Essential oils and aromatherapy: A rebuttal to bunk science and the healing power of odors
By Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 112
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I had an interesting discussion with someone who believed in the healing power of odors: Inhaling the right fragrances contained in essential oils could heal and improve the body in ways not possible or understood by mainstream science. This included healing diseases, and increasing one’s energy and intelligence. I asked for evidence and a scientific proof. The person gave me a document: It’s a short explanation giving “proof” of aromatherapy with essential oils. As I read it, I became confused. It provided no references or sources, and made several scientific and technological blunders. I wrote this for these reasons:
The document was given to me with the intent of proving how essential oils and aromatherapy work. If this is the quality of “proof” accepted by most people, I’m not surprised at the number of people believing similar claims. This response is a counter-argument to the original document, and a warning against blind belief without analysis or basic questioning.
Many “New Age healing and living methods” claim to refute science and technology. This is very important, as these lifestyles and recommendations could cause you to waste a significant amount of time and money. Following them could also harm or kill someone.
I get upset when people use technobabble “honestly”. Sure, it’s great on Star Trek. But in real life, using meaningless or unverifiable scientific terminology indicates a lack of knowledge about your topic, or worse, outright lies. Something similar is happening here, and I’d rather expose than ignore it. And if this document is making the rounds in other places, this page can be a resource to combat such things.
Here is the text of the “proof that aromatherapy works” document. All grammar and spelling is verbatim. My analysis follows:
ESSENTIAL OILS AND AROMATHERAPY
Definition: subtle, volatile liquids that are distilled from plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, and seeds. They contain oxygenating molecules, which transport the nutrients to the cells of the body essential to maintain health and promote immune function.
Problem: most common essential oils are low grade in the US. Even lavender oil from France can be low grade.
Understanding how they work: A healthy body has a frequency of 62-78 herz. Yes, this is our electrical circuitry. Disease begins at 58 herz. Processed/canned foods have zero herz, fresh produce up to 15 herz, dry herbs 12-22 herz, and fresh herbs 20-27 herz. Essential oils start at 52 herz and go as high as 320 herz (rose oil). Frankincense when combined with myrrh, sage, and black cumin have helped reduce breast tumors. There are 7 documented prostate cases of elevated PSA count that returned to normal after using this combination.
The essential oils are used in combination with acupressure and acupuncture also. They work on the skin and by inhaling the volatile oil. Rose oil (Rosa damascene) contains 9 compounds that have been isolated by methanol and all have antiviral activity. This study was done at the MRC Collaborative Center in London, United Kingdom in 1996.
So we have a quick description of what essential oils are, how essential oils work, and how aromatherapy improves health. However, reading just the first two sentences, I realized I should parse things down to make the document easier to understand. In this “simplify, simplify, simplify” mindset, let’s break down each part of this document and define precisely what it’s trying to say. I’m not trying to change meaning, but to clarify for easier analysis.
Analysis: This answers the question, “What are essential oils?” Subtle means faint or difficult to detect. Volatile, based on language used later, probably means “a solid or liquid that changes rapidly to a gas at room temperature”.
Short translation: “Definition: Barely detected, easily-evaporating liquids taken from plants.”
Conclusion: Valid. A quick definition lookup shows this is indeed accurate.
Analysis: This answers the question, “How do essential oils react with the human body?” Oxygenate means “to fill or provide with oxygen”. An oxygenating molecule, therefore, could be many things. Shake a container of water, and you’ll see “oxygenating molecules” bubbling away. We call this molecule “oxygen”. Also, “nutrients” isn’t specified. This seems to mean oxygen, but it’s not explicitly stated.
This sentence is too non-specific to make sense. It’s saying certain molecules provide oxygen to those parts of the body which keep us alive. It doesn’t say from what kind of molecules, something that could easily be defined with help from basic chemistry or biology textbooks. It says, “cells of the body essential to maintain health and promote immune function”. This could be most anything, as we need almost every part working properly to stay healthy.
Next, realize that molecules in the body don’t transport anything. They are transported. This is done by the protein hemoglobin within red blood cells. This is the oxygen transport system for our bodies.
