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When Jackie Fetter, a health coach and owner of Honest Living and Honest Floating, lost her father to suicide three years ago, she turned to an essential oil called 'joy” to help lift her spirits.
For Cindy Corwin, a certified aromatherapist based in Cedar Falls, it was when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia that she turned to copaiba oil to relieve the pain. She says, after trying traditional pain relievers that left her still in pain and dealing with additional side effects, she now 'swears by the stuff (copaiba).”
Corwin and Fetter are not alone. More and more people are dropping their pill bottles in search of a natural alternative, and many are finding their answer in essential oils.
When she was practicing conventional medicine, Dr. Suzanne Bartlett, medical director at Mercy Integrative Medicine Center in Cedar Rapids, says she wrote 100 prescriptions or more each week. Now that her treatment approach is to first turn to complementary and alternative options, such as oils, she writes about four prescriptions per year.
'My patients in many cases are doing better than they were before and were able to get off many of their prescriptions as a result of finding more natural approaches,” she says.
Sandy Rosenberger, owner of New Bo Mercantile & Vintage Shop in Cedar Rapids, said oil sales in her shop have doubled each year for the last two years.
But essential oils are not new. They've been used for centuries and are referenced in the Bible, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese manuscripts. Historically, they have been used for anointing, protection from illness, healing the sick and in the embalming process.
Corwin refers to oils as the 'lifeblood” of the plant. They are the natural oils found within the plant that are extracted and distilled, usually for use in fragrances, flavors and even pharmaceutical medicines. But the pure oil alone offers some of the same therapeutic benefits found in conventional medicine, except they're all natural and packed into one tiny bottle.
Just one drop of oil packs a powerful punch of highly potent plant extract.
For one pound of lavender oil, approximately 150 pounds of lavender flowers are distilled. One pound of rose oil requires thousands of pounds of petals. Nearly 256 pounds of peppermint leaves are needed for one pound of oil, and one drop alone contains the same amount of peppermint found in 28 cups of peppermint tea.
'There's a lot of power in those little bottles, so you have to be careful,” Corwin says.
She's been working with essential oils for more than 25 years, and through her training in clinical aromatherapy, she's learned just how the oils work with our bodies.
Everyone has a 'vibrational frequency,” she says, explaining that the molecules we're made up of are constantly vibrating, forming our 'energy field.”
'A normal human has a frequency of 60 to 72 megahertz, but when you're sick, your vibrational frequency is much lower,” she says.
Oils also have a vibrational frequency that can raise or lower your frequency by battling toxins in the body and warding off negative thoughts or emotions that might be disrupting your 'energy flow” and therefore leading to illness and disease.
By inhaling the oils, the portion of the brain that stores and releases emotions is stimulated, relaxing the mind and uplifting the spirit. Oils can also improve nutrition, act as antioxidents, stimulate immune response in the body, fight bacteria, reduce pain, reduce stress, manage depression and issues with sleep, and more.
Fetter said just one oil can help the whole body simultaneously: healing you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually at the same time.
For example, lavender oil might reduce stress and anxiety while also acting as an antioxidant or a sleep aid.
She said the plants' natural oils 'connect with what our bodies need” and 'fill in the gaps.”
'They have the ability to unlock healing properties in your brain and your brain sends signals to the rest of your body,” Corwin says, adding that they're fast acting, usually dispersing throughout the body within 20 minutes of being inhaled, topically applied, or ingested - though, ingesting is not recommended by health professionals, as essential oils are not regulated by any governing body.
Some essential oil companies claim their products are 'therapeutic” or 'medical” grade and are therefore safe to ingest, but Corwin says this is only marketing.
'Nobody is making sure what is said on the bottle is actually true,” she says. 'There is no gold standard.”
From planting to distillation, there are numerous ways oils can become contaminated.
'Many of the oils that people buy that are being marketed very heavily right now have been found to be heavily contaminated or to have synthetic fragrances added and things like that,” Bartlett says.
In addition to added synthetic fragrances, oils also have been found to have plastics and heavy metals in them.
To be pure and safe, oils must be 100 percent organic.
'We know so much about the health dangers of pesticides and herbicides that are potentially carcinogenic, dangerous to the brain and brain tissue and can contribute to things like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, so it would be inappropriate to be using oils that potentially contain those kinds of contaminates, especially if you're using them for treatment of medical conditions,” she says. 'That to me goes without saying. And yet, most essential oils are not organic.”
Before using or recommending oils to her patients, Corwin researches an oil's gas chromatography - which determines its purity. She says the most legitimate companies are those that provide the necessary data to determine whether an oil has 'truly been grown, handled and distilled with the intention of being a healing oil” because she suspects many companies are in it just for the money.
'It should be about healing first, not making money,” she says. 'If something works, you don't have to be out there selling it to people. It will sell itself if it's supposed to.”
For Fetter, who sells Young Living essential oils, it's more about sharing the healing aspects of oils and opening opportunities for people to become wholesale members (to save money) than about making money, but 'it is a nice perk,” she says.
'I don't have to blast people's Facebook or push anyone,” she says. 'I usually just get a lot of people excited for the opportunity.”
Like supplements, essential oil manufacturers are not required to register or gain approval with the FDA before selling their product to consumers. However, the FDA still enforces guidelines and restrictions on how essential oil products are marketed, particularly when it comes to health claims. When the FDA finds a company making unsubstantiated claims about its products, the agency typically sends out warning letters.
In September 2014, the FDA cracked down on two popular multilevel marketing companies that produce and sell essential oils - Young Living and doTerra - due to online claims that their oils could cure, treat or prevent serious health concerns like cancer and Ebola.
Corwin heard people were going as far as injecting themselves with Frankincense oil to cure their cancer, landing them in the Intensive Care Unit or worse.
'People have died from this,” she says. 'You have to know how to use essential oils safely.”
Corwin and Bartlett agree, it's important to get information on essential oil safety from an unbiased, objective source - resources such as books like 'Essential Oil Safety” by Robert Tisserand, research sites like pubmed.org or workshops - as opposed to a retailer or company representative.
'People are so desperate,” Bartlett says. 'They're searching for alternative and complementary approaches and in many cases are being hugely taken advantage of by scams, by people out to profit on people's desperation.”
But there is no magic cure-all.
'Claims about supplements and essential oils as being used to cure disease are very inappropriate,” she says. 'If there's anybody out there saying a supplement or essential oil is going to cure cancer, run for your life. That is a false claim and dangerous.'
Oils should be used as a complementary approach to wellness, alongside conventional treatments that are discussed with your physician.
The general attitude toward things sold over the counter concerns Bartlett - and that includes both essential oils and traditional medications.
'Some of the most heavily prescribed and marketed pharmaceutical medications on the market have some very, very dangerous potential side effects ... Tylenol is one of the most liver toxic substances on the planet and it's sold over the counter,” she says. 'We've gotten pretty cavalier in this country about thinking that's the only way to go.”
She argues we need to save these medications for the 'last resort,” but also keep in mind that supplements and essential oils are not without dangerous side effects either.
'People get this idea that ‘Oh, this smells nice, how could it possibly hurt me?' And I think it's really important to educate people that just because it's over the counter doesn't mean it's totally safe,” she says.
She admits she's 'totally skeptical” of essential oils. But she does use them, and has seen them work.
Even if it is just the placebo effect, she says 'the placebo effect is pretty powerful, and I can't argue with that, either.