Essential oils for those affected by cancerFeb 26, 2021
Based on our webinar workshop, this is a short introduction to essential oils. It is not accredited, and it is not a qualification, but will give aromatherapists and therapists an insight into some of the considerations when it comes to essential oils and those affected by cancer. Essential oils are incredibly powerful and are contraindicated for those who have been diagnosed with cancer, so it’s important to remember that they’re not to be dabbled with unless you have a specialist qualification and should always be treated with care.
Jennifer Young came to creating our skincare range when asked to do so by a local hospital. They had very interesting perspectives on aromatherapy oils. When she went to speak to the nurses to find out what they would and wouldn’t accept, they had no concerns about essential oils and were more concerned about the carrier oils - more on that later. As an aromatherapist, however, Jennifer was concerned about the essential oils themselves.
What are they?
This is the definition taken from ScienceDirect:
- Essential oils are aromatic, volatile liquids obtained from plant material through steam distillation and named after the plant from which they are derived.
- They can be defined as either products or mixtures of fragrant substances or as mixtures of fragrant and odourless substances. These fragrant substances are chemically pure compounds that are volatile under normal conditions.
- They are composed principally of lipophilic and highly volatile secondary plant metabolites, principally mono- and sesquiterpenes, but other types of compounds such as allyl and isoallyl phenols may also be present.
- Other substances that have been identified in volatile oils include coumarins, anthraquinones, and alkaloids, which are often distillable, while some diterpenes, fat, and other nonvolatile compounds can be obtained from essential oils by methods other than distillation.
Creating essential oils is a process that’s similar to some of those used in pharmaceutical processes. Plants of the Rainforest are often used for research in pharmaceutical companies because they have a powerful impact. Pharmaceuticals and essential oils are definitely not the same thing, but there are parallels and recognising them can help to understand how powerful the oils can be.
We spoke to someone years ago when there was a professional organisation for aromatherapists (no longer in existence), and she was adamant about telling us how inappropriate it was for skincare houses to use essential oils just to get a nice smell into their products, because they are so powerful. The point is that there are extra levels to these oils and if we give them to anyone, they have potential implications. That’s not to scare aromatherapists, it’s to empower you to use them in a responsible way.
Essentially, essential oils are chemicals which come from plants and that have therapeutic properties. This is not actually contested. There has been controversy in the past about how historic healing practices aren’t evidence based, but with essential oils there is a lot of evidence-based information about their uses. When Jennifer was training, the information therapists were taught was often not given scientific references. You might be told that lavender helps induce sleep, but the references weren’t included, we feel this is an area where therapist training lets itself down.
Are essential oils always good?
It depends on who’s using them and why. If you have heard of pennyroyal, you might know it was historically used to bring on miscarriages. It’s very powerful, and we are speaking only from anecdotal evidence on this, but the point is that you can buy pennyroyal freely, and that’s quite frightening given how powerful it is. The majority of essential oils have positive effects however, broadly speaking.
Are essential oils that we perceive to be good always good?
There are three aspects to this question.
- The first is to do with quality. You get a wide variety of different qualities of essential oils on the market, and this can have an impact on depending on where you buy them from. When we were working with the nurses on the oncology ward, they were deeply suspicious of the term ‘natural’, and it was because of this issue of quality and provenance.
- The second point is about how they are used. Some oils are photosensitive for example, so are not for topical use, or that knowledge may impact how they are used topically.
- The third point is about the individual, their personal wellbeing and how the positive effects of an oil may not be good for that person because of their individual health. For example, if someone has low blood pressure and an oil is used to lower blood pressure, it may be too much for that person.
If we take this last point in relation to cancer patients, we can see that contraindications of certain oils can have potentially serious side effects. For example, lemon essential oil has a headline property that show’s it’s exceptional for liver function. That translates to that word that medics always wince at - ‘detox’. Essentially, it supports the body in eliminating toxins. That might be excellent after a heavy Friday night, but are there situations when toxins are good?
Without going into the detail of cancer treatments, chemotherapy, which many of our client base are experiencing, sees the body ‘toxed up’ to the max because in broad terms the toxicity kills the cancer cells, making the patient feel temporarily ill in the process. However, medicine makes the assumption that the patient can cope with a certain level of toxicity, then after two weeks, when the body’s natural detox process will have occurred, the patient is due another dose.
These treatments are carefully calculated to take the body’s natural elimination process into account. If we then put lemon oil in a treatment for them, that’s potentially us going against mainstream medicine and the treatment that’s designed to attack the cancer.
This is why qualifications are vital, as is speaking to clients, finding out what they need and taking into account any contraindications, such as cancer.