“Oxygen molecules are carried to the cells of the body by adhering to a protein called hemoglobin, which is found in the red blood cells. I have not yet found any study that has shown breathing essential oil vapors (molecules known as ‘terpenes’) to be any benefit to the oxygenation process.” – Monica, a Biology Bachelor of Science
The document says the liquids taken from plants contain oxygenating molecules. So plants, which take in carbon dioxide and excrete oxygen, have oxygen-rich liquids inside them? And these oxygenating molecules do more for us than the simple act of breathing? If so, why don’t we feel light-headed when taking them, as if we were hyperventilating?
Short translation: To keep us healthy, essential oils contain molecules that transport oxygen throughout the body.
Conclusion: Invalid. The claim is bad science.
Part 3 : “Problem: most common essential oils are low grade in the US. Even lavender oil from France can be low grade.
Solution or source: One source is in Idaho that has the only vertical stainless steel distiller in North America.”
Analysis: It would be nice if we could define low grade, and what it means to the document. If I use low grade essential oils, am I to assume they won’t work as well? And vertical stainless steel distillers will improve oil quality? Okay, fine. But my research shows that it’s actually difficult to find anyone that doesn’t sell “therapeutic grade” essential oils. Whether it’s in small print or advertised in the product description, “therapeutic grade” seems to be a common standard.
Short translation: Essential oils come in different qualities.
Conclusion: Invalid. Most “common essential oils” seem to be “therapeutic grade”, not low grade. Whether or not this is true, without detail it doesn’t support anything in the rest of the document.
Part 4: “Understanding how they work: A healthy body has a frequency of 62-78 herz. Yes, this is our electrical circuitry. Disease begins at 58 herz. Processed/canned foods have zero herz, fresh produce up to 15 herz, dry herbs 12-22 herz, and fresh herbs 20-27 herz. Essential oils start at 52 herz and go as high as 320 herz (rose oil).”
Analysis: First, if the writer truly meant “herz” to measure the super-fast vibrations exuded by human bodies, disease, foods, and essential oils, he or she spelled it wrong. “Herz” doesn’t mean anything in English. (The German word herz means “heart” or “cardiac”. Probably not the intent here.) The original intent was probably to use the word “hertz”. Hertz is a standard unit of frequency. One hertz is equal to one fluctuation or vibration per second. (An example we encounter every day is with electricity: When Americans plug things into an electric socket, they get around 120 volts of AC (alternating current) operating at 60 hertz. Europeans and Asians have AC running near 230 volts operating at 50 hertz.)
I found this page from Young Living (the stainless-steel distiller producer mentioned earlier) that contains a paragraph close to a cut-and-paste of the information above. Near the bottom of the page, we have a table listing essential oils and various frequencies, as well as a similar page with more frequency measurements.
The document says all organic things have a certain frequency measured in (we assume) hertz. As the document gives specific measurements for specific objects, the results should be repeatable and predictable.
A note on Young Living: It may not be an honest business. I received this email from a reader, Stacey:
I’m [a] list mom for an aromatherapy group with 900 people… I’d say that out of everything, the only thing we all seem to agree on is what a big con the multi-level-marketing company Young Living is pulling on people who aren’t familiar with essential oils. (Hint – they’re not magic bullets!) You’re more than welcome to join and search the archives for more debunking on [Young Living], and more specifically their criminal CEO Gary Young. (He just fled to Central America after his fake medical clinic in Utah was busted.) Anyhow, if you’re interested, our group address is:
I would encourage anyone dealing with Young Living to dig deeper than usual before money is exchanged. Stacey also gave me another link with more of the background and beliefs of Gary Young, as well as Gary Young’s rebuttal to criticism (PDF). All of it: Frightening stuff.
And from reader Cristl, here’s another warning about Young Living and Gary Young:
I’m a molecular biologist and a certified and registered aromatherapist. I can attest that Gary Young has deceptive marketing tactics, promotes the use of essential oils in a harmful way and he rewrites science and makes claims that he cannot back up (you’ll never see his work referenced, let alone by a scientific journal.)
The problem is again one of verification: I can’t find any method or technology able to measure an object’s “vibrational frequency”. The tools don’t seem to exist. The references I could find all referenced the same source: Bruce Tanio, head of the Department of Agriculture at Eastern Washington University. He developed a “Calibrated Frequency Monitor”. His credentials are often listed incorrectly (he’s no longer at the University, there is no Department of Agriculture, and I was unable to confirm he was head of such a department, or if the department ever existed). Anyone can check EWU’s website to verify. EWU didn’t respond to my verification request.
