Recently, I've been hearing a lot of conflicting information about essential oils. On one hand people seem to be using them liberally as a cure-all for many different ailments. On the other, there are many warnings going around about the dangers of using essential oils and how toxic they are. So what's really going on here? What is an essential oil? Do they work? And are they safe?
What is an Essential Oil?
An essential oil is a type of plant extract. Chemists use a variety of methods to remove the volatile organic compounds from the plant material. Sometimes these oils are extracted with steam, other methods use chemical solvents to extract the oils. This means that the product is plant based but very potent as it contains only a very particular set of plant constituents.
Why extract the Essential Oil?
Essential oils have been used historically for their potent aromas in a healing modality called aromatherapy. The volatile organic compounds are the molecules of the plant that give it it's smell. Aromatherapy uses the smell of different essential oils for therapeutic benefit. When essential oils are marketed for use in anxiety the oils or blends of oils may include: Lavender, Rose, Bergamot, Chamomile, Orange, and others.
Does Aromatherapy Work for Anxiety?
The evidence for the use of aromatherapy in anxiety is positive. Many trials show a decrease in anxiety symptoms without any adverse effects. At this level of research, aromatherapy is considered a complimentary treatment for anxiety and experts are recommending its use along side other treatments.
Do Essential Oils have benefit beyond Aromatherapy?
Beyond the effects of aromatherapy, some essential oils have been studied for use in other ways. One common use is as a complement to massage therapy. Studies have show increased benefit to mood from aromatherapy massage. Although during an aromatherapy massage individuals would smell the essential oil, when he oil is placed on the skin many compounds are absorbed into the blood stream, creating the opportunity for the oil to act in ways beyond the aromatherapy action.
In addition to topical use, there is ongoing research into the internal use of essential oils for anxiety. There have been positive human trials on lavender essential oil taken as a supplement and animal trials have begun investigating the possible risks and benefits of other essential oils for anxiety.
So what are the risks?
Unlike other herbal preparations such as infusions (teas), essential oils a very concentrated. Aromatherapy may not be an appropriate treatment for individuals with lung disease. Even oils widely considered safe such as lavender oil can cause skin rashes when applied improperly. When taken internally some essential oils are harmful to the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. Essential oils have caused death with as little as 1 tsp!
When it comes to herbal medicine, in the form of essential oils or otherwise, it's important to remember that each herb (or oil) is different and is associated with its own unique risks. Just because the research shows that lavender oil is beneficial for anxiety does not mean that is appropriate for all people with anxiety or that any essential oil is safe for internal use. When in doubt, talk to your ND or Primary Care Provider.
How do I know if MY essential oil is safe to take internally?
While essential oils for aromatherapy are not strictly regulated, Health Canada strictly regulates natural health products. If your essential oil has been approved by Health Canada for internal use it will have an NPN (natural product number) on the bottle. If there is no NPN it is not approved by Health Canada for internal use. Perhaps obviously, an NPN denotes general safety not safety for a particular individual. Its always best to check with your regulated health care provider before taking a new supplement.
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If you have questions about natural treatments for anxiety - give me a call, I'd be happy to chat with you about naturopathic treatment of anxiety.