Essential oils? Ask a doctor
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The use of essential oils has been documented for thousands of years, and they are used in a variety of settings today — from spas to hospitals — to treat a range of symptoms, conditions or ailments.
Essential oils are concentrated extracts containing volatile compounds from plants. The word "essential" in the name refers to the "essence" of a plant, or the key compounds that form a plant's unique aroma and properties.
While some clinical research has been done on the use of essentials oils, many of the health claims made by companies selling essentials oils have not necessarily been verified in scientific research studies. In general, there seems to be evidence supporting some use for relieving pain, improving mood and helping with stress and anxiety reduction. There is also some evidence of certain oils' antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties.
Use of essential oils in a home setting has grown in popularity recently, and if you have been curious about using them, there are a few key tips to keep in mind.
Do Your Homework
Karen Russell-Little, M.D., an internist with Henry Ford Health System, advises that you research the types of oils you are interested in using, understanding the properties of those oils and how to use them, as well as reading labels carefully. She recommends sticking with 100 percent pure essential oils as opposed to oils with additives.
"When looking for resources for information on the Internet, look for websites that are providing information on essential oils and how to use them but not necessarily directly selling them," says Dr. Russell-Little.
If a website is promising "miracle cures" or making claims that seem to be too good to be true, be leery of the information on that web site.
Aromatherapy Is the Safest Bet
There are three ways to use essential oils – through aromatherapy where you breathe in the oils, usually through a diffuser; topical application where you put diluted oils directly onto the skin; and ingesting the oils by mouth in capsule form.
Dr. Russell-Little thinks that aromatherapy is the safest option. There are few underlying risks to breathing in essential oils, except possibly for people with asthma, COPD or other lung disorders. The aroma stimulates the olfactory system, which sends signals to the brain and the limbic system, which controls functions like adrenaline flow, emotion, behavior, motivation and long-term memory. This might explain why some of the most popular uses of essential oils are for things like stress reduction.
For topical application, the risk is mainly that of a skin reaction. The oils do have some absorption into the bloodstream, though, so it's smart to use some level of caution and understand the type oil you are using and the best way to apply it (possibly through a "carrier" oil versus applying it directly).
The greatest risk involves ingesting oils. Some may be toxic, can cause severe side effects, may interact with medications and are not approved for treatment of certain medical conditions. So Dr. Russell-Little does not recommend taking the oil internally, and strongly advises you to talk with a physician before ingesting oils if this is something you are interested in.
Talk to Your Doctor
Whatever method or particular oils you choose, talking with your healthcare provider is important.
"Have a conversation with your doctor about your use of essential oils," advises Dr. Russell-Little. "Many providers are open to alternative therapies as one part of overall healthcare. Your doctor may be able to provide advice to you and help you navigate some of the potential risks and benefits of using essential oils based on your unique health history and needs."
Talking with your doctor or provider is especially important if you have a serious or chronic health condition, are taking medications that could result in harmful drug interactions or unexpected side effects, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.