Bruce Tanio is owner of “Infinity Resources”. He doesn’t specifically deny anything attributed to him or his status at EWU, but has posted a blanket disclaimer, absolving him from any rumors without confirming or denying any. One of his inventions is the BT3 Frequency Monitoring System. Perfect: This claims to do all I need – to have a reproducible, standard way of measuring an object’s frequency! Only it’s not available. When I asked Infinity Resources for more information, I received a message that “the monitor is no longer available for sale”. When I asked for other options for measuring an object’s frequency, I was told they are “not aware of any other methods”. Neither am I.
Short translation: Organics like human bodies, food and essential oils have a measurable frequency.
Conclusion: Invalid. There is no way to measure the “vibrational frequency” of a body, food, or essential oil. Objects having a measurable, consistent frequency seems to be junk science.
Part 5: “Frankincense when combined with myrrh, sage, and black cumin have helped reduce breast tumors. There are 7 documented prostate cases of elevated PSA count that returned to normal after using this combination.”
Analysis: This sounds impressive until we lightly scratch the surface, and try to verify: Granted, we don’t have much to go on. We aren’t given locations or studies. We don’t know what additional therapies were used in the treatments. We don’t know what’s meant by the word “helped” when reducing breast tumors and PSA counts. Also, PSA counts elevate and decrease because of age and body infections, not just by cancer. The more PSA, the more likely the probability of prostate cancer. But a high count doesn’t necessarily indicate cancer. Also note the document doesn’t specifically say “cancer”. It could be referring to benign tumors and normal prostates. With the information presented, we just don’t know.
Short translation: Aromatherapy and essential oils have helped reduce breast tumors and prostate PSA counts.
Conclusion: Invalid. In terms of “proving aromatherapy works”, this part means nothing. The claims can’t be substantiated, and are given with no references.
Analysis: Pretty straightforward, a description of further applications of essential oils: Skin absorption as well as aromatherapy.
Short translation: Essential oils can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled.
Conclusion: Valid. Oil does soak into the skin. Oil does have a smell. Having changed my car’s oil, I know both these to be true.
Analysis: Another scientific claim. Chemistry isn’t my field. So I asked a couple people who were in that field. Here’s what they had to say about the above sentence:
“I have a PhD in chemistry and have never heard the term ‘Isolated by methanol’. If the person is claiming that all 9 compounds are soluble in methanol then they would still have to be isolated from each other. As for ‘antiviral activity’ I believe your assumption is correct. It means, ‘Kills viruses’. However, if I am not mistaken, so does methanol or ethanol for that matter. Sounds like someone is trying to sell rose oil.”. – Dave, a Chemistry Ph.D.
“‘Isolated by methanol’ sounds like a bungled way of saying ‘extracted by methanol’. ‘Antiviral activity’, OTOH, is a perfectly normal way of saying that the substances inhibit the replication of (some, not necessarily all) viruses. I wouldn’t take it to be the same as viricidal (killing viruses like a disinfectant) although I also wouldn’t necessarily assume (given the ‘isolated by methanol’ flub) that the writer really knew the difference.” – Barry, a Biochemistry Ph.D.
Short translation: Rose oil contains 9 components that have antiviral activity.
Conclusion: Invalid. When looking at the original text, the author incorrectly used wrong chemical terminology and processes. This significantly drops credibility. If the author intended the meaning of just the short translation, “antiviral activity” doesn’t mean to kill all viruses. It means to inhibit growth. Plenty of non-essential oil substances and temperatures do this already. The fact that rose oil’s components have antiviral activity doesn’t distinguish them in any way, especially since we’re given no information about the antiviral activity’s effectiveness.
Analysis: This should be easy to verify. Just research for the study or contact the “MRC Collaborative Center”.
The study itself could not be found. After researching to find the “MRC Collaborative Center”, I found this description:
“The MRC Collaborative Centre is a not-for-profit technology-transfer organisation affiliated to the UK Medical Research Council that acts as an interface between the MRC’s research base and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. It delivers the technologies, scientific expertise and management which, through dedicated project teams, explore and develop original research ideas and discoveries for the benefit of medicine.”