The aromatherapists amongst us will think of an essential oil blend as made up of three parts:
- Top notes
- Middle notes
- Base notes
As skincare manufacturers, we think of blends from the perspective of asking - will it smell the same if I pick up a balm in three years as it does when the oil is first produced? When you are an aromatherapist using an oil there and then, this isn’t a question that you are likely to ask. However, it’s important to know because it is part of the reason you can’t, for example, make a lasting blend that only contains top notes.
Why might you struggle to have a product only made of top notes?
These essential oils are very volatile, which means that the smell evaporates very quickly. We like them because they’re light and uplifting (e.g., lemon). To hold them in a product however, you need a base note to ground it.
We often think of our top, middle and base notes as colours ranging from light to dark - the darker ones being the heavier, rich base notes.
Jennifer has an omniscient book, of her own research and notes, put together over the years, and this is what she uses to formulate blends. It covers a range of conditions, from acne to anxiety, with the top, middle and base notes that are allegedly beneficial for each condition.
So, if she wants to blend something that covers three conditions, she defers to her notes. For example, if the blend is for a combination of:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling overloaded
She will then look for the base notes that are common between each condition, working up to the top notes, trying a variety of combinations to create the right therapeutic blend.
That might be:
- Benzoin - base note
- Lavender - middle note
- Mandarin - top note
You don’t need Jennifer’s book to do this, you just need reliable sources of information.
A FOCUS ON EXAMPLE ESSENTIAL OILS
With this information in mind, we wanted to zero in on three oils that we often use in our products to give a greater understanding of how we think about them as aromatherapists.
We have used the term literature to describe the recognised connection between spirituality and a sense of connection when it comes to this oil. That is quite different to an evidence-based link
- Reduces anxiety
- Reduces pain
- Used in end-of-life care
- ‘Chemo brain’/fog (relates back to toxicity and the potential impact that cancer treatments can have on cognitive function)
- Lowers stress levels
We have often come across the claim from people who want to connect their sites with ours, that frankincense essential oil can cure cancer. This is fundamentally untrue, or at least there is no evidence to support it. It is heart breaking when people are given this kind of hope and it’s not something any aromatherapist can deliver on. We are adamant about evidence-based literature because we think that if we claim something then the client deserves evidence that what we are saying is true.
That said, this is a lovely oil with lots of benefits and we use it in a lot of our products.
It blends well (individually) with:
- Decreases anxiety
- Reduces pain
- Improves sleep
Neroli is known for its sedative qualities, which is one of the things we prioritise in a lot of our products as many individuals with cancer find they have difficulty sleeping and relaxing.
It blends well (individually) with:
- Mandarin (red)
- Black petter (small amount)
- Patchouli (small amount)
- Decreases anxiety
- Improves low mood
- Reduces stress levels
Some variants of bergamot can produce photosensitivity, so you do need to be careful with how it’s used, but that applies to all oils. You must be discerning about where you get them from and at some point, in your practice you will be able to tell the difference in quality based on smell alone. Bergamot is wonderful for helping people to take a breath and be calm. For the people we work with, the odds are stacked against them on this, so it’s an important goal to reduce stress.
It blends well (individually) with:
- Black pepper
HOW TO USE ESSENTIAL OILS
There are several different ways that essential oils can be used, and some are more appropriate than others at different times.
Topical use (as a %age of a carrier oil?)
As we manufacture products and sell them without consultation, we have an independent expert who will test our blends and tell us how much of each we can use in a product. There are rules around how much for a blend we can put into a product because we produce and sell without consultation. As a therapist, if you have blended then and there for a person for use in a treatment, there is a different set of rules. If you decide to sell that product, even if it’s just to that person, you need a different safety assessment. If you become commercial, the degrees of percentage are dictated to you.
We don’t like the term ‘carrier oil’, which is why we have put a question mark by it. As people who formulate products for a vulnerable group, we consider every ingredient in a product to have a purpose. We think every inclusion should be based on both merit as well as not being on our contraindicated ‘prohibition list'. Therefore, we think the ‘carrier oil’ is much more important than just that being there purely to aid application.
The Christie Foundation provide amazing aroma sticks for different purposes for cancer patients. It is used just like a Vicks inhaler, and can be as simple as putting an oil on cotton wool to breathe in while going to sleep or laying on a yoga mat.
These can be purpose made natural air fresheners, or diffusers, and contain volatile oils that disperse around the room.
We have included this as a point of discussion because there’s a lot of false information around it. In the UK, the guidelines are clear however, and essential oils are categorically not recommended for ingestion in any form. It is something we battle with a lot in the industry, but we do not advocate it.
Jennifer Young provides therapist training in oncology therapies and specialist skincare for cancer patients. If you are interested in finding out more, follow the link to our courses below.
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