The Role of Essential Oils Alongside Pharmaceutical Drugs
It is estimated that around 43 percent of the population in the UK are taking some form of prescription drug (1). A study by the Mayo Clinic in the USA estimated 70 percent of Americans are prescribed at least one medication (2). Antibiotics, antidepressants, and opioids for pain relief are the most commonly prescribed medication (2). Similarly, in Asia, the numbers are rising fast as we become more and more dependent on ‘pill popping’ to solve our health issues. These statistics are for the prescriptions medicines which are easily traced; however, the statistics for pharmaceutical drug use are much higher when we take into account the easily available over-the-counter medication for pain relief, coughs and colds and fevers. The occasional Ibuprofen won’t do much harm; however, long-term use of these drugs can cause kidney and liver damage, bleeding in the stomach and bowels, as well as increased risk of heart attack (3).
There is no question that pharmaceutical drugs play an important role in addressing issues such as psychosis and diabetes where the absence of drugs would result in death. Medications such as adrenaline for anaphylactic shock and salbutamol inhalers for asthma attacks are considered life-saving drugs. And where would we be without anaesthetic drugs for surgery? But what about addressing everyday issues such as headaches, the common cold, aches and pains and mild depression and anxiety? Can essential oils play a role here?
Essential oils have been used for centuries, long before modern medicine existed, to treat and alleviate chronic and acute health conditions with great success. During the Indo-China war, a French army surgical assistant, Dr Jean Valnet. ran out of conventional antiseptic medical supplies, and so he began using essential oils to treat wounds and gangrene. In his book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, published in 1980 as a culmination of his research and clinical observations, he wrote, “Normal preventive medicine, which consists in giving healthy people drugs and injections of products whose future effects are unpredictable, is an aberration. Bringing about change by non-toxic means is the only efficacious course, among which aromatic plants and their essences have been, are, and will remain in the front rank.” Dr. Valnet was the first to record the specific properties, indications, and dosages of essential oils useful in medical practice.
Natural alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs do exist and when used correctly work as effectively with potentially fewer side effects. One of the most effective essential oils for pain relief is Copaiba oil. Copaiba essential oil is derived from the resin or sap of the tree genus called Copaifera officinalis. This powerful oil from South America has been used for hundreds of years to treat many serious health conditions and is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory essential oils in the world. So, the next time you pull a muscle or encounter any aches or pains, try rubbing on some copaiba oil.
Apart from pain relief, another common reason for pill-popping is to alleviate the symptoms of the common cough and cold. Though it is all too tempting to reach for the cough suppressants such as Triaminic or an antihistamine to dry up a runny nose, it is important to remember that these drugs do not treat the cough or cold, they simply alleviate the symptoms and can actually prolong the illness. For example, coughing and mucus-production are the body’s way of getting rid of unwanted microbes and bugs. By suppressing this natural healing action, the virus or bacteria will linger in the body, prolonging the illness. Eucalyptus essential oil is very well known for its ability to unblock the nasal passageway and clear the sinuses. Put a drop or two of eucalyptus in a steaming bowl of water and drape a towel over your head. Essential oils such as tea tree oil and thyme essential oil are potent antibacterials and have been found to be as effective as antibiotics. An Italian study found that a combination of thyme and clove essential oils was just as effective in treating bacterial vaginosis as the usual antibiotic treatment (4). Dr. Jean Valent coined the term “aromatogramme” to describe a method using essential oils to test antimicrobial susceptibility. Valnet foresaw the dangers of overusing antibiotics which we are now experiencing. Antibiotic resistant bacteria such as MRSA are just the tip of the iceberg.
Dr. Nicole M. Parrish, associate professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of medical mycobacteriology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, says the situation is urgent: When she and her colleagues perform testing to determine the appropriate medication for a patient, they often find that there are no longer any effective antibiotics in existence to treat the bacteria in question. She says that essential oils contain some of the most potent antimicrobial compounds available, and that furthering our understanding of them may lead to the development of entirely new classes of drugs (5). She has co-authored a recent review (6) on the potential use of essential oils as alternatives or supplements to antibiotics.
The use of essential oils to complement and in some cases replace pharmaceutical drugs should not be any stretch of the imagination. Many drugs have been formulated using an active ingredient originating from plants. For example, aspirin is derived from willow bark, quinine, which is used to treat malaria, is from the fever-tree bark (Cinchona officianalis), and morphine is derived from the poppy plant.
So, the next time you think of reaching for a pill, try looking for a more natural alternative in the form of an essential oil or even the herb itself. Effective, natural and pure, these gifts of nature should not be overlooked in favour of synthetically-produced chemicals with oftentimes dire side effects.
- Upfal J. (2006) The Australian drug guide (7th Ed.) Melbourne: Black Inc.