June 13, 2024

Essential oils have become a fad in recent years, especially among college students. Essential oil diffusers have become a popular dorm room accessory, releasing essential oils purporting to have medicinal benefits into living spaces.

Essential oils are highly concentrated substances that naturally come from parts of plants, including roots, leaves, fruit and bark. Dr. Juliann Purdue, professor of nursing, said essential oils are widely used for anxiety, pain relief and breathing.

Hannah Ferrell, junior architecture major, uses essential oils at least every other day. She uses them for headaches, sleep, anxiety and to add a natural aroma to her on-campus space.

“I do think they have a therapeutic effect,” Ferrell said. “Certain scents and essences of the oils affect different parts of the brain and body to soothe. I would encourage people to use them for their multi-use function. They can be used to freshen up a space, for mental health, for pain (and) for sleep.”

Although students such as Ferrell point to experience as evidence for the therapeutic effects of aromatherapy, essential oils have a tense past with the scientific community, with many in that community clinging to long-held beliefs that essential oils are not backed by science.

However, Purdue said that now, as more studies investigate the viability of essential oils in therapeutic use, research is favoring aromatherapy as an effective practice, though more research is still needed.

“Although people claim essential oils are natural remedies for a number of ailments, there’s not enough research to determine their effectiveness in human health,” an article from Johns Hopkins Medicine reads.

“Results of lab studies are promising — one at Johns Hopkins found that certain essential oils could kill a type of Lyme bacteria better than antibiotics — but results in human clinical trials are mixed. Some studies indicate that there’s a benefit to using essential oils while others show no improvement in symptoms.”

Though research is promising, there is a caveat — while essential oils can have therapeutic effects, there is no regulation process in place as there is for other medications.

“It is harder to test them,” Purdue said. “Pharmaceuticals are under a rigid testing. However, numbers don’t always tell the right story, and you can manipulate numbers as well, so you want randomized, controlled trials and things like that to give you that scientific evidence. You can find reputable companies that do make (research for essential oils), and more and more studies are coming out that provide evidence that they do work.”

This lack of regulation is complicated by the sheer variety of essential oil products on the market.

“Some of it they have done research on,” Purdue said. “The problem with that is they are not pharmaceutically made. You do not have one organization overseeing them, so aromatherapy can be very potent, it can be very weak, and so there is no regulation per se as to how it’s made.”

These concerns have led to continued doubt. In fact, an Insider poll from 2019 that found 31% of those surveyed claimed to believe in aromatherapy describes the practice as “a pseudoscientific practice predicated on smelling aromatic substances, including essential oils, in order to improve overall well-being.”

Purdue credits this hesitation to embrace natural solutions for health concerns to our modern healthcare system.

“In Western medical society, most people believe either medication or surgery are how you fix things,”

Purdue said. “Really how you fix things first are diet, exercise, sleep and stress relief. In that, you have our biblical view — (for) stress relief, is (one solution) prayer? Some people say prayer doesn’t work. Prayer works. So not everything has to be fixed with medication or surgery.”

Purdue encourages others to evaluate the capabilities of essential oils based on their own experience.

“We all are very subjective in how we feel and how something helps us, and so subjectively if you feel better — you are less stressed — it works,” Purdue said. “Objectively, did it actually lower your blood pressure? Did it actually help you sleep more hours? That’s all data we are not taking on ourselves per se, but aromas all make us feel good in some way. We all have happy memories of certain smells. I have bad memories of certain smells. So the aromatherapy part — how does it make you feel? — that’s a very subjective feeling.”

She said essential oils can serve as a great complimentary treatment to modern medicine and good lifestyle choices. However, she warns that, especially given the lack of industry regulation, it is important to take steps to ensure one uses essential oils safely and properly.

“It just takes experience,” Purdue said. “I always caution people: Do not use them just because you think it’s cool. Do your research. Figure out what the oils are for. Get them from a reputable company so they are made well. Try it in small amounts first to make sure you are not allergic. And don’t make them up yourself until you learn about it.”

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