Diffusing the Benefits of Essential Oils

For centuries, essential oils have been used to treat a variety of conditions, from lack of mental clarity and alertness to depression and indigestion. Today, practitioners employ essential oils using a combination of traditional medicine and current scientific evidence.

Available in health food stores and sold by independent consultants through multilevel marketing companies, essential oils are part of an uptick in complementary and alternative medicine use.

In the most recent survey of its kind, a CDC National Health Interview Survey (2007) revealed that 83 million adults spent $33.9 billion on complementary and alternative medicine — representing 11.2 percent of out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Essential Oils: The Basics

Using steam distillation, essential oils are extracted from the seed, peel, bark, flower or stem of aromatic plants. These oils are typically inhaled or applied topically. Less often, they are taken by mouth via enteric-coated capsules. Essential oils are thought to impact the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions and behavior. One theory is that molecules from vaporized essential oils bind with olfactory (smell) receptors in the nose, sending signals to the brain that change the way the body perceives pain and stress.

Though many essential oils are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration, there's no standard protocol for practice or dosage. Robin Foroutan, MS, RD, an integrative and functional medicine dietitian, regularly uses essential oils in her practice and encourages practitioners to do their due diligence when incorporating essential oils.

"Essential oils are effective because they enter the bloodstream — either by mouth or absorption through the skin or lungs," Foroutan says. But purity is a concern: Foroutan encourages practitioners to find a good source. "Avoid poor-quality oils that may be contaminated with heavy metals or other impurities," she advises.

Essential oils are potent. Though rare, when ingested, the oils are taken as a coated capsule to prevent gastrointestinal upset. When applied topically, essential oils can cause skin irritation. To limit this, essential oils are often diluted with a carrier oil such as jojoba or olive oil. Foroutan suggests applying the oils to the heel of the foot, where skin is less likely to be irritated.

With these concerns about quality, purity and effectiveness, essential oils have stirred up debate. Recent claims touting essential oils in the treatment and prevention of autism, Ebola, Alzheimer's disease and other conditions earned a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration.

What the Evidence Says about Essential Oils

Unwarranted claims aside, several essential oils do pass the sniff test. Essential oils show promise in food science and technology. Recent research reveals that varieties of oregano and mint oils may inhibit the growth of fungi in corn grown for cereal production. Here, the oils act as a biocide to reduce mycotoxins, the toxic substances naturally produced by fungi.

Those antimicrobial properties are also effective in the body. Oregano oil has anti-parasitic properties and seems to inhibit the growth of intestinal parasites when taken orally. Topically, bitter orange and tea tree oils are antifungals shown to effectively treat conditions such as athlete's foot.

Known for its aromatherapy benefits, lavender has been shown to be effective beyond its soothing scent. In one study, when it was applied to the scalp with a blend of rosemary, thyme and cedarwood oils, lavender improved hair growth in alopecia patients by as much as 44 percent after seven months of treatment. Lavender also may improve canker sore healing time. Taken by mouth, lavender may improve anxiety and sleep in patients with mild to severe anxiety. When inhaled throughout the day, lavender effectively reduced fall risk by 43 percent in a group of nursing home residents. By contrast, evidence is scant supporting lavender's role in helping people with mild insomnia and other conditions such as migraine headaches.

Taken by mouth, peppermint oil is likely effective at reducing abdominal pain, distension and flatulence associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Applying peppermint oil topically may help relieve tension headaches. It also may offer relief for breast-feeding mothers; studies suggest that compared to a placebo, peppermint oil helps reduce cracked skin and pain in the nipple area.

Ginger's anti-nausea properties are possibly effective in treating postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV). Researchers have reported that applying ginger oil to the wrists prior to anesthesia helped prevent PONV in about 80 percent of patients.

There are more oils to explore, including thieves oil, a blend of cinnamon, clove, lemon and eucalyptus oils, purported to cleanse the air, boost the immune system and stave off germs during cold and flu season. Though popular among essential oil advocates, thieves oil needs more research to be rated.

Essential oil therapy offers an alternative option for nausea, headaches and many other conditions. Before incorporating essential oils into practice, do your research. Get to know the oil, the condition and the client. Used appropriately, essential oils can positively affect people's well-being and be a valuable addition to practice.

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Marisa Moore
Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, is based in Atlanta and specializes in culinary nutrition, communications and consulting. She blogs at marisamoore.com. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.