential oils topically, it is suggested that you mix the oils with a carrier oil, like olive oil or coconut oil to dilute the concentration. Application of aromatherapy oils straight to the skin without dilution can potentially cause a reaction at the site of application, including but not limited to an allergic reaction, redness, itchiness or burning. In babies and toddler, straight contact can even cause breathing and nervous system problems, seizure and even coma. And some oils can increase your sensitivity to the sun, such as citrus oils, meaning they can cause serious skin damage when exposed to the sun.
According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences, common photosensitive essential oils include, but are not limited to:
- Angelica root
- Bergamot peel
- Bitter orange peel
- Cumin seed
- Grapefruit peel
- Lemon peel
- Lime peel
- Mandarin leaf
- Rue leaf
Many websites and blogs suggest ingestion of a particular or combination of essential oils to help treat illness, but due to the high concentration and lack of research for safety and efficacy, Jimenez does not recommend the ingestion of essential oils, especially by children or women who are pregnant.
Whether you choose to topically apply or ingest, many essential oils have the potential for interacting with certain medications. For example, something as simple as peppermint oil interacts with medications used to treat seizures, high blood pressure or heart conditions and also antibiotics or antifungals and some immune-suppressing drugs. Talking to a pharmacist, nurse or your physician can help you understand how any essential oil may potentially react with your medication before use.
Additionally, many people tend to not tell their physicians or children’s pediatricians about use of complementary therapies such as essential oils because they believe it is not important or fear being ridiculed or chastised. Regardless, Jimenez says you should always feel comfortable telling your doctor what medications or supplements you are taking. Doing so could help him or her identify interaction issues before they become a problem. Due to popularity, some physicians are seeking training and credentials and board certification regarding complementary medicines or may know a colleague who is an expert on the subject. Talking to them about your use of or interest in essential oils can help ensure you’re getting accurate information from a trusted source.
Even though essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, many quality essential oil companies will use third-party agencies to analyze and uphold the standard of their oils. Looking for these markings and learning more about each agency can help you make the most educated decision.
At the end of the day, what might work for someone else may not always work for you. The same is true for essential oil use.
“Risks vary depending on the age of the individual, the manner in which they are using the oils, their personal health history, medications taken, and their personal body chemistry,” says Katharine Koeppen, a registered aromatherapist and owner of Aromaceuticals in Dallas.
While the use of essential oils may be picking up speed among the general public, medicine’s adoption of their use has been much slower, something Jimenez sees staying the same for the time being.
“Unfortunately, as research is limited, I believe it will take time for more studies to be performed in order to obtain concrete answers to questions regarding essential oils and their risk/benefit,” Jimenez says. “All in all, there is very limited scientific evidence that essential oils actually improve health or mood.”