Monday, March 24, 2008

Lavender and the media

Mis-information is currently being circulated by the big media conglomerates in regards to Lavender and the benefits of Essential Oils. It makes me think the the large pharmaceutical cartels, who own many media companies, have launched this attack.

Fortunately there is quite a lot of scientific evidence as to the validity of the therapeutic affects of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy.

An article in todays LA Times quotes a Charles Wysocki, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, asserting that Essential Oils and Aromatherapy do not work through olfaction. Obviously the LA Times has not done there due diligence in researching this subject. Let's pull up some facts shall we:

1) The Pub Med, a service of the National Library of Medicine has plenty of documented studies validating Aromatherapy:
This great information was brought to my attention by Harry Roth of Alchemy Works.

2) The following is from Dr. Kurt Schnaubelts website, The Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, regarding recent misinformation regarding Lavender and young boys.

Aromatherapy Won't Make You Well, Study Shows.
This was the headline repeated ad nauseam by online health newsletters such as Science Daily,, eFlux media, healthy living news or yourtotalhealth and the like in the early days of March.

An interesting, multilayered phenomenon is at work. It starts with the publication of original research that appears to pertain to aromatherapy and seems to negate the convictions held dear by the aromatherapy community. In a second step the original research is transcribed with relentless simplification into popular internet prose by the fast writing scribes of the news resellers aka online newsletters. A typical example was the recent nonevent where an an infamous piece of pseudo science was amplified to an online pandemic by senseless repetition in newsletters and even the mainstream press. Someone had speculated that lavender in hair shampoos could cause the formation of excessive breast tissue in adolescent boys.

In the case that led to this headline in Science Daily three distinctly separate aspects need to be distinguished.

First, there is the original article, in this case entitled, in factual scientific manner, “Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine and immune function”.

Secondly there is the popular rendition of this in Science Daily and other newsletters which read: “Aromatherapy May Make You Feel Good, But It Won't Make You Well, Study Shows”. Juxtaposition of the two headlines reveals the factual tenor of the original article, which steers clear of overstating any of its findings. It also reveals the screaming nature of the popular rewrite, desperate to garner some attention on the over saturated health-channels of the web.

Thirdly there are issues that can be raised about the purpose and meaning of a recent trend, in which studies like the one discussed here aggressively prove the lack of efficacy of natural remedies. In recent times a number of well financed and immaculately organized studies have reported that the efficacy of various important phyto pharmacons does not exceed that of placebo. Plant medicines demoted in this fashion include St Johnswort, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto and Black Cohosh and soon probably also Gingko. Publication of the negative results generally appear in high level medical journals and spawn endless repetitions in scientific journals as well as the mainstream press generating the impression that somehow all the inherited wisdom about plant medicine is a figment of the imagination, unfit to perform under scientific scrutiny. The aspect entirely omitted from this discussion is that the methodology of the studies is entirely unsuitable to demonstrate the efficacy of neither the whole therapeutic approach of phytotherapy (or for that matter aromatherapy) nor that of a selected plant extract.

These three different aspects merit separate responses.

  • The original study
The original published text of the study, does exactly what it says, it determines whether or not participants exposed to the scent of lemon and lavender oils display any significant responses in terms of the parameters observed, i.e. alteration of the production of Interleukin 6 or Interleukin 10 or levels of salivary cortisol. These parameters were apparently chosen because they are considered to be the currency of immune status in current pharmacology. They do, however, not truly relate to suggestions the aromatherapy literature makes about these two oils. measuring these parameters somehow seems arbitrary!

  • The Science Daily rewrite
The summary style reports on the study, such as the one in Science Daily are a different story. Clearly mining the original study for material that can be crafted into sensational statements, the report intentionally takes a big leap when it aggrandizes “olfactory influences” as equivalent to all of aromatherapy. The omission has to appear intentional as otherwise the study would not yield a loud enough conclusion. An excerpt from Science Daily:

“One of the most comprehensive investigations done to date on aromatherapy failed to show any improvement in either immune status, wound healing or pain control among people exposed to two often-touted scents.”
Again, this entire statement hinges on equating exposure to scent with aromatherapy. A condition the author of the piece almost certainly knows not to be true. If the author of the newsletter piece would apply only minimal critical thinking she or he would have to comment on this. Seriously, most people would apply a wound healing ointment to the wound, inhaling wound ointments appears extravagant......

