Health Team

Essential oils gain popularity to treat some ailments

Many people want alternatives to traditional medicines to avoid the side effects of many drugs or the risk of addiction to narcotic pain relievers.

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DURHAM, N.C. — Many people want alternatives to traditional medicines to avoid the side effects of many drugs or the risk of addiction to narcotic pain relievers.

One of the natural remedies is essential oils. WRAL Health Team's Dr. Allen Mask says essential oils are growing in popularity, even gaining some acceptance in medical circles, but they can be dangerous if misused. 

Loving Scents, a boutique in downtown Greensboro, attracts many people looking for ways to cure their ills.

Shop owner Cynthia Loving is a certified aromatherapist who deals in a wide variety of essential oils. The oils are volatile and aromatic compounds extracted from plants.

"Lavender is one of our big ones because it calms the the nerves, addresses things like muscle pain, muscle contracture," Loving said.

Lavender can be used to calm nerves, but other oils serve different purposes, Loving said.

"Fragonia is the most amazing oil I've seen in a very long time," she said. "It is great for almost any bronchial challenge."

It's also promoted as a stress reducer.

Rosemary oil is used to lower cortisol to reduce fatigue and prevent weight gain. It's also known for enhancing memory.

Loving loves Eucalyptus Radiata, which Loving said relieves pain and congestion.

Now, essential oils may be entering the mainstream of the medical world.

"We're looking at the use of essential oils to help patients as they recover from surgery," said Duke University plastic surgeon Dr. Scott Hollenbeck.

Hollenbeck and surgical assistant Stacy Brower are enrolling breast cancer patients in a study using the oils. Pain and anxiety are common complaints for women endure breast cancer surgeries.

Physicians typically prescribe medications for those issues, but Hollenbeck said medications can have many side effects. Instead, the two reviewed many studies on essential oils.

"No one has died from inhalation or from skin application of an essential oil that we know of," Brower said.

They found one study looking at plasma levels in the blood when lavender oil is applied to the skin. Brower said plasma peaks in the blood stream about 20 minutes after the oil is applied.

The plant extracts are diluted and stabilized in carrier oils, such as olive oil, coconut oil or shea butter, and can be applied directly to a point of pain. Oils can also be used simply for their aromatic benefits.

"When you inhale it, it actually does go into the brain in the limbic system, and it can affect mood," Brower said. "It can affect memory and emotions."

Duke's study participants will have the assurance of safety in a hospital setting.

Loving says users must ask anyone who sells the oils or offers advice about their use about their own training.

While the oils are safe to use on the skin, ingesting them can be dangerous.

"If you take essential oils in your mouth, they're going to be absorbed through the mucus membranes and go directly to your liver and your kidneys, and you don't want to mess those up," Loving said.

Ingestiong has led to some deaths.


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