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How Essential are Essential Oils?


Essential oils have been all the rage, especially within the last several years. So, what exactly are they and what makes them so great? Don’t worry, we will delve into their history, how they are being used (even in hospital settings), the possible dangers, and how the different scents are thought to affect us. Then you can decide if essential oils should be added to your environment!

What makes an oil, “essential”?

An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. An oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance. It is typically obtained by fragrance extraction techniques (such as distillation, cold pressing or solvent extraction) which are collected from the plants seeds, leaves, stems, bark, roots, fruit and flowers. Essential oils are described as being volatile, since they tend to change quickly from their solid or liquid state to a gas, which is how their scent instantly propagates when introduced to air.

Essential oils are not actually, oil. They do often behave like an oil, in that they have poor solubility in water, but unlike traditional oils, they do not contain fatty acids. Essential oils are distinguished from aroma oils. Aroma oils are a combination of essential oil that is then diluted with usually an almond or grapeseed oil (also known as a carrier oil), which is why the cost of aroma oils is less than pure essential oils.

Essential oil is composed of hundreds of different compounds know as phytochemicals, which are plant based, naturally occuring chemicals. The phytochemicals are produced by the plant and generally help the plant to thrive or thwart competitors, predators or pathogens and to propagate. There are over 90 essential oils currently being distilled or extracted world-wide.

The History, from embalming to wound care:

Our history shows that essential oils have been used for thousands of years for treating everything from an infected wound to the plague.

Egyptians were credited with developing one of the first distillation machines to extract oils from certain plants, which were used to embalm the dead. The Chinese are credited with introducing the use of infused aromatic oils as a mood enhancement and as medicine. While the greeks practiced aromatherapy for healing purposes.

The term “aromatherapy” was first originated in 1937 when French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse invented the word after he suffered a severe burn incident. It spurred his curiosity about the healing power of essential oils, where he discovered that lavender oil helped to cure his burns.

When serving in combat during World War II, Dr. Jean Valnet discovered how essential oils help heal soldiers’ wounds. Later in life, Valnet advised his patients that a healthy diet and phyto-aromatherapy were important in maintaining wellness. Phyto-aromatherapy is the use of natural medicines, using plant extracts to relieve patients ailments. Valnet was encouraged to explore the usage of essential oils to cure his patients, forseeing the dangers of overusing antibiotics.

How are essential oils being used?:

Today, especially with their growth in popularity, essential oils have undergone an insurgent of possible ailment solutions and recommended usages. Most typically, essential oils are applied to the skin, inhaled via a steam inhalation or diffuser, added to bathing and bathing products, and in aromatherapy massages.

Additionally, essential oils are used in the majority of the following “natural variety” product types:

  • Household cleaning products
  • Personal beauty care
  • Natural medicine treatments
  • Hormone balancing products
  • Inflammation reduction and control
  • Immunity boosting products to fight infections
  • Digestion support products
  • Energy level boosters
  • Brain function improvement products
  • Anxiety and emotional stress reducing products
  • Aches and Pain ointments
  • Skin and hair health products
  • Toxicity reducing products
  • Migraine and headache reducing products
  • Restful sleep aid

How are essential oils being used in the hospital setting?

Mayo Clinic:

The Mayo Clinic recently explored how botanical extracts can help in a hospital setting in their “Why aromatherapy is showing up in hospital surgical units” article. For pain management, researchers found that post surgery patients have better pain management and higher overall satisfaction with their care, when introduced to aromatherapy as part of their recovery process.

Chamomile and lavender have been documented to encourage relaxation and improve sleep. In another study, nurses working rotating shifts, reported sleeping better after aromatherapy massages were provided at the end of a graveyard shift.

The Mayo Clinic has even started offering some patients a cotton ball with a few drops of ginger or spearmint essential oils, to help with nausea.  

Intermountain Healthcare:

Intermountain Healthcare released their “Using Essential Oils in the Hospital” fact sheet in 2017, to help patients understand how some essential oils (they offer) could help alleviate certain conditions. The oils used at Intermountain Healthcare, must be provided by the hospital and are only administered in liquid form via a cotton ball for inhalation by the patient.

Henderson Hospital:

Henderson Hospital in Nevada has introduced their “Comfort Menu” to assist their patients with pain management. This strategy was developed as part of their fight against the opioid epidemic. Essential oils along with positioning, ice, heat therapies, music, ear plugs, eye masks and lip balm are being offered to their patients to alleviate nausea and anxiety.

Henderson Hospital conducted a randomized study of 109 patients using lavender oil prior to surgery. The results showed that anxiety levels dropped by 80.4% when lavender was dabbed on the patient's wrist.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center:

In the article “Nurses study the benefits of essential oils for stress relief in hospitals” by 5 Point Acupuncture, they explore how two nurses working in the emergency room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center formed a “wellness committee”. They conducted research on essential oils to allow approval for their use in the hospital environment.  The results of their research showed that a quarter of their staff suffered from work-related stress and a feelings of being overwhelmed. After essential oils were introduced into their work environment, only 2% reported still feeling stressed.

At the beginning of their research, 33% of their staff stated they had an optimal energy level at work. After introducing essential oils, the number increased to 77%. “They felt calmer, more invigorated, and able to cope better with stressful situations.” As a result of their research, 94% of the participants agreed that introduction of essential oils contributed to a more positive work environment.