Much could be said about the culture and shortcomings of this sort of internet prose. Suffice it to mention only one aspect that is common to the whole choir of cross parroting rags, there is not the slightest sign of willingness to inject even a moderate amount of critical thinking into the evaluation of such a study. The original science is treated as wholly sacrosanct, entirely removed and off limits to any kind of question by the merely mortal lay public. If cultural critics were to look for a perfect example of rampant scientism, here is one!

  • Trend: Pharmacology sees plant medicine as ineffective
At the center of the third issue is the question what conventional pharmacology can and cannot recognize. It is clear that it has the tools to recognize specific effects and active ingredients, but it lacks the methods to recognize the health benefits of complex component mixtures with nonspecific effects. The de facto response of mainstream pharmacology to nonspecific effects is simply to declare these effects as non existent. (An example is the ability of lavender oil to sooth or even heal first and second degree burns, when applied topically. Everyone who has tried it knows lavender oil is highly effective under these circumstances. Pharmacology will tell you this is not so, since no mechanism or responsible active ingredient has yet been found!)

Following are some remarks to the issues involved:

What constitutes aromatherapy

What in fact constitutes aromatherapy has been hotly debated in the scientific literature. This debate started in ernest when the traditional use of essential oils, as described in aromatherapy classics such as Valnet’s “Practice of Aromatherapy” met with the opinion of some scientists that only effects mediated by the sense of smell should be summarized under the rubric aromatherapy. Consequently the question arose whether or not physiological effects resulting from trace amounts of essential oil absorbed into the blood stream during smelling (inhalation) are also to be considered aromatherapy. The discussion became rather involved and led to the introduction of the term aromachology by the industry driven Fragrance Foundation. Ultimately the slightly hysterical discourse was laid to rest by the commonsense observation of H. Wagner that since both pathways - olfaction and absorption - happen inseparably in normal life, the combined effect should be considered independent of semantics. It follows from many of the classic studies performed in the 1970ies - not the least those of H. Wagner - and of French style aromatherapy that essential oils can have many beneficial effects and can be applied in any number of ways. So for all practical purposes aromatherapy is the use of essential oils with the intent to heal, whereby the various means of application are not so much dictated by factual reasons, but rather various cultural orthodoxies depending on what jurisdiction one happens to be in, i.e. France or the UK!

Where Pharmacology does not tread:
The biological perspective
There is currently a strong trend to qualify plant medicines as mere placebos, despite the fact that clinical studies and experience often have demonstrated therapeutic efficacy. The discrimination against plant medicines is, among other reasons, based in the difficulty to unambiguously determine the substances (active ingredients) responsible for a given effect. In addition there is generally an expectation, admitted or not, that a single active ingredient can be found, despite the fact that plant medicines almost always contain a complex mixture of secondary metabolites.

To this non-pharmacologist writer the study in question looks very “state of the art’” This is probably what contemporary drug testing is meant to look like. But while the authors clearly state that they investigate merely the influence of odor of lemon and lavender oil on physiological parameters the question remains, whether or not this is a bona fide approach to research potential health effects of those two oils or aromatherapy in general! Everyone who peruses the aromatherapy literature even in the most cursory way must realize that the term aromatherapy is historical and includes the delivery of essential oils in many different ways. However, most likely no-one ever claimed that sticking a tape with odorant between upper lip and nostril - as is the method in the study - is one of them. If one were truly interested in discovering potential health benefits of lemon oil, one could start with the recognition that liver detoxification enzymes have evolved as a response to non-nutritive plant components. See further down Phase I and II liver detoxification enzymes.

Physiological activity of lipophilic plant constituents, essential oils and secondary plant metabolites in general.

Today molecular and evolutionary biology have provided a new perspective to explain the efficacy of plant medicines by understanding the bioactivity of secondary plant metabolites.

Plants need and use secondary metabolites to defend against challenges, by which they are continuously surrounded, such as herbivores, bacteria, fungi, viruses and competing plants. Secondary metabolites are also employed by plants as semiochemicals attracting pollinating as well as seed dispersing animals. Secondary metabolites can act as UV protectants or provide other chemical responses to environmental challenges such as lack or abundance of minerals etc.! Most secondary metabolites are multi functional. Plants generally contain complex mixtures of secondary metabolites providing a diverse array of different types of bioactivity, forming a cocktail of active components with an extremely broad spectrum of physiological effects.

