Key Takeaways From This Article:
- Women overall are taken less seriously by doctors and are treated with less time and care than men
- Many women who have been discounted and disbelieved by doctors and traditional medicine are turning to alternative treatments such as essential oils
- Recent research has shown essential oils to have analgesic or anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidation properties
- The quality and standardization of essential oils still needs regulation, leaving most of the research promising but unreplicable
- Essential oils and traditional medicine is not an either/or scenario; both can aid each other to allow the patient the most care and comfort
Botanical based medicine has been around for centuries but you may have noticed a recent resurgence in popular interest in ‘natural medicine’ such as folk medicines that have been handed down through the centuries. With scientific research recently being able to prove the efficacy of some of these remedies coupled with a recent growing distrust in western medicine, it’s no wonder botanical based medicines have been growing in popularity. One of the more popular ‘natural’ medicines leading the pack is essential oils with its largest customer demographic being women. Women across the country are snapping up essential oils of various plant extracts to cure everything from headaches to cancer. So why are women in particular so entranced by the palliative claims of essential oils? And do these oils actually have any healing benefits?
To understand why so many women are turning to alternative medicines such as essential oils, we must understand what women weren’t finding in traditional medicine. And what was the number one thing women weren’t finding in traditional medicine? Care. Women were finding that they simply were not receiving the care they needed.
Over the years, mounting findings have shown that women are not only not being listened to, they are not being taken seriously when they do speak out on pain or illness. Women are often dismissed as exaggerating or hysterical when they report pain and seek treatment. Research done on chronic pain showed that women were more likely to receive prescriptions for sedatives rather than pain medication for their ailments. According to the Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics in 2001, women not only were prescribed less pain medication than men after identical procedures (controlling for body size), but were also less likely to be admitted to hospitals and receive stress tests when they complain of chest pain, and are overall significantly more likely than men to be ‘undertreated’ for pain by doctors. And for many women, they will face medical discrimination before they even come into the exam room. Research has shown that women will wait an average of 65 minutes to be treated while men wait an average of 49 minutes. From the onset, beginning in the waiting room, women are found to be second class citizens when it comes to healthcare.
More recently, you may remember Serena Williams’ Vogue story in 2018 about her experience after giving birth to her first child. She had to demand attention to her pain, post C-section, insisting that this wasn’t normal and that something was seriously wrong. Her nurse thought ‘her pain medicine might be making her confused.’ It ended up being pulmonary embolism and could’ve easily killed her. Even with her fame and wealth, Serena Williams still had trouble having her providers believe in her pain.
So it is no wonder that over the years, women have been developing a growing distrust over traditional medicine. Clinical studies have found that doctors are more likely to think women’s pain is caused by emotional issues rather than physical causes, even in the presence of medical tests which show their pain is real. Many women are finding that the doctor’s office is not a place of safety and trust but a place of patronization and disbelief. So if you are a woman suffering from chronic pain, where can you go? Who can you turn to?
Therein lies the rise of alternative medicines and care. We may turn our noses up at some of these treatments as quack nonsense but when the people who are sworn to care and treat you don’t believe in you, what else do you have?
Of course not all alternative treatments are made equal. Some can be quite dangerous while others can be quite useless. Among all the natural, organic medicines flooding the market, essential oils has been storming its way to the top in popularity. But does it offer any kind of actual medical benefit?
Essential oils, by definition, are the natural liquids concentrated from multiple volatile aroma compounds found in various parts of the plants—leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, and roots. There are various methodologies for extracting this oil, from cold, liquid carbon dioxide, ultrasound, or microwave extraction.
There are various different kinds of plant oils, all offering a different benefit or cure. Black cohosh has been used by Native Americans for centuries to treat a variety of women’s health issues. It contains Nω-methylserotonin which has been identified as a potential serotonin receptor agonist and has shown to have some efficacy at combating depression and mood swings. Red clover has major progesterone isoflavones, which gives it great efficacy for combating menopausal symptoms. A short term inhalation of essential oils containing linalool and lineally acetate—two major components of lavender—also improves mood and insomnia. Citrus limon oil has show analgesic qualities, helping with pain management.
