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aromatherapy (essential oils)

The threat of imminent immune system collapse is the calling card of quackery. - William Meller, MD

Aromatherapy is a term coined by French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé in the 1920's to describe the practice of using essential oils taken from plants, flowers, roots, seeds, etc., in healing. The term is a bit misleading, since the aromas of oils, whether natural or synthetic, are generally not themselves therapeutic. Aromas are used to identify the oils, to determine adulteration, and to stir the memory, but not to directly bring about a cure or healing. It is the "essence" of the oil--its chemical properties--that gives it whatever therapeutic value the oil might have. Furthermore, vapors are used in some but not all cases of aromatherapy. In most cases, the oil is rubbed onto the skin or ingested in a tea or other liquid. Some aromatherapists even consider cooking with herbs a type of aromatherapy.

The healing power of essential oils is the main attraction in aromatherapy. It is also the main question for the skeptic. There is very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. Most of the support for the healing power of such substances as tea tree oil is in the form of anecdotes such as the following:

In the plane on my way to India [from Europe] a few years ago, my index finger began throbbing violently. A rose thorn had lodged in it two days before, as I pruned my roses. It was now turning septic. I straight away applied tea tree oil undiluted to the finger. By the time I arrived in Bangalore, the swelling had almost gone and the throbbing had stopped (Daniele Ryman, Aromatherapy).

This kind of post hoc reasoning abounds in the literature of alternative health care. What would be more convincing would be some control studies such as the following:

Professor Tomas Riley of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Washington has published a paper in [blah blah scientific journal] which demonstrates that tea tree oil kills many bacteria present in common infections, including some staphylococci and streptococci.*

When references are made to other aromatherapists, they are usually of the following type:

Marguerite Maury prescribed rose for frigidity, ascribing aphrodisiac properties to it. She also considered rose a great tonic for women who were suffering from depression (Daniele Ryman, Aromatherapy, p, 205).

Such testimonials are never met with skepticism or even curiosity as to what evidence there is for them. They are just passed on as if they were articles of faith.

Besides personal experience, the only kind of research aromatherapists seem interested in is in reading what other aromatherapists have said or believed about plants or oils. The practitioners and salespersons of aromatherapeutic products seem singularly uninterested in scientific testing of their claims, many of which are empirical and could be easily tested. Of course, there are many aromatherapists who make non-testable claims, such as claims regarding how certain oils will affect their "subtle body," bring balance to their chakra, restore harmony to their energy flow, return one to one's center, or contribute to spiritual growth. Aromatherapy is said to restore or enhance mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual health. Such claims are essentially non-testable. They are part of New Age mythology and can't really engender any meaningful discussion or debate.

When aromatherapists get into professional debates about empirical matters it is generally over such matters as whether natural oils are superior to synthetic ones (or therapeutic grade vs. perfume grade), though even here references to scientific studies of the issue are sought in vain. The way aromatherapist Daniele Ryman, a defender of natural oils, treats the subject of "lavender" is typical. In her book, Aromatherapy, she gives some botanical and historical information about the plant, including a claim by Matthiole, a 16th century botanist, that lavender is a panacea which can cure epilepsy, apoplexy, and mental problems. She tells us that the principal constituents of lavender are alcohols such as borneol, geraniol, and linalool; esters such as geranyle and linalyl; and terpents such as pinene and limonene. Lavender also contains a high percentage of phenol, a strong antiseptic and antibiotic. She also notes that while many essential oils are very toxic, lavender is one of the least toxic of all oils. Then she tells us that lavender is "the oil most associated with burns and healing of the skin." She says lavender is "very effective in treating cystitis, vaginitis, and leucorrhea." Furthermore, as an herbal tea, lavender "is also good as a morning tonic for convalescents, as a digestive after meals, for rheumatic conditions, and at the first appearance of a cold or flu." To prevent varicose veins, Ryman advises that you "massage the legs with an oil consisting of 3 drops cypress oil, 2 drops each of lavender and lemon oil, and 1 ounce of soy oil" (p. 143). Nowhere does she give any indication that anyone anywhere has done any control studies with lavender to test any of these claims. Now, it's true that expressions such as 'very effective' and 'is good' are not very precise, but they are not complete weaslers like 'helps' (which is what she says lavender in your bath will do for cellulite). And 'most associated' with burns doesn't actually say that it will do any good for burns. Still, I think these claims can be made precise enough to test, though I doubt if Ryman or most other aromatherapists have any interest in doing such tests.

For some reason, Ryman doesn't say much about lavender's use to reduce stress in her chapter on lavender. However, in a section on "Insomnia" she says that "lavender is a gentle narcotic, recommended for mental and physical strain." There has been a study done, not mentioned by Ryman, which compared the effects on intensive care patients of aromatherapy using lavender, massage therapy and rest. The study concluded that rest was best (Dunn).

One of the more common claims made by advocates of so-called alternative medicine is that it "boosts" or "supports" the immune system. Advocates of essential oils frequently make this claim. For example, Young Living Essential Oils claims of its Thieves Essential Oil that "It is highly effective in supporting the immune system and good health." Exactly what such a claim means isn't clear, yet it sounds good. According to Mark Crislip, M.D., an infectious disease doctor who blogs on Science-Based Medicine:

The immune system, if you are otherwise healthy, cannot be boosted, and doing those things you learned in Kindergarten health  (reasonable diet, exercise and sleep), will provide the immune system all the boosting or  support it needs.