The structural diversity of secondary metabolites that has evolved is immense. Consequently there are secondary metabolites whose specific structure interacts selectively with a molecular target in an animal or micro organism, The advantage of such substances is that they have strong effects vis a vis the animal organism and are risk free for the plant, since corresponding molecular targets are not present in the plant.

Nonspecific Effects

Besides developing selective mono substances plants have most frequently resorted to developing multicomponent mixtures which attack cellular targets not on a specific site but rather in the fashion of a broadband agent. These mixtures of active components simultaneously attack centrally important target structures such as proteins and the cell membrane! Since these structures occur in all cells, animal, bacterial, fungal and even in viruses, essential oils are often effective against animal and microbial challenges!

Typical broad spectrum plant substances are mustard oils, Allicin, Iridoids, aldehydes, Quinones or sesquiterpene lactones, all substances which can form covalent chemical bonds with proteins, the most important building blocks of the cell. When these substances form bonds with proteins they disturb their spatial arrangement (conformation) and consequently their activity!

The formation of multiple non covalent bonds such as hydrogen or ionic bonds, for instance by phenolic or phenyl propanoid hydroxyl groups as in thymol or eugenol leads to a change in protein conformation and thus protein activity.

Of special importance for essential oil effects is the fact that protein structures are held together by the action of lipophilic areas in the center of the protein, stabilizing it’s overall structure. The insertion of lipophilic terpenes into the hydrophobic core of proteins will significantly alter the structure and hence activity of the protein.

An example: Phase I and II liver detoxification enzymes

What is today known as liver detoxification enzymes has evolved in mammals as a means to remove non nutritive plant components, such as essential oils, from the organism. As mammals radiate into new territories they often are required to feed on new, unknown plant species. While the digestive enzymes process nutritive plant components such as carbohydrates, fats and oils and proteins, so called non nutritive components like lipophilic essential oils are foreign to the metabolism and need to be eliminated. As consequence the Cytochrome P-450 or Phase I enzymes evolved to oxidize these foreign molecules (xenobiotics) as well as the Phase II enzymes to further process the oxidized intermediate and facilitate their removal. The resulting effects are among the most beneficial of essential oil use, all be it that much of those happen inadvertently. Whenever we use lemon oil, or also many other essential oils they induce detoxification enzymes. And since induction is highly dynamic more enzymes is induced as is needed for the removal of the responsible essential oil component and further elimination of toxins is incurred.

It is ironic that plants are the native substrates having triggered the evolution of this enzyme system, which also removes the vast majority of all synthetic drugs. In todays medical literature this very enzyme system is generally referred to as drug metabolizing (!) enzymes creating the impression that somehow the removal of the synthetic drug is a feature that comes with its purchase.


If one accepts the fact that the purpose and mechanism of effects mediated by olfaction have developed in the course of biological evolution, it follows that odorants, at least those from the biosphere, would have been subject to evolutionary mechanisms that pertain to events and outcomes for living organisms in a given biosphere, i.e. events of fight or flight, mating or similar real life occurrences. Instances where the semiotics of human olfaction are especially relevant include our sense of individuality, mother child bonding, bonding to family members and friends, sexuality, group bonding, memory of places and nutrition. These instances are familiar to practically everyone and are only recounted to illustrate that odorants from the biosphere do generate relevant responses in human beings, albeit they are sometimes hard to quantify.

There appear to be large unexplored areas of the much denied impact odor has in our lives. Given the divers cultural and genetic dispositions different individuals may have, it is imaginable that some odors may have significant impact on some individuals and negligible impact on others. This is where a wholistic approach, looking at the whole person rather than a symptom or a drug has its moment.

Reprinted with permission from the PIA website.

In closing, we have come to a point in our lives where media sources are now owned by large corporate conglomerates with their own interests at heart. Did you know:

CBS is owned by Viacom
ABC is owned by Disney
NBC is owned by GE

As Harry says, "Wishing you an informed Day!"

Image above is a photogrpah taken of Lavender growing in Ojai at Rivendell Aromatics.


Anonymous said...

Great article. It is very interesting and informative!

Anonymous said...

Great article. It is very interesting and informative!