Some oils even show anti-cancer potential. Experiments have been conducted that has shown that some essential oils have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidation properties, making them potentially active against cancer cells. For example, the volatile oil of S.erianthum, a species of nightshade, has demonstrated potent inhibitory activity against human breast Hs 578T tumor cells. It might sound a little unbelievable to think a plant, or its oil, could have such benefits but right now, approximately half of conventional chemotherapy agents have plant origins with roughly 25% directly derived from plants and another 25% being chemically modified versions of phytoproducts. So it’s not as far fetched as it sounds!
So as you can see, essential oils isn’t totally quack science. There definitely are tangible and real benefits to plant based medicines. And there are a number of women reporting that they have found real benefit in using essential oils. But one important thing to note is that none of these oils have yet to replace traditional medicine and therapy. Meaning, none of these oils have solely cured cancer or endometriosis or any other malady. While they have aided in easing symptoms for some women, essential oils should be used in conjunction with other treatments. And even when seeking just some ease in symptoms, women should be made aware of the limits of what essential oils can provide.
While the research listed above have all shown promising results for essential oils and their therapeutic benefits, the sample sizes have all been quite small. And many of those research results were based on animal populations which have yet to be replicated by human trials. So without the appropriate sample sizes, it is hard to definitively say what oils have what therapeutic properties and if those properties truly are beneficial. But you may wonder, if there are such promising results in small test groups, why not just go ahead and make larger test trials? That’s where the lack of standardization plays a part.
Currently, there is no standardization in how essential oils are pressed and made. There is no regulation on how much a plant and its materials must be contained within the oil. There is also no standardization on extraction as well. Several different methodologies can fall under umbrella terms without any third party oversight. Also, the quality of the plants themselves can vary as well. Not only is the quality of the plant grown important and hard to uniformly regulate but also, the time of day or year a plant is picked affects the quality of its medicinal benefits. Without standardizing the production of essential oils, each batch can have small but significant differences, making it impossible to do replicable scientific research.
Does that mean essential oils are completely useless?
It’s clear that though the research has been limited, the results have been significant enough to show that there are some clear benefits with essential oils. And more and more research is being conducted every day on larger populations to test the efficacy of essential oils. With better research and better understanding, better and more effective treatments using botanical based medicine might be just around the corner. But it is also clear that currently, these oils have their limits in terms of palliative care. When it comes to serious medical issues such as cancer or heart disease or an auto-immune disease, traditional medicine, despite all its shortcomings in regards to providers, is still the more effective route. But many women are finding relief with these oils and that shouldn’t be discounted. Speaking with your doctor about receiving care in all forms (botanical or otherwise) is a good idea and a critical step in any thorough care plan.
Essential oils and traditional medicine is not an either/or situation. They can help ease symptoms or recovery or just simply stress. While women fight for equal medical treatment in the doctor’s office, women should take advantage of all the care they can get from any corner of medicine. If currently under a medical regiment, speak to your doctor about possibly incorporating essential oils into your treatment plan. If looking for a doctor, perhaps look into finding a licensed MD who is also an ayurvedic physician. Ayurvedic physicians incorporate herbs, yoga, massage, and other alternative therapies into their treatment plans. Since most oils are typically either inhaled or physically massaged onto the skin, finding a good and reputable aromatherapy massage clinic can provide licensed masseuses offering therapeutic massages. They can also be a trusted resource in how and where to find good oil products for yourself.
Just as science is proving the truth of women’s pain, it is also proving the under appreciated benefits of many botanical based medicines. Perhaps it is no wonder this common underestimation that brings women and essential oils together. Hopefully in time, both will get the understanding and care they deserve.