As the news of influenza is seen everywhere we turn, more and more people are seeking every available means to support their immune system and potentially prevent the infection by any number of serious viral contagions — most notably these days is “Swine Flu”, though there may be more in our future. Historically, essential oils have been used during major plagues as a means to prevent infection. Pictures can be found in natural medicine textbooks of medical practitioners wearing facemasks stuffed with cinnamon, cloves, sage and other botanicals to ward of illness. Today’s leading professional aromatherapists also suggest the most important use of essential oils for humanity will be in the treatment and prevention of such infectious illnesses. Are essential oils a viable option as an alternative therapy for home use? Here’s a look at the scientific research, as well as formulas and practices to make use of aromatic medicines.
The Supporting Data: Antiviral Actions of Essential Oils
Over the last decade, laboratory researchers around the world have found many essential oils are capable of directly eradicating viruses. Further, they may even prevent viruses from moving between cells within the body and limiting the spread of infection. This is not an over-optimistic interpretation of the data by an essential oil proponent, but the actual conclusions of controlled research studies. Abstracts of all the research mentioned here can be found through pubmed.gov, the database maintained by the National Institute of Health and the US National Library of Medicine. If you wish, you can browse these results by entering search terms such as “essential oil virus”, “antiviral essential oil”, and more specifically “laurus nobilis SARS” (Laurus nobilis being Bay Laurel essential oil, and SARS a highly-infectious viral respiratory ailment). While there is not yet data where essential oils have been tested against Swine Flu and Avian Flu specifically, as we’ll see there is every reason to believe the oils will be effective against these virus strains as well.
What Does the Data Mean?
With more than one hundred published research papers on the subject, a summary is in order. What scientists are finding is that many of the essential oils commonly in use today have antiviral properties. Whether an oil is effective against a particular virus depends upon the natural chemical makeup of the oil and the structure of the virus being studied. The data, without a doubt, is very encouraging. One study performed in Germany this year concluded with the note that Tea Tree was able to “reduce viral infectivity by greater than 96 percent”. The same study went on to clarify that the whole, natural oil, rather than any single chemical synthetically extracted, was up to TEN TIMES more effective as an antiviral agent. The precise reason for this is not known — it is clear that some of the most chemically complex oils exhibit the greatest antiviral effects, and perhaps this mixture of nature’s chemicals attacks the virus AND supports immune function is several ways at once.
One Pandemic Virus and The Oil of Laurel Leaf
Many of the studies utilize the Herpes Simplex Virus as a “test subject”, because of the widespread prevalence of infection, along with the relative ease of testing. However, if one digs into the data, many papers present information relevant in in influenza pandemic. SARS ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’ is caused by the highly infectious SARS-CoV virus that made world-wide news in 2003. A study in the March 2008 Journal of Chemical Biodiversity noted Bay Laurel essential oil to have significant antiviral action against this virus. They’d also noted the natural constituents of this oil, which are also found in a great many other essential oils. This is why you’ll see MANY essential oils noted as antivirals — because many oils share similar natural chemical constituents. So while this next oil is not readily available, the data is very interesting. In 2005, Chinese researchers evaluated the anti-influenza potential of the essential oil from a root used in Chinese medicine, concluding: “In vivo…it prevented influenza virus-induced deaths in a dose-dependent manner”. And the list of oil/virus combinations goes on and on. But this begs the question: how do we derive a formula for Swine Flu prevention?
Paring Down The List: Highly Regarded Anti-Viral Oils
It is this sharing of natural compounds that supports the literature’s assertion that there are a great many oils in use today that are antiviral — one reason you’ll typically see several oils, not just one, in an antiviral formula. But which oils to use for your needs? This is where the long-time historical practice of aroma-medicine therapists helps us choose. The antiviral and immune-supportive essential oils have been categorized by the symptoms the infection produces. The Cineol-containing oils, like Eucalyptus and Ravensara are chosen where the bronchial system is affected. Melissa and Tea Tree are most commonly used for viruses infecting the skin — though their antiviral action for other parts of the body should not be ignored, because their synergistic effects with other oils creates a formula with a complex mixture of natural chemicals — similar in respect to the balance found in the single oil Bay Laurel. Other oils are highly regarded for their positive effect on the immune system overall: Frankincense is considered by some to be the most potent immunostimulant, and Melissa has this property as well.
A short list of essential oils that one can select from to support immunity against influenza infection includes the following: Melissa (having significant anti-HSV activity, it is also thought to be a potent immunostimulant — boosting the ability of our immune defense), Tea Tree (a very broad spectrum antiviral/antimicrobial), Rosalina (also known as Lavender Tea Tree, with a natural chemical profile containing constituents of both these oils), Lavender (commonly used as an anti-stress agent — which itself supports immune system function — and also having antiviral action), Bay Laurel (Laurel Leaf, reported effective against SARS-CoV), Ravensara aromatica, Eucalyptus Radiata (one of many Eucalyptus species, this one is most often noted as “antiviral”), Frankincense (considered by some the most effective immunostimulant oil available), Thyme, and Hyssop decumbens (a highly regarded antiviral, with a highly complex natural chemistry makeup).
