When I left law school to be an at-home mom, I did what many people do when they wake up to the fact that they have neglected something cardinal: overcorrect. Burdened with guilt over neglecting my family, coupled with my desire to “save” my children—save them from our corrupt culture, save their eternal souls, save the way they think about life and this world—I fell prey to a mindset which put human hope for all this “salvation” into the means itself.
You could say I was living the crunchy con life, and I worshipped the gods of anti-chemical living, cooking-everything-from-scratch, homeschooling, no-hair-dyeing, Birkenstock- and long-skirt-wearing, organic eating, no-television-watching, and so on and so forth.
This brings me to the god of essential oils. Essential oils were just starting to take off when I was coming out of this period that I’ve called “Gospel Amnesia.” Although I don’t have direct experience with them, I recognized them right away as a new god in the natural polytheistic constellation.
How Essential Oils Supposedly Work
Essential oils are pure essences extracted from a variety of plants and used to relieve pain, and cure sickness and disease. For example: If I have a cold, I can take some eucalyptus oil (oil extracted from a eucalyptus tree), add a few drops to a bowl of hot water, place my head over the bowl, tent myself with a towel, and breathe the vapors in deeply to relieve my cold symptoms naturally—without the use of what many would call “chemical” medications, despite the fact that it would certainly be chemicals in the eucalyptus oil that were bringing me relief.
Taken this far, essential oils are no different from Vicks VapoRub, the century-plus-old recipe I doubt many nowadays consider “natural” or “chemical” in this context. The word out there is that essential oils can provide not only respiratory relief and a comforting aroma, but “lifelong well-being,” relieve allergy symptoms, and possibly cure cancer.
No one can deny the pharmacological effects of certain plant materials. That’s still where a majority of medicines are sourced, or at least chemically inspired. The claims of essential oils are pretty far-reaching, though. For the more extraordinary claims, the skeptic will attribute any effects to a placebo response, and the convert will become angry that someone has dared to speak against their god of omnihealth.
Plant-Based Chemicals and Placebos Work
Do essential oils objectively work, or is the placebo effect creating well-being? The answer is both/and, not either/or. Some essential oils have observable and measurable outcomes—to wit, menthol and eucalyptus for throat and respiratory irritation. There is also the placebo effect, which is real.
My husband and I had a friend, and an old physics professor of ours and decidedly a philosophical materialist, who years ago went to an acupuncturist. My husband, a physicist, was incredulous and asked our friend how he, being a scientist, could possibly go to an acupuncturist knowing it’s not doing anything medical. Our friend answered something like: “Well, it is all a placebo effect, but studies have shown that the placebo effect is real.”
Whereas the body may not register any difference under a placebo, the mind does, and the mind is the part that answers the question, “How do you feel now?” Thus the person experiences real improvement in condition.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute both discuss the use of essential oils in aromatherapy as part of a complementary and alternative treatment for cancer patients to reduce stress and anxiety. The essential oils in the aromatherapy are not treating the cancer. Receptors in the nose send signals to part of the brain (limbic system) which controls mood and emotion. It basically comes down to the effect of odor on the brain—which is real and measurable.
Mood and emotion have effects on patient outcomes because they relate to the person’s desire to see tomorrow, and to the body’s overall thriving. This is an example of a genuine benefit to cancer patients in relieving side effects of cancer treatment.
The Placebo Effect Has Increased
Something else very curious is a new study showing an increase in placebo effects. After 84 clinical drug trials between 1990 and 2013, data analyzed by researchers at McGill University showed an increase in the placebo effect seen in study participants. Most interestingly, the increase was seen in the United States only.
Some believe it’s stronger in the United States because of direct-to-consumer marketing by pharmaceutical companies, and powerful advertisements. As Americans, we’ve come to depend upon and anticipate that medications will cure us of all our ills. For depression, there’s also evidence that placebo pills are just as effective as antidepressants.
Here is a case where even the skeptics might argue that essential oils would be preferable: they are likely cheaper, and certainly have fewer side effects. The problem is, the placebo effect is tied to a perceived authority of the provider, and a perceived potency of the treatment. (This is also why “expensive” placebos have more effect than “inexpensive” placebos.) If people were told, “Here is a placebo for your depression. It’s nothing but lemon water, but if you believe it, it will work as well as Zoloft,” you’re not going to observe much of a positive placebo response.
We are still not sure how our old physics professor benefitted from acupuncture, given his self-conscious approach to it as a placebo, but the fact that he was paying for it probably had a lot to do with it. And pay you will for essential oils. A quick browse of Amazon turns up 15 ml (one tablespoon) bottles from one brand running $20 to nearly $200, depending on their stated purpose (such as “Purification” or “Calming”) and efficacy. That’s pennies worth of oil, some amount of aromatic “natural essence,” and sufficient “authority and potency” markup to produce a placebo response.
This Isn’t Really About Essential Oils
There is nothing “essentially” or intrinsically wrong with using essential oils in this way. If this were all there was to say about essential oils, I wouldn’t bother writing this article. The essential oils “movement,” along with all of these other “movements,” or subcultures, to live more naturally—whether engaged in by atheist hippies or Christians of different stripes—expose an “essential” problem in modern American society: Gospel amnesia. God has been removed from the center to the periphery (if he even exists); “man is hungry for beauty, there is a void,” as Oscar Wilde said.
Gospel amnesia is the essential problem, for Christians and non-Christians alike. Shifting God from the center also moves all truth, beauty, and goodness to the margins, leaving a void we try to fill with sex, politics, money, science, modern medicine, alternative medicine, fad diets, and a host of all things “natural.”
All are forms of counterfeit religions, counterfeit philosophies, counterfeit identity, and counterfeit pleasures. As Saint Augustine wrote: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We all—every single one of us—have our household idols and personal gods. The essential oil god is only one manifestation of this very human problem.