Essential Oils and Cancer: A Review of Published Scientific Studies
Moving from Aromatherapy to Aroma-Medicine
The practice of 'aroma medicine', rather than the somewhat more vague 'aromatherapy', is making very strong gains in the United States. The primary reasons are twofold: Many individuals have become completely disenchanted with our current conventional medical system. We're paying HUGE amounts of money for very questionable therapies -- with many medicines having threatening health warnings (are these making us sicker while making us 'better'?) accompanying their high price tags. At the same time, people are realizing the value of 'traditional' medicines may be far greater than they've been lead to believe. That the healing power available in properly prescribed and employed natural medicines have the potential to not only alleviate the symptoms of an illness, but move the body to an equilibrium of long term health.
The Medical Uses of Essential Oils
Research into the area of medicinal applications of essential oils has been significant in recent years. Many oils have been proven to have significant antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal action. Now, the body of evidence of essential oils being strongly anti-tumorial, with specific anti-cancer action is growing, too. A search of Pub Med (www.pubmed.gov) the National Institute of Health's online research database produces 391 results for the search 'essential oils cancer' and 444 results for 'essential oil tumor'. MANY of the studies show a direct correlation in tumor and cancer cell line eradication with the use of essential oils. A great many have conclusions that indicate the studies results warrant further investigation of essential oils for the development of accepted therapies. Here's a review of some very promising results:
Frankincense Essential Oil Targets Cancer Cells
A study in the journal BioMed Central journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, March 2009, titled: "Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity" concludes with: "Frankincense oil appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress cancer cell viability. Microarray and bioinformatics analysis proposed multiple pathways that can be activated by frankincense oil to induce bladder cancer cell death. Frankincense oil might represent an alternative intravesical agent for bladder cancer treatment." ...while a bit technical, this is very, very promising -- essentially saying that this easily obtained, inexpensive, NON-TOXIC natural compound can eradicate cancer cells without harming normal, healthy cells in the same organ. Frankincense has a long, long history of medicinal use, and searching for 'frankincense cancer' produces 30 results just for this material. If choosing an essential oil of Frankincense, the 'carteri' species has been the subject of most research, with cold-process Carbon Dioxide distilled oils considered the most therapeutic (seek CO2 or SCO2 distilled oils or extracts, as offered by Ananda here).
Editor's update: The body of research including Frankincense continues to grow. Soon we will compile this information and present it all in one place! Please type 'cancer' in the search box in the upper left corner of each page to search our site for this type of data.
Lemongrass Essential Oil Induces Cancer Cell Death
Lemongrass, after Frankincense, may next most commonly researched essential oil for anti-cancer activity. In the May 2009 journal of Chemico-Biological Interactions, researchers tested Lemongrass essential oil against 12 human cancer cell lines. Colon cancer and neuron cancer cell lines were found most susceptible to the essential oil. The study concluded: "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." This indicates that Lemongrass may induce natural cell death of cancer cells (apoptotic process), a process that is inherently dysfunctional in cancer cells.
Sweet Linalool for Liver Cancer
Linalool is a very common essential oil constituent. Essential oils are naturally made up of many individual chemical constituents, and linalool is a sweet, relaxing aromatic found in many floral and sweeter spice essential oils. Linalool itself, separated from the essential oil of Coriander (Cilantro seeds) was the subject of research published in the June 2009 issue of the journal of Chemico-Biological interactions. Linalool was found to completely eradicate the HepG2 liver cancer cell line in VERY low concentrations. Linalool has a great many other effects, having been shown to lower anxiety and even significantly improve sleep. And now it even has anti-cancer effects! So even if one is noted directly targeting cancer, but using aromatherapy in a more 'casual' application, there may be important protective effects occurring at the same time.
Skin cancer is a major concern for many folks, and a series of studies have shown Sandalwood to be effective at preventing tumor development. Alpha-santalol, a component also shown to have anti-anxiety and sleep enhancing action, may be the constituent to which most of these effects may be attributed. This is fortunate, as Sandalwood from India is becoming more rare and expensive, though Sandalwood from Australia and other South Pacific islands is still readily available. A study published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, a formula used for containing just 5% Sandalwood essential oil used before exposure to toxins significantly reduced the formation of skin cancer tumors. A study published in January 2008 in the Journal of Anitcancer Research showed a significant reduction in tumor development in skin exposed to UVB radiation -- Sandalwood would make an excellent addition to a pre-sun body or face care formula.
The Powerful Protection of Spice Oils
Components of Thyme and Oregano essential oils have been shown to actually protect human DNA strands from breaking when exposed to extreme oxidative stress. DNA damage is a leading cause of cancer development, as this can lead to an abnormal cell life cycle, essentially turning off the process of natural cell death. Carvacrol and Thymol were singled out in a study by Slovakian researchers in 2007, though they also note that other components of these oils may have chemoprotective effects as well. Other spice essential oils that have demonstrated cancer preventative effects include Ginger, Tumeric, Basil, Garlic and Sage.
Essential Oils Offer Immune System Support
Beyond the direct effects on tumor cells, essential oils have been shown to positively effect the immune system on a chemical level. They can enhance the activity of white blood cells, making them more efficient and removing foreign material and microbes from the body. This would likely result in more effective cancer outcomes. Further, there's the psychological component of any disease, and many essential oils have demonstrated anti-stress activity in scientific investigations.
Essential Oils as Anti Cancer Agents for the Future
So, like many plant medicines, essential oils work on a number of levels for many diseases, with cancer being one of them. While its important to recognize that essential oil use is in-fact contra-indicated during chemotherapy (as they may reduce the cytotoxic effects of the treatment), they can certainly be an integral part of any cancer preventative protocol. For any application where an individual has already been diagnosed with the illness, it is important to check with their physician to ensure essential oils and aroma-medicine is an appropriate choice. The overall picture is very bright for the use of essential oils in cancer treatment, and further investigation is certainly warranted by the scientific and medical communities for the development of effective medical protocols for this profoundly life-altering condition.