A Balanced Formula To Make At Home
A blend can be made using the following oils (and this complete formula can then be adapted to different applications as we’ll see): 1 milliliter (ml) Melissa, 1/2ml Thyme, 2ml Lavender (use Lavendula angustifolia), 1 and 1/2 ml Ravensara aromatica, 2ml Eucalyptus Radiata, 1 and 1/2 ml Hyssop decumbens, 3 ml Maleleuca ericifolia and 3ml Laurus Nobilis (Bay Laurel). A simpler, yet still effective formula with a more gentle nature — and more appropriate for children: 4ml Lavender, 3ml Melaleuca ericifolia, 1ml Ravensara, 1ml Eucalyptus, and 3ml Bay Laurel. While having a medicinal purpose, these blends do really smell wonderful as well.
Diffusion: Getting The Oils Into The Air
The best way to use these oils is through diffusion, which is essentially “rapid evaporation”. A nebulizing aromatherapy diffuser will make a fine mist of essential oil which cleanly evaporates in your surroundings. This method allows a low concentration of the oils to be inhaled regularly. The effect is to actually disinfect the air in your home, as well as getting the oils into one’s lungs and bloodstream in small amounts. A feature of oils’ activity is that they are reported to reduce the ability of viruses to penetrate cell walls, so the lungs and sinuses become protected just by breathing the oil-infused air. Be careful not to overdo it though — the aroma should never be overwhelming or irritating, and your body will tell you if you’ve had enough. The oils do their immune-supportive job in subtle ways, which require only the smallest amounts of oil. The casual inhalation of the oils also gets them into circulation throughout the bloodstream, penetrating all the organ systems, and most importantly the lymph system — home to our immune function. A cold air nebulizing diffuser (as oppposed to an ‘ultrasonic’, which dilutes the oils with water) would ideally be run 5-10 minutes every hour for this purpose.
Lymphs, Baths and Foot Rubs, Oh My!
In cases where diffusion is not practical, topical application of the oil formula is the next best thing. This can be done in a couple of ways: either though an aromatherapy bath, or through the ancient practice of reflexology — where the oils are absorbed at the reflex points of the feet. For the bath, mix 4-6 drops of the essential oil recipe in a little carrier oil (or any off-the-shelf bath oil). Swirl this blend into an already drawn bath and soak! For children, lessen the amount of essential oil 2 drops (for ages 2-8) or 4 drops (9-13). The feet and the areas of the body where the lymph nodes are close to the surface are also excellent places to massage in this recipe. The oils readily penetrate the skin and are rapidly absorbed. For adults, make a 5% concentration of the essential oil recipe in any carrier oil (Coconut, with its own antiviral activity may be best — otherwise any one will do). A 5% concentration is simply a 1 to 20 ratio — 1 part essential oil blend to 19 parts carrier (this same concentration is made by adding 44 drops of the formula to each 1 fluid ounce of carrier oil). Lower this concentration for children in a manner similar to the aromatherapy bath. A daily foot massage, and/or massage into the armpits, neck and sternum is an excellent means of treating yourself and your family to these wonderful herbal medicines.
The Future of Aromatherapy: Aroma Medicine
As noted earlier, the world’s leading aroma-medicine practitioners believe the most important healing potential for essential oils is in the prevention and treatment of infectious illness. Of course, one should evaluate every available means of strengthening their immune system and those of their loved ones — there are many ways health professionals will recommend to do this. Considering the scientific data, essential oils are certainly a very worthy method of providing this support. Given all the contagions, Swine flu, Avian flu, and ones yet to be named, natural medicines have the long-term advantage of not being easily “adapted to” by viruses. The oils are so complex, and have evolved as the defense mechanism of plants over millions of years that they may present a far greater challenge to a virus to become resistant to when compared to synthetic preparations. And they’re such a joy to use — you’re house will be smelling fantastic while you’re keeping healthy; a great many amateur practitioners will concur that think you’ll find essential oils very worthwhile.
Final Note: The recommendations and statements in this report have not been evaluated by the FDA. They are not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease, but to offer the opinions of those involved with natural health, based on historical references and peer-reviewed scientific publications. As always, consult a qualified medical practitioner for any health concerns.
The author, in colaboration with Environmental Scientist Eric Cech, is a degreed naturopath and herbologist. She has a deep appreciation of essential oils as medicines, and guides the Ananda Apothecary in creating therapeutic formulas and products. More science and application information can be found at http://www.anandaapothecary.com.
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