Here is the last known web address for the “MRC Collaborative Centre”. The website shows up as unavailable: http://www.nimr.mrc.ac.uk/CC/
Here is the last known address and contact for the Centre. The first email address returned a “mailbox unavailable” reply. The second email address never responded to my queries.
MRC COLLABORATIVE CENTRE
1-3 Burtonhole Lane
London NW7 1AD
telephone: +44 181 906 3811
fax: +44 181 906 1395
Short translation: [None: Unchanged from original sentence.]
Conclusion: Invalid. The study mentioned does not exist. The MRC Collaborative Center in London appears to be defunct.
We have eight different sections in the original document. Of these, only two are valid, and are just definitions, not claims.
This may be proof that, as presented in my source document, aromatherapy doesn’t work. To some, this may just be an exercise in analysis. At the very least, I hope this helps others not to take claims at face value, not without some basic questioning for detail. You might save a life, you might save money, you might help make the world a better place.
In order to grow as a species, we need to figure out How Things Work. One way to do that is with constant questioning. If the theories don’t hold up to testing, we revise our theory or discard it. If they do hold up, knowledge evolves and grows. If you support an unprovable, untestable, improbable theory, you’re not helping anyone learn or grow. You’re helping humanity remain on a “knowledge plateau”, or, some would argue, descend into a superstitious, overly-credulous belief system worthy of the Middle Ages. If you have time to read a short story, take a look at what the world would be like without a skeptical, scientific viewpoint.
Making a claim about aromatherapy or essential oils is fine. But it must be supported by reproducible, testable, scientific methods, otherwise we have no reason to believe it, and indeed should be careful when doing so. Particularly when this is a money-making industry, given false credence by the media, and praised by those who unquestioningly accept contradictory “facts” without verification.
Some of them get pretty zany. I had a particularly unhelpful exchange with “Chief David Buffalo Ghost”. Below are his verbatim emails to me (in italics, with various naughty words replaced by askterisks) and the responses I sent him:
I have worked with Mr Tanio .Ive been to his lab he can do anything anybody can imagine & more . Dont make your self look stupid.My co. Had the top science people in almoest every field & everbody was begging us to meet or talk to him . When the Gov. has a nightmare cooking they call him first. That goes true for many other countries so for you to dispute anything he says your just (lets put it lightly) your just a duum-ass just trying to sell something you didnt even make yourself….
Hello Chief David Buffalo Ghost,
Thanks for your comments. I have so many people writing to me bashing Mr. Tanio, it’s good to hear someone with another viewpoint.
I have worked with Mr Tanio .Ive been to his lab he can do anything anybody can imagine & more .
Quite honestly, “anything anybody can imagine & more” is fairly vague. Can you give specifics?
Dont make your self look stupid.My co. Had the top science people in almoest every field & everbody was begging us to meet or talk to him .
I’m afraid I’m still going to look stupid here, but I’m not fully understanding what you mean. Were you saying that your C.O. hired top science people, and all those people knew about Mr. Tanio? Or that everybody you worked with wanted you and your C.O. to meet Mr. Tanio? Or by “co.” did you mean to abbreviate “company”? If so, what company did you work for? I’d like to verify your statement.
Sorry about the picky questions, but I’m honestly trying to figure out what you meant.
When the Gov. has a nightmare cooking they call him first.
In what situations? What nightmares are you talking about?
That goes true for many other countries so for you to dispute anything he says your just (lets put it lightly) your just a duum-ass just trying to sell something you didnt even make yourself….
What do you think I am selling? I don’t sell any products at all.
[I then received this reply.]
I will not give you any info about him or myself we are very privet people.Can you imagen what a scientest should be working on….. if not you havent studied enough to ask the Questions !!!!! sorry
[And here was my response...]
I will not give you any info about him or myself we are very privet people.Can you imagen what a scientest should be working on
Privacy is certainly understandable. But peer-reviewed, replicated research and proof of your claims are requirements in a serious scientific community.
So, you come to me and make specific claims. I write back asking for more information. Then you pull away from the conversation. If you don’t want to discuss, what was your reason for originally writing me?
