Dr. Roach: Do essential oils have medical benefits?
Dear Dr. Roach: In the area where I live, essential oils recently have become popular. There are all sorts of claims for what they can do and afflictions they can help. I have been doing some of my own research, but wanted your take on essential oils. MLM companies especially make some interesting claims and use recommendations.
Is there any truth to their claims? Have any medical studies supported the claims?
Since the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them, how can someone know which companies are trustworthy and which products are pure and truly contain the oils the label claims they contain?
Dear D.A.: I spent some time looking at the medical literature on essential oils, and found a few areas in which there is some evidence of benefit. For example, a lavender oil preparation from Germany, when taken internally, showed benefit in people with generalized anxiety disorder.
Many essential oils show antibacterial effectiveness in laboratory studies, but not at the same level as standard antibiotics, and it is unclear whether there is any clinical benefit to this. Several studies showed that essential oils as aromatherapy helped people relax somewhat. One reader wrote to me about essential oils applied to the skin before radiation therapy, and I found promise but no proof of effectiveness.
I would caution you that the claims of essential oils, and aromatherapy in general, may not be supported by medical literature. I have warned before against MLM (multi-level marketing), as it often is used for products of dubious efficacy. I would avoid MLM products and buy from a reputable manufacturer. Your point about purity and safety is, once again, well-taken; however, in the case of essential oils, our noses are very sensitive indicators, and for familiar scents, we usually can tell.
Dear Dr. Roach: In a recent column, a reader was concerned about the possibility of HDL being “too high.” I spent many years supervising a clinical laboratory. When I read M.D.’s values, even before I got to the question, the words “lab error” jumped into my mind. If the quoted values for LDL and HDL were reversed, all numbers would be within normal limits. This happens less with automated testing, but it could easily occur if information is transmitted orally, for example by phone, as may be the case here. I would retest the same specimen. Similar results on retest would lead to notification of the doctor and a request by the lab to draw a new fasting specimen.
Dear J.W.: Looking at the numbers again (total cholesterol 231, HDL 161, LDL 59, triglycerides 53), I think you might be right. It’s a very good rule of thumb that when lab results don’t make sense, double-check them — especially before making a treatment decision based on them.
Email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.