Studies using Essential Oils via Aromatherapy to help patients with cancer:

During a 2016 study conducted at ten Allina Health hospitals located in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, with 10,262 hospital admissions, nurses delivered aromatherapy as part of their patients care. Over 75% of all aromatherapy sessions were administered via inhalation. Lavender was found to have the highest absolute frequency (49.5%) of use. Ginger, sweet marjoram, mandarin and various other combination of oils were also used. Sweet marjoram resulted in the largest single oil average pain change, but both sweet marjoram and lavender had equivalent averages in anxiety changes. Ginger had the largest single oil average change in nausea. It was concluded that “essential oils generally resulted in significant clinical improvement based on their intended use, although each oil also showed ancillary benefits for other symptoms.” During another case study on the use of inhaled ginger aromatherapy on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting as related to women with breast cancer, inhaled ginger aromatherapy was found not to be an effective complementary therapy when dealing with chemotherapy induced nausea.

Since cancer diagnosis increases patients anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and inability to fulfill daily routines, a study was conducted by the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Pittsburgh Quality Sleep Index was presented to try to find an alternative solutions to these patient stressors. 70 patients were randomly presented either lavender oil, tea tree oil or no oil to study their anxiety and sleep quality before and after chemotherapy. The use of lavender oils resulted in reduced anxiety levels in the patients in the Pittsburgh Quality Sleep Index.

Since a risk of salivary gland damage is a concern for patients undergoing radioactive iodine therapy for differentiated thyroid cancer, a study using a mixture of lemon and ginger essential oils were tested on patients undergoing this treatment. It was concluded, that the patients who received the inhaled blend of the oils, had a significant increased rate of secretion of the salivary gland function which reduces the possible damage after the radioactive iodine therapy treatment.

Caution: Use Essential Oil with care!

With possible results such as rash, chemical burns, allergic reactions, hormone disturbances and respiratory issues, essential oils should be researched and used with care. As stated by Rachael Armstrong in a 2017 WebMD article, “I don’t think people are aware that even though they’re natural products, they can do real damage”

This sentiment was also expressed by retired neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, Joie Power, Ph.D. She commonly presents workshops on aromatherapy and the use of essential oils to the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA), teaching nurses the benefits of incorporating essential oils in their patients care.

Power was recently quoted on WebMD, stating “Today, practitioners can rub oil-infused lotions on the skin, where the compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream. Or, they can diffuse them into the air where, once inhaled, they bind to smell receptors and stimulate the central nervous system”. She stresses that although essential oils are very safe and effective if used properly for addressing routine health challenges, there is so much misinformation out there right now, it is a real concern.

To help educate the public, the American College of Healthcare Sciences released a listing of “3 Common and Dangerous Essential Oil Mistakes”:

  1. Do not apply photosensitive, also known as phototoxic, oils in the sun. They usually contain furocoumarins, which can cause severe chemical burns and increase your skin cancer risk when your skin is exposed to UV light or sunlight.
  2. Incorrect application of essential oils. Even though some oils that state they can be applied directly to the skin, inhaled or taken internally, you should still be cautious. Regarding topical application, if the concentration of the oil is too high, irritation can be a result when using the oil on the skin. Always know the following when considering essential oil applications: dilution ratio, recommended daily dosage, duration guidelines, drug interactions and always avoid the eyes and mucous membranes. Regarding inhalation method, always diffuse in a well-ventilated area, no longer than 30 minute intervals and follow dilution guidelines. Regarding Internal or oral use, there are only a very few essential oils that are suitable for oral administration and each brand varys in their recommendations, therefore as stated by the American College of Healthcare Sciences, you should ask yourself “is oral administration actually necessary?” Toxicity or poisoning is often the result of using a dose much higher than the therapeutic dose or recommended daily dose. “Oral administration is best left to those who are trained and have experience in clinical aromatherapy.”
  3. “Disregarding contraindications and general safety recommendations”. Essential oils can react with prescription drugs and supplements and cause adverse reactions when used in excess. They can react differently in children, elderly and those with weakened immunity. Education is the best solution to common dangerous mistakes made using essential oils.

With known dangers, how are essential oils regulated? The laws governing aromatherapy products are regulated by the FDA depending on how the product is intended to be used. For example, the law does not require cosmetics to have FDA approval when using aromatherapy products in body cleansing products, cosmetics, perfume or cologne. But, if the product is intended to treat or prevent a disease, therapeutic use, or used to affect the structure or function of the body, the FDA considers the aromatherapy product to be a drug and is therefore required to meet FDA approval for safety and effectiveness. Whereas, fragrance products are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), such as air fresheners, scented candles, laundry detergents and household cleaners.

Quick guide on how scents are being used to alleviate discomfort:

Per Mayo Clinic:

  • Ginger and spearmint: used for nausea
  • Lemon: used for headaches or mental fatigue
  • Mandarin: used for restlessness, anxiety, nausea and sleep

Per Intermountain Healthcare:

  • Lavender: used for comfort, calmness and to lift the patient's mood
  • Mandarin: used for a calming effect and to relieve stomach discomfort
  • Peppermint: used to calm, comfort and to relieve stomach upset.

Henderson Hospital:

  • Lavender: used to reduce anxiety
  • Peppermint: used for nausea

5 Point Acupuncture:

  • Lavender and peppermint: used for chronic fatigue and stress
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