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HeadWay, Issue #136 -- Essential Oils: Money Makers, or Migraine Fighters?
November 21, 2015

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In this issue:

Essential Oils: Money Makers, or Migraine Fighters?

Say what?! Aromatherapy

Essential Oils: Money Makers, or Migraine Fighters?

Today's topic comes from a question from Katie in the USA.

Essential oils seem to be increasingly popular for healing almost every disease imaginable. But can an essential oil really fight migraine? Or is it all just another money-making scheme?

Well, it's possible that it's both, isn't it? But our job here isn't to judge motives, but to ask whether essential oils and aromatherapy is actually a valid treatment.

Where Is The Evidence?

Studying aromatherapy scientifically is notoriously difficult. First of all, when a well designed clinical trial tests a medication or supplement, you're going to see some patients who are given the real thing and some who are given a placebo - that is, they don't know if it's the real thing or not.

But it's a little more challenging to give someone "fake" peppermint oil.

Researchers have come up with some partial solutions - giving different proportions of essential oils, or different amounts. But the challenges remain.

Next, you'll notice a neat "trick" that makers of essential oils use. They will have their own special blend of oils for headache. That gives that company something unique that they can claim is "better". Blends are actually very important - but try to find a well designed study on that particular blend against others, and you'll be sadly disappointed.

So does all this mean that there's no real evidence, that any benefit is just "in your head"?

Not at all.

You may be surprised to know that aromatherapy is a lot more than enjoying a nice smell.

Just because we don't have a lot of studies specifically on migraine and specific oils doesn't mean we haven't studied them at all.

We all know that smells have an influence on our physiology, and that plants can affect our bodies - whether in a bad way or a good way. We do know that essential oils can change blood flow, relax muscles, and have neurological effects. Some may raise the pain threshold, and even improve cell health. (see for example this study, and this one, and this brief article from the Mayo Clinic - What are the benefits of aromatherapy?)

The downside is that if essential oils really do have a powerful affect on the body, that affect may be positive or negative. They may interact with each other, and medications. And without proper clinical trials, caution is advised!

So - Is the Cost Worth It?

So from what we know so far, is it worth it to buy essential oils?

Essential oils may have some value in preventing and easing headache attacks. There are scientific reasons why some may work, but we do need to remember that there are many treatments that have a lot more evidence behind them.

Before you spend hundreds of dollars on essential oils, look at the claims versus the facts and evidence, and consider your options:
  • Remember, any company can assemble success stories (whether true or - sadly - invented).
  • Are there any clinical trials for the specific product? How well designed are they, and where were they published? (Again, just because there are none is not a reason to avoid the product. But if there are wild claims of scientific evidence, surely they can provide some examples.)
  • Can I buy this essential oil elsewhere cheaper, even if it means mixing two together? (Do buy from a reputable company - check them out first.)
  • Are ingredients listed? Actual essential oils (and bases in some cases, like coconut oil), usually with a Latin name of the specific plant?
  • In the absence of good trials, does the oil at least have a good reputation for treating migraine or headache? Some common oils and mixes include peppermint, lavender, and eucalyptus.
  • Do you know how to use it? Is it safe to apply on the skin? Can you use it in a diffuser, or a bath?
  • Anyone can say that their product is "high quality". What type of evidence do they have that it's higher quality than the essential oil from another reputable company - that is half the price?
This is not an anti-essential oil article. I do not agree that all essential oil for medical purposes is "quackery". I think that wise use of essential oils can actually help fight headache and migraine.

However, as with any treatment, you are wise to do your research, and talk to your doctor, especially before you spend a large amount of money on a product.

Read more about aromatherapy here.

Say what?! Aromatherapy

The word "aromatherapy" is misused regularly. A shampoo that smells nice is probably not really "aromatherapy". Actual aromatherapy refers specifically to the use of 100% essential oils (they can be diluted in a base, but the are originally 100% essential oils from a plant source, usually distilled).

I like the word "aromachology" for other types of aromas that are used - that aren't essential oils. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not aromatherapy.

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
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