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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Debunking the Debunkers: The Therapeutic Validity of and Essential Oils

The Dubiousness of the Dubious Labels of Aromatherapy

Searching for the term 'Aromatherapy' brings up several pages claiming aromatherapy is a fraud of some sort. That essential oil manufacturers and retailers are making 'dubious' claims of the efficacy of essential oils. These folks don't seem to have done their homework, or compared the validity of scientific inquiry to that produced by conventional medicine, which in fact could easily be claimed as 'dubious' using the same criteria. Ok, well actually there are no criteria used, just a few blurbs that present aromatherapy as a soft science, on that should be neglected along with everything else that's every been found under the heading of 'new age'.

How about we all agree on this? That SOME of aromatherapy is in-fact a 'soft science'? That SOME people may feel more relaxed when inhaling Lavender, for example, and some will not? Aromatherapists will not disagree on this point -- they will however put up a defense when the medical applications of essential oils are thrown out with the soft side of 'aroma' therapy. Science IS BACKING UP many of aromatherapy's claims with valid data, even on the 'soft-science' of the practice. Here's a look at the science behind aromatherapy, the holes in arguments of the popular debunkers, and why aroma-medicine has it's place in today's medical practices.

Aromatherapy's Image Challenge


Aromatherapy really suffers from an image problem. Most people hear the word, and believe it has really to do with 'the smell of things' rather than with 'things that smell'. Its a small but very important distinction. Aromatherapy is really the complete branch of medicine that uses the chemically-volatile (easily evaporated) constituents of plants for treatment of a wide variety of ailments. IT DOES NOT only have to do with the effects these plant chemicals have on people that smell them. Virtually every professional aromatherapist will tell you that the great medicinal promise of aromatherapy does not reside in their pleasing aromas, but rather in their abilities to successfully treat a wide range of infectious illnesses (like MRSA, the 'Superbug'), their action as chemotherapy agents, anti-inflammatory agents, wound-healing agents, and other 'hard' medical applications.

Pub Med Offers Hard Data on Essential Oils as Medicine

A quick look at the research available on Pub Med, a database of thousands of peer-reviewed life-science and medical journals freely available on-line reveals thousands of citations of research performed using essential oils. Yes, there are in fact some studies that did not result in convincing evidence that hand massages with lavender cream didn't make people feel better than hand massages with unscented lotion. But there is studies that show people sleep better after lavender inhalation. And there's a study that show stress makers of the immune system remained unchanged after inhaling linalool (an isolated constituent of Lavender), but there's also 15 studies (upon last count) showing positive significant results if one searches for 'lavender' and 'axiolytic' (the technical term for stress reducer). The results for 'acetaminophen' and 'pain' MAY be as strong; those for 'minoxidil' and 'hair' are almost certainly not.

So aromatherapists will even cede that there's mix results. While the naysayers use this data to say "aromatherapy doesn't work", the reasonable statement seems to be: "everyone's different. Some people respond and some don't. It may be that they would respond to a different aromatic, or maybe not at all". From Robert T. Carol of skepdic.com: "...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." Stephen Barrett, M.D. of Quackwatch doesn't really seem to make a point about essential oils, but to just sound disgruntled about the whole idea.

Sure, there may be some unsubstantiated claims floating about, but let's play fair. How many deadly drugs have been pulled from the market after drug-manufacturer-paid rigorous scientific investigations claimed them to be "safe and effective"? One chart puts deaths attributed to "properly prescribed and used drugs" between those from alcohol and those from alcohol -- these just above "preventable medical" misshap, and all of these above traffic fatalities. How many died from using essential oils? Can you draw a circle? How about the letter that comes between 'n' and 'p'?

Profound Results of Aroma Medicine Research

On to the cutting edge of aroma-medicine: The big news is that essential oils, yes very the same used in aromatherapy (this IS the idea we're trying to get across!), are highly effective antibiotics and antivirals. Again, we invite you to search for 'essential oil' and 'mrsa' -- this is the staphylococcus aureus bacteria 'superbug' that has become resistant to commonly available antibiotics (the MR in the name stands for 'methicillin resistant'). You'll find studies showing the efficacy of Tea Tree essential oil in clinical applications, and positive results in the lab using several other oils. And thus far it is thought that these oils have no adverse effects at effective doses.

Then there's the myriad of studies showing essential oils' efficacy in destroying cancers. A recent study in the journal of "Chemico-Biological Interactions" noted that linalool, a common essential oil constituent, completely eradicated a particular liver cancer cell line at very, very small concentrations. Try 'essential oil' and 'cancer' in Pub Med and you'll get results like "Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity"(perhaps this is terminology of "New Age spiritualism" I'm yet unaware of). Another result is "Anticancer activity of an essential oil from Cymbopogon flexuosus" (Lemongrass essential oil) with a conclusion of "Our results indicate that the oil has a promising anticancer activity and causes loss in tumor cell viability by activating the apoptotic process as identified by electron microscopy." The list, of course, goes on (there are in fact 388 results today for this search).

Let's Change the Perception of 'Aromatherapy'!

So why are these criticisms of aromatherapy so popular, at least in Google's eyes? Why do some folks like horror flicks and car crashes -- not sure, really. It might have to do with there being a closer relationship between 'aromatherapy' and 'Glade Plug-in Air Freshener (TM)' in many people's minds than there is between 'aromatherapy' 'frankincense' and 'tumor cell specific cytotoxicity'. One reality is that there's a lot more money pushing the Glad Plug-In concept. Because essential oils cannot be patented as medicines, the amount of money to be made by Really Big Business is negligible. So it's up to small natural health companies, individual practitioners, and the wonderful education and research facilities doing the technical work to get the word out. And particularly to rock the boat a bit when so-called authorities make truly dubious claims about the dubious nature of aromatherapy. Plant medicine has kept human beings alive for millennia -- essential oils are just very active molecules produced by plants, and aromatherapy is so-called as it deals with the therapeutic applications of these aromatic molecules. Aroma-therapy. Get the word out!


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