So, why do so many alternative medicine folks think it's a good thing to boost or support your immune system? The implication is that most people are unhealthy. Since most of the alt med folks advocate a variety of supplements as part of a "healthy" lifestyle, one is left to conclude that these folks truly believe that supplements are essential to a healthy immune system. Again, the implication is that most people are sick to some degree. Isn't this the kind of delusion that the alt health folks claim is the goal of Big Pharma? According to alt med mythology, Big Pharma wants to make us sick so we will become dependent on their drugs and make them rich. But isn't the alt med community assuming we are sick and need to buy supplements from their leaders to bolster our immune systems and let our bodies heal themselves? Anyway, study after study has shown that there is no general health benefit to taking daily vitamin and mineral supplements and that taking them is unnecessary for good health for most people. Supplements are not necessary for most people to bolster, support, or stimulate the immune system.

Our immune systems very rarely break down, except when we starve, undergo intensive chemotherapy, or face an immune-system assassin such as HIV. These are life-threatening emergencies, not occasions to take an alleged immune "stimulant."

....Rather than being weak, it is far more common today that our immune system is overactive. (William Meller, MD)

What is the immune system? Meller calls it "the body's homeland security." The immune system is a system of cells and proteins that are "scattered throughout the body — in the blood, lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, and even appendix." It's "made up of white blood cells and the tissues that make and harbor them." Immune cells try to protect the body from foreign invasions by such things as germs. Immune cells attack and dispense with the offenders. The security forces created by the immune defense system are called antibodies, "highly specific proteins programmed to recognize and remember a specific virus or bacteria forever." Yes, forever.

Our immune system never rests. In the mouth and gut it neutralizes germs that hitchhike in on food. In the lungs it screens the air we breathe. In the skin it wards off invaders trying to enter through dirty cuts and scrapes. The fact that we get so few infections, despite countless daily exposures, testifies to the vigilance of our immune forces.

Mark Crislip, M.D., explains in detail why the alt med mantra about boosting the immune system is not such a good idea.

In any case, I would not reject aromatherapy out of hand, however. When I have a cold and a stuffy nose, I'll use Vicks VapoRub, a mixture of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. Strictly speaking, I suppose I am a practicing aromatherapist. However, when I look at what people who call themselves aromatherapists claim, I have to conclude that aromatherapy is a mostly a pseudoscientific alternative medical therapy. It is a mixture of folklore, trial and error, anecdote, testimonial, New Age spiritualism, and fantasy. What aromatherapy lacks is a knack for sniffing out non-sense. And while some oils can kill bacteria, as can some soaps, it may not be in your best interest to kill every bacterium you can. Some of those billions of little creatures are actually doing your body some good! Finally, some of our strongest anti-biotics don't work very well on the deadliests strains of bacteria. What are the odds that some plant oil applied to the lower back is going to do what our strongest drugs can't do? I'd say the odds are not great, but if you believe in magic, go right ahead and oil up. Anyway, the scientific research on essential oils as anti-biotics and anti-virals for serious conditions is in its infancy. Essential oils can kill bugs in the lab, but will they be effective in real-life situations? There's always some pleasure in feeling you're doing something good for your body, even if you aren't. Call it placebo pleasure, if you like. If you could bottle it, you'd be rich. What a concept!

See also alternative health practice, immune system quackery, and Bach's flower therapy.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Dunn, C. et al. "Sensing an improvement: an experimental study to evaluate the use of aromatherapy, massage and periods of rest in an intensive care unit," Journal of Advanced Nursing, 21, 1995, pp 34-40.

McCutcheon, Lynn. "What's That I Smell? The Claims of Aromatherapy," Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 1996.

Meller, William. M.D. 2009. Evolution Rx: A Physician's Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing. Perigee. My review of this book is posted here.

Raso, Jack. "Alternative" Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994).

websites

Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function by Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser et al., Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 33, Issue 3, April 2008, Pages 328-339.

Aromatherapy: Making Dollars out of Scents by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Scents and Nonsense: Does Aromatherapy Stink? by Cheryl A. Sweet

Four Thieves Vinegar - Wikipedia

Essential oils destroy MRSA, Brighton scientists say (24 March 2010)
Dr Jonathan Caplin, who carried out much of the research, said: "These are very promising results. "We have shown at least in the laboratory that this blend of thyme has a very strong killing-effect on MRSA. "Now further work needs to be carried out to ascertain its effect in real cases."

Essential oils to fight superbugs Science Daily 10 April 2010
Professor Yiannis Samaras and Dr Effimia Eriotou, from the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands, in Greece, who led the research, tested the antimicrobial activity of eight plant essential oils. They found that thyme essential oil was the most effective and was able to almost completely eliminate bacteria within 60 minutes. The essential oils of thyme and cinnamon were found to be particularly efficient antibacterial agents against a range ofStaphylococcus species.

Now, will they work in vivo, in real-life situations?

news story

Can Light and Aromatherapy Treat Dementia?

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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