“It makes you taste like a pizza parlor,” media juggernaut Lena Dunham recently told Elle magazine. “But it is a natural antibiotic, and it’s literally life changing for me.”
The star was referring to oil of oregano, a zesty essential oil made from distilling the flowers and leaves of the oregano plant that can help the body fight bacterial infection.
I, too, swear by a few drops of this potent — and frankly terrible-tasting — liquid at the first signs of any ickiness. A runny nose? Oregano oil. Earache? Sore throat? Achiness? Oregano oil is my first response to all of the above. In my personal experience, I’ve found it highly effective. However, there isn’t much in the way of credible science to back my observations up.
While oil of oregano is known for aiding with colds, acne, bloating, headaches, intestinal parasites, allergies, earaches, and fatigue, according to Medical News Today, “further high-quality study results are necessary to confirm these claims.”
This spicy substance is one of many essential oils that have been handed down through the generations as folk remedies, and are now beginning to be studied as respectable alternatives to conventional medicine.
While inhalation, or aromatherapy, is the most common method of using essential oils (Vicks VapoRub being a well-known example), they are also used topically and internally.
When we think of essential oils we think of aromas, spas and beauty products,” says Dr. Lynn Anderson, Doctor of Natural Health, author and yoga/exercise professional. “But essential oils are so much more. Essential oils are healing modalities.” Their antiseptic power comes from phenolic content, and oils with higher phenolic content, like oregano, thyme, cinnamon and clove, are more potent, she adds.
The centuries-long lasting power of essential oils as a remedy is due to their antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. However, to date, “there is little published research on many of them,” according to the University of Minnesota.
“Research studies on essential oils” that do exist, the University of Minnesota website explains, “show positive effects for a variety of health concerns including infections, pain, anxiety, depression, tumors, premenstrual syndrome, nausea, and many others.”
Most studies so far have been conducted by the food, flavoring, cosmetics and tobacco industries — essential oils are commonly found in personal care products and food stuffs (for preservation). The oils of rosemary, mint, cinnamon, peppermint, clove, lemongrass and others are also used in natural pest control formulations. The medicinal applications of essential oils are currently being studied in the United States, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia and India. Aromatherapy has been more widely studied than other medicinal applications of essential oils. Some clinical trials have explored aromatherapy’s effectiveness in helping cancer patients.
Of essential oil’s many uses, perhaps its most promising is as an alternative to antibiotics. This potential is earning more attention than ever because of growing resistance to existing antibiotics — a natural phenomenon that occurs when bacteria come to resist antibiotics that are widely used.
Studies on the use of essential oils are being conducted on animals and humans mainly in response to the loss of antibiotics’ effect due to antimicrobial resistance,” says Dr. Anderson. “What this means is that the rampant use of antibiotics in both treating humans and in treating animals is creating a resistance to the antibiotics as new ‘superbugs’ are developing. These ’superbugs’ then need something stronger to kill them.”
More than 2 million people become ill from bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 of whom will die.
At issue is the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture: livestock in this country receive 80 percent of our antibiotics — mostly for the purpose of jacking them up in size and keeping them alive in unhealthy conditions. The practice has fed into the creation of resistant superbugs not only in livestock, but in humans, as well.
Some research is now looking at the role essential oils may be able to play in reducing antibiotic use in animal feed. A study published in Poultry Science, for instance, found that diets that included oregano oil reduced chickens’ mortality rate due to infection.
Companies like Modesto Milling, in California, are bringing this solution to the marketplace. Their certified organic poultry feed includes anise oil and juniper berry oil among its blend of herbs and grains.
A paradigm shift in the treatment of infectious diseases is necessary to prevent antibiotics becoming obsolete, and where appropriate, alternatives to antibiotics ought to be considered,” reads a review of the medicinal properties of tea tree oil in the American Society for Microbiology Clinical Microbiology Reviews.
The paper encapsulates the limbo state in which these essential oils are currently suspended — caught between promising possibility and a lack of scientific support. It explains that tea tree oil (TTO), like other essential oils, is budging along that spectrum, inching closer to being an evidence-backed medicine with each new batch of clinical trials.
Unfortunately, the medical profession has been slow to embrace these therapies, and good scientific data are still scarce,” it reads. “However, as we approach the ‘post-antibiotic era’ the situation is changing. A wealth of in vitro data now supports the long-held beliefs that TTO has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Despite some progress, there is still a lack of clinical evidence demonstrating efficacy against bacterial, fungal, or viral infections. Large randomized clinical trials are now required to cement a place for TTO as a topical medicinal agent.”
There are some notable obstacles to studying essential oils that prevent quicker progress. For one thing, they come from naturally occurring plants, which means there are a lot of variables from instance to instance.
The problem with standardized essential oils is that they are no longer natural, genuine, and authentic,” explains the University of Minnesota. “This variability in essential oils by time, place and conditions is a big challenge to conducting valid research. Currently the International Standards Organization sets standards for each essential oil that include a range of acceptable concentrations for its major chemical constituents.”
Research is particularly challenging as essential oils are highly volatile at room temperature, and it’s difficult to conduct double blind studies for aromatic substances.
The consensus in the literature seems to be that more studies are necessary, but funding for these studies — partially due to the above obstacles, but also because of its standing as a holistic, “non-scientific” option — is hard to come by.
“Essential oils have been used on humans for thousands of years,” explains the University of Minnesota website. “As a result, they don’t fit into the conventional clinical science approach of testing a substance in the lab first, then on animals, and then on humans. As a result, if a researcher proposes to test an essential oil with humans first, they may be turned down. This is because research review boards tend to approve research studies that follow the more usual scientific research path. Many conventional drug studies are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. There is little motivation for these companies to fund research on natural plant substances because they cannot easily be patented, limiting the potential for profit. Thus, finding funding for essential oils studies can be challenging.”
Antonio Pizarro, MD, a board certified Ob-Gyn, says this antimicrobrial crossroads must be addressed — in his field of women’s health, it is necessary for the treatment of conditions like urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginitis and gonococal infections.
The need for new antimicrobials is urgent, but clear safety data for essential oils are nonexistent,” he said. “It is a promising field that desperately needs funding.”
Pizarro adds that focusing on essential oils as a replacement for antibiotics may miss the larger problem.
“It’s also important to remember that several antibiotics were originally derived from nature, and that a new source from plants will only stem or divert the crisis,” he said .“Our society’s consumption of antimicrobials must be more judicious to preserve the integrity of any new drugs derived from essential oils or otherwise.”
In the meantime, Dr. Lynn Anderson warns that, when consumed medicinally, essential oils should be treated with caution.
More research is need as to the proper use of the oils,” she said. “Oils should not be ingested without the guidance of a trained physician. Essential oils are potent medicine that should not be abused. Further they are not a cure all and should never be promoted as such.”