Are Essential Oils Essential?

Essential oils are the aroma, the essence, of plants like the lavender in this photo.When it comes to food, the colors you see in plants provide powerful information. They often signal the rich nutrient density of the plant. When you look at a blueberry and see that color, you see delphinidin-3-galactoside. When you look at a carrot and see that color, you see beta carotene. Our eyes are adapted to notice the critical nutrients in food. The flavor molecules that we taste and seek after in plants are often important molecules for our health. That’s why our tongue is adapted to taste them.

The color in food can also be a sign that the plant is dangerous, like a poisonous berry. It’s meant to alert us to stay away.

What Is Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are the essential smell of a plant — the essence of the plant. These are molecules that our nose is adapted to detect. Those aromas may be messages that we are near molecules of benefit, or they may be messages about molecules we should avoid. Either way, it’s a signal we should pay attention to.

The Essential Oil Movement

In the last few years, there’s been a lot of hubbub online, in the popular press, and possibly from your next-door neighbor about essential oils. Some of the proponents of essential oil products say, or at least infer, that these oils are special – they are essential. They have used the word to mean indispensable or required rather than the scientific meaning of the smell of the plant. The essence.

The overuse and misuse of the term essential oil has caused some to dismiss the essential oil movement. The idea that essential oils as a class are good for you, is inaccurate. Like color, some of the molecules we smell in the plant help us know what to avoid.

Plants are powerful and our interactions with them can be powerful. The ones that are most likely to be important to us are the ones that we are primed to detect either by their taste, their aroma or by other means. For essential oils it’s about the aroma.

Medicinal Oils

There are some powerful, essential oils that don’t go by the name essential oil. For instance, Eugenol is a clove oil that’s been used in dentistry for a long time. I don’t recommend this instead of seeing a dentist but, I’ve had a cracked tooth, put a drop of Red Cross Toothache Medication (clove oil) on the tooth, and it instantly relieved the pain. Eugenol may not be marketed as an essential oil. But that’s what it is.

Evaluating Essential Oils Claims

If something has been touted because it’s an essential oil, stop and think about why.

  • What plant did the oil come from?
  • How do we typically interact with that plant?
  • How do you, or your child, interact with it?
  • What impact does it have on health?
  • Does the plant have placebo-controlled measurable trials that show a clear benefit?

For instance, garlic, mullein and calendula ear drops have been shown to be extraordinarily effective both in pain relief and antimicrobial properties. This has been shown in clinical trials. Some essential oil either don’t have any studies to back up their claims or they weren’t shown to be better than placebo.

Are Essential Oils Just Placebos?

The question is not placebo versus essential oil versus treatment. As I’ve discussed in [link to brain stage] other places, every medicine has what I call a brain stage – that part of healing caused by the brain, not by the active ingredients in a substance.

The question is, does it work? If an essential oil causes improvement and doesn’t have side effects, that’s a great thing.  What matters to an individual, whether using an essential oil, a natural remedy, an over-the-counter medicine or a prescribed medicine is the sum total of the intervention and the brain together along with the sum total downside or adverse events of the active part in the intervention and the brain part together.

Often gentle, natural approaches are just what is needed. They help you get through a minor ailment, they help stimulate your body to heal itself, all without relying on toxic chemicals.

The Essential Oil Fallacy

Like with so many things, we want simple answers. Black or white. Yes or no. With essential oils the fallacy is that all essential oils are good or that essential oils are sham medicine. The reality is some essential oils are medicinal and some essential oils have a medicinal effect just because there’s a brain stage. While some essential oils actually have a negative health impact.

Like the rich color in a food means pay attention, so does the powerful essence of plant oils. Paying attention takes effort, but the rewards are worth it.

Photo credit: Daiga Ellaby

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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