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Nutritionist advises caution, care when using essential oils

Thursday, July 20, 2017 


MANHATTAN — Using essential oils for healing is a centuries-old practice, but only a few essential oils have independent studies to back their claims, according to a Kansas State University nutritionist.

Essential oils are removed from plants and distilled into concentrated forms that distributors say support immunity, mood and other functions of the mind and body.

However, these oils should never be substituted for prescription medications and routine checkups, said Linda Yarrow, registered dietitian and instructor in the food, nutrition, dietetics and health department in the university's College of Human Ecology. Yarrow recommends checking with your health care provider before trying any anecdotal treatment, including essential oils, to ensure the ailment you want to treat is not a more serious condition that needs medical intervention.

Yarrow said there is a sparsity of scientific studies on essential oils because there has been little financial incentive to research them. The essential oils industry does not have nearly as much product development mechanisms or patents to recoup costs as the pharmaceutical industry, she said.

"Peppermint oil and lavender oil are two that have some good research studies behind them to support their use," Yarrow said. "Tea tree oil also has a couple of small studies that have shown its effectiveness."

Studies have found peppermint oil rubbed on the forehead or chest reduced headaches, nausea and congestion. Peppermint oil capsules also have been shown to reduce colonic spasms, abdominal pain and bloating by relaxing the muscles of the digestive tract.

Still, peppermint oil is not the answer for everyone who has stomach problems. Yarrow said people whose stomach discomfort is caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease should not ingest peppermint oil because it can make the reflux worse.

Lavender's usefulness has been studied in the labor and delivery room, where it reduces anxiety for women who are giving birth. The lessening of anxiety leads to better breathing, increased oxygenation, muscle relaxation and a reduction in pain, Yarrow said. The lavender is diluted and applied in body massages or diffused as aromatherapy. Yarrow said other studies have indicated that presurgical use of lavender decreased the pain associated with needle sticks and presurgical procedures.

Tea tree oil has been shown to be nearly as effective on acne as benzoyl peroxide, with fewer side effects than the peroxide. The oil also has been shown to work as well as standard medical treatment in removing antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus from skin, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Despite the benefits essential oils have in some cases, Yarrow cautions that excess amounts could have negative side effects, such as skin rashes when undiluted oil is applied directly to skin. Nausea or even ulcers can occur from drinking too much oil, and Yarrow said no oils should be consumed without diluting them first. To avoid side effects, she recommends starting with the smallest dosage possible — one drop — or using it through a diffuser.

"We sometimes think if a little bit did some good, then a lot of oil will do a lot of good, but unfortunately, that's not the way it works," Yarrow said. "If using one drop gives you the desired effect, then you don't want to increase the amount."

Yarrow also cautions against using essential oils on infants and children because they could cause skin irritations and allergic reactions, and increase sun sensitivity. She recommends storing essential oils out of children's reach, just as with any substance that could put children at risk for poisoning.

Yarrow recommends researching essential oil manufacturers to find ones with the most stringent harvesting, processing and storage standards to ensure the user is receiving the purest oils possible.

"It's important to emphasize that just because they're a natural product doesn't mean they're always a safe product," Yarrow said. "Do your research beforehand and be careful to follow the recommended guidelines if you're going to use essential oils."


Linda Yarrow


College of Human Ecology


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Linda Yarrow

Linda Yarrow, instructor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health, says essential oils should never be substituted for prescription medications and routine checkups.

Written by

Tiffany Roney