As discussed in one of my previous posts, the promotion of quackery is so ubiquitous in my town it’s become white noise for me. I mostly tune it out unless I’m personally asked my opinion. Often this promotion comes in the weekly newspaper, in the advertising-disguised-as-advice page “Ask the Expert.” Occasionally there are columns by financial advisors and home improvement experts, but by far the majority of “expert advice” comes from chiropractors, naturopaths, Chinese Medicine practitioners, and holistic nutritionists. One regular advertiser is a local who calls herself a “Divine Healer”. She has some initials after her name, none of which I can trace back to any actual licenced health profession, degree or diploma. Her services include reflexology, mediumship, craniosacral therapy, aromatherapy and card-reading. She also offers a special massage called “vibrational raindrop technique” which apparently involves the use of essential oils and tuning forks or singing bowls. This actually sounds like it might be kind of relaxing and entertaining. Something I would personally never pay the money for, but harmless, right? Earlier this year, however, a local public health nurse who I consider a kindred spirit based on our views of alternative medicine contacted me about the weekly claim. In the wake of a severe local flu outbreak and depletion of vaccine supply, the healer recommended an essential oil called “Thieves” claiming that “research shows that it has a 99.96 percent kill rate against airborne bacteria – interrupting the life cycle and interfering with the ability of viruses to replicate.” Further information available on her website goes on to describe how you can boost your immune system by placing a few drops on your feet every morning (this old wives’ tale makes me shake my head, every time I read it – which is too often). Also provided are several recipes for making your own capsules with various essential oils which you should then take three times a day if you actually become sick. In bold, she warns that you must never take essential oils internally unless they are Young Living brand, which of course, is the brand that she represents. I found that information to be very interesting, considering the Health Canada guidelines for approval for aromatherapy essential oils clearly states that they are for topical or inhalation only. Also interesting is the fact that Young Living doesn’t appear to have an NPN for Thieves. Young Living has also been under fire recently from the FDA for boldly claiming that Thieves can kill Ebola. While the letter from the FDA may prompt some correction at their top level, I doubt the message has trickled down to their thousands of distributors who will still likely be selling it any way they can, and that really is the modus operandi of all multi-level marketing schemes. Dr. Harriet Hall discussed a similar MLM company, and states:
“Why Does MLM Appeal to Manufacturers? It allows them to sell a product that could not compete in the open marketplace, at least not at those prices. It allows the big players to get filthy rich. It allows distributors to make claims the company can’t legally make in its advertising, such as: “It cured my mother’s skin cancer,” “It cured my child’s tonsillitis,” and “It keeps my kids from catching colds.” And that kind of testimonial from a friend is far more powerful than any advertising.”
Months later, another flu season is upon us and I find a local Mom’s Facebook group to be riddled with advice about all kinds of essential oils to cure your families’ ails. It seems that there are now several locals involved in the selling of essential oils, and are eager to promote them for anything. I got out the popcorn one day to read the debates going back and forth about which company’s diffuser was better, whose oils were more pure … all this in a group that clearly states “No selling!” in the rules. From putting drops on your baby’s tongue to only rubbing it on in a clockwise direction, the advice both entertained and saddened me. The line has clearly been crossed from harmless aromatherapy to replacing conventional medicine with quackery.
It certainly doesn’t help that many pharmacies sell essential oils, lending legitimacy to their use as cure-alls. This one is available at a local independent, and was actually developed by a Canadian pharmacist. Similar to Young Living, they have blends that claim to treat cold / flu and “boost the immune system” – which I put in quotes because it’s a dubious claim, often used because it’s allowable in promotion of supplements.
WHERE’S THE EVIDENCE?
Thieves is a blend of clove, cinnamon bark, rosemary, lemon and eucalyptus. While their website is devoid of very much information on what it’s used for, a web search hilariously reveals unlimited uses for it, including my favourite “stimulates solar plexus chakra”. Most websites make the same claim as the one stated above, a 99.96% kill rate against airborne bacteria. Not one website I looked at actually linked to the study although several had it underlined as if you could. Some stated that it was private research conducted by Gary Young, the founder of Young Living who it appears has a checkered past typical of woo-peddlers including suffering from a medical problem that conventional medicine couldn’t help (and for which he invented the supposed cure), falsified credentials and arrests for health fraud.
A search of the literature does actually turn up several references, but most are in vitro studies on single oils and results cannot be extrapolated to human use. Some looked at the effects of aromatherapy on anxiety but results were not convincing. This systematic review specifically looked for adverse effects of aromatherapy and concluded:
“Aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown. Lack of sufficiently convincing evidence regarding the effectiveness of aromatherapy combined with its potential to cause adverse effects questions the usefulness of this modality in any condition.”
Another review of efficacy concluded:
“Due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”
Of note was that only 10 of 201 potentially relevant publications met the inclusion criteria, highlighting the fact that most published evidence for aromatherapy is of poor quality.
Specifically relevant to Thieves and its claims as an effective anti-infective is this review, prepared in September 2014 by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, a not-for-profit government-funded agency tasked with providing evidence-based information to health leaders. Their findings?
“No relevant literature was found regarding the clinical and cost-effectiveness of essential oil products for the disinfection of skin, wounds, or hospital surfaces, therefore no summary can be provided.”
So there appears to be no supporting evidence to the claims that Thieves is effective against influenza, Ebola, or any other infectious disease. I bet it smells pretty great though. It’s easy to convince someone that it may be effective based on in vitro activity, so I understand why distributors might believe the hype. To them, I would suggest you read Scott’s excellent post on Oil of Oregano. I often give this type of response when I am asked about the anti-infective activity of supplements:
“There’s some evidence out there demonstrating that oil of oregano will kill different species of bacteria, etc in the test tube or petri dish – i.e., in vitro. Big deal. If I pour a pile of salt, lime juice, Cointreau, or tequila on a petri dish, it will likely kill most bacteria too. It’s not difficult to kill bacteria if you change the conditions enough that it cannot live. So while it’s easy to get high concentrations of oregano in a test tube and subsequent positive effects, these effects are meaningless in the human body unless we can achieve similar concentrations, without any toxicity to our body. And there is no evidence that this occurs with oil of oregano.
So just like you can’t cure an infection by drinking margaritas, you shouldn’t simply expect oil of oregano to kill any infections in your body – there is no evidence to demonstrate that you can safely consume the oil, absorb an adequate amount, and treat an infection or any other condition.”
I bolded that line because I think it’s a hilarious comparison, and one that will no doubt resonate with those who have a small seed of doubt about the claims they are making when promoting essential oils. To distributors and purveyors of essential oils: Please, by all means – sell essential oils as a way to scent massage oils, to improve household odors or be diffused into the air to enhance the ambiance of an environment. Promotion outside of those uses, especially as in internal remedy, is flouting the regulations around the use of natural health products. Are you prepared to deal with the fallout if someone becomes seriously ill, or even dies as a result of following your advice? Hint … if you don’t have a licence to practice and carry liability insurance, nor have the evidence to back up your medical claims, then you are most definitely not. Think it won’t happen? This example may not be specific to essential oils, but provides an example as to why unproven remedies should not replace conventional medicine in the treatment of infectious disease.