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Essential oils: Do they work?

Essential oils

Essentials oils have been used for many years, but recently have gained popularity among parents to help alleviate symptoms, aches and pains of children.

Dr. Yogesh Shah, clinician and associate dean of global health at Des Moines University, is triple-board-certified in family medicine, geriatrics, and hospice and palliative care. He practiced for many years with Mercy Hospital, serving as medical director of integrative medicine at Mercy Hospital. He previously practiced at Mayo Clinic.

In his focus on geriatric medicine, Shah gleaned extensive experience in essential oils and their effectiveness, particularly lavender for its calming effect on those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“Complimentary medicine and over-the-counter medicines, which includes essential oils, is a huge industry, worth billions of dollars. Essential oils are used by different segments of the population for different reasons, and while there aren’t many good studies out there, I found that the calming oils — if used appropriately — in an arm massage or applied on the forehead or back of the neck does indeed have a calming effect,” Shah said.

Because the Federal Drug Administration doesn’t have established guidelines for over-the-counter med­­ications and supplements, “any­­one can put oil in a bottle and say it’s calming,” he said.

“A customer wouldn’t know if it’s the right oil or not, plus the directions aren’t tested in a placebo-controlled trial. You need to rely on company information and educational materials,” Shah said. “Most directions call for one or two drops on the arm, hand or forehead. If you use more, it could potentially cause a negative effect, depending upon the oil.”

Shah recommended that everyone advise a primary care provider of all medications being taken, including essential oils and over-the-counter medications.

“There are software programs that will tell a doctor when you combine a certain oil with medicines, whether or not you’ll have an adverse reaction. Gingko taken with certain prescriptions can cause problems, for example,” he said.

Some people may experience skin irritation from over-applying an essential oil, too, so follow directions carefully, he said.

“Usually, it’s just one or two drops and if you have irritation, dilute it more,” he said. “The essential oils is a lucrative market, a cash market, so you need to do your homework and find which companies have consistently good products out there.”

Tiffany McSkimming of Des Moines has a master’s of art in holistic natural health and nutrition. She’s also a registered nurse who actively practices in the clinical setting while owning Midwest Holistic Health and Nutrition.

“Essential oils work well for people with a variety of ailments, such as aches and pains, to helping with chronic pain like fibromyalgia or stomach issues,” she said.

As a nurse and holistic nutrition consultant, McSkimming points out that she doesn't prescribe any essential oils as a specific cure or to prevent or diagnose any conditions.

“We do not use oils to diagnosis or prevent anything. They are used to promote the body’s system, like enhancing a respiratory system or immune system,” she said.

For example, if someone isn’t sleeping well, McSkimming said she’d first look at the person’s diet, eating habits, environmental stimuli, bedtime routine and other factors. Then she might explain how essential oils can promote relaxation, like lavender.

“With younger children, you would want to apply to different places than adults, such as on the wrists, bottoms of the feet, chest, temples and back of the neck. You also might want to dilute the oil first for a child, to help prevent a sensitivity," she said.

Danley-Greiner is a freelance writer from Runnells.