[...and yet another email followed...]
you made the first claim .I just told you you are full of ****.You have to try diffrent things on your own to see what works & what dosnt work .When you try everthing & not just ask people then you know for your self what is true for you so dont talk about who tells the truth untill you know your self. When you test for your self you know the truth . When you find answers that match other peoples answers your getting close. get it . untill then your just another problum human like the other 96% flapin in the wind . If you have time to critize you have time to study but ………….
you made the first claim .
Wrong. The first claim was from Mr. Tanio. And when I tried to verify his own claim by independent research or directly asking his company, I got nothing-
I just told you you are full of ****.
I got nothing, that is, until your intelligent rebuttal.
You have to try diffrent things on your own to see what works & what dosnt work .When you try everthing & not just ask people then you know for your self what is true for you so dont talk about who tells the truth untill you know your self. When you test for your self you know the truth . When you find answers that match other peoples answers your getting close. get it.
Got it. I agree with what you said here, up to a point. There are certain basic principles that you can assume hold true, based on past research. I know I can’t fly by jumping off the roof of my house, so I’m not going to try jumping. I have no need to “try everthing” in this case. However, if I make the fairly earth-shattering claim that I can indeed fly by jumping off my house, I’d better be able to not only prove it, but do so under controlled conditions, and show other people as well. Otherwise there’s no difference between my claims and those of a con man.
untill then your just another problum human like the other 96% flapin in the wind . If you have time to critize you have time to study but ………….
I know. I find it interesting after the amount of effort I put into researching and studying to create this article, you yourself have time to criticize, without offering one bit of proof that I asked for. So far, you’ve done nothing but reinforce points one and two I made for writing the article in the first place.
So let’s compare numbers so far. At this point I’ve asked you nine questions. You’ve answered one of them (“what was your reason for originally writing me?”), and have done nothing to prove any of the claims you’ve made or even answer simple questions. I’d ask why this was, but I’d rather not add to the existing list of questions.
If you’re trying to defend Mr. Tanio’s work or represent his company in any way, you’re making an embarrassingly bad impression to all the people reading this.
[...and yet another...]
Fine im an ******* . Dont ask ?s check for your own self . You were bad talking bruce first when i read your statment. if you know so much why do you ask Questions to people instead of figureing it out by yourself only then will you know the truth . Everything I know I learned on my own so when i find people who have the same answers I know there right & thats the only way to do it . I didnt believe Bruce or any other person untill I went through the whole 32 years of research ON MY OWN NOT LISTENING TO ANY ONE BUT THE FACTS I LEARNED . YOU WONT LEARN ANYTHING ASKING QUESTIONS. YOU WILL GET MANY ANSWERS EVEN WITH THE EXPERTS… YOU HAVE TO TEST ON YOUR OWN Why would you want to take my word for it . I Wouldnt take your word.
Dont ask ?s check for your own self .
What more would you like me to have done in my article? I thought I did a pretty good job at researching all the facts claimed by my original document. Never mind, you don’t have to answer that, as there are plenty of unanswered questions already. I guess we just have differences of opinion on the research I did and the facts I presented.
You were bad talking bruce first when i read your statment.
No, he (or his company) made claims first. I’m responding to those claims.
Everything I know I learned on my own so when i find people who have the same answers I know there right & thats the only way to do it .
I didnt believe Bruce or any other person untill I went through the whole 32 years of research ON MY OWN NOT LISTENING TO ANY ONE BUT THE FACTS I LEARNED.
So you ignore all existing research, make uneducated assumptions about how the world works, then present those assumptions as unalterable facts. I disagree with the intelligence of this method.
YOU WONT LEARN ANYTHING ASKING QUESTIONS.
Again, I disagree. How else does one learn anything about the world except by asking questions of it? (There is of course the related problem when no one answers your questions, but that’s off topic.)
YOU WILL GET MANY ANSWERS EVEN WITH THE EXPERTS… YOU HAVE TO TEST ON YOUR OWN
Though your formatting is a little confusing – I think I get the point you’re trying to make: It’s one thing to make a claim. It’s another to be able to back up that claim. But, where I disagree with you is in the quality of my article. I did do my own independent research and interviews. And I believe I addressed in detail the claims of my original article. Not sure what more you’d have me do. (Note that’s NOT a question. I realize I’ve got too many queued up already.)
Why would you want to take my word for it . I Wouldnt take your word.
Good. That’s point number one I made in my ‘Reasons for writing this article’ section. I agree 100%.
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