Essential oils are plant extracts designed to capture the “essence,” or scent, of the original plant.
Examples of popular essential oils include:
These essences are typically compounded and sold as natural remedies for a variety of conditions. They are most often used in the practice of aromatherapy, which today is considered a form of complementary or alternative medicine with roots in ancient civilizations in Asia as well as in the Mediterranean region.
Scientific evidence for the medicinal benefits of these products is limited. But some studies have found that they may help manage symptoms relating to fatigue, anxiety, cognitive problems, skin disorders, digestive problems, and headaches, among others.
They may also be useful in treating other health conditions often linked with MS, like depression and anxiety.
“Anything natural that helps keep my MS monster in its cave is very useful,” says Mary Ellen Ciganovich, an author and educator who specializes in holistic healing and has MS herself. “I handle my own MS through diet, exercise, meditation, herbs, and essential oils, and I recommend these approaches to others with the condition.”
So how can essential oils help you — if at all?
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are collected from the source plants through several processes, including distillation (using steam) or cold pressing. Once extracted from the plant, the oils are combined with a “carrier” oil to create the final product.
It’s important to note that essential oils aren’t intended to be taken orally. In fact, swallowing them may be dangerous.
Instead, they are designed to be inhaled or, in some cases, applied to your skin.
It’s believed that inhaling the aromas of essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, the part of your brain that helps determine mood as well as control breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
The effect of essential oils on the limbic system is what gives them their medicinal qualities.
How Essential Oils Might Help Symptoms Related to MS
To date, the use of essential oils in the treatment of MS hasn’t been well studied, according to Vijayshree Yadav, MD, a neurologist and Tykeson Family Term Professor in wellness research and the director of the MS center at Oregon Health and Science University.
Research does suggest the compounds may be of use in managing some of the condition’s symptoms. They may also help treat other health problems often linked with MS.
For example, anxiety and depression are behavioral health conditions that are common in people with MS. Several essential oils — including chamomile, jasmine, lavender, rose, and sandalwood — are often used to help calm nerves, relieve stress, and boost mood.
Although none of these oils have been studied in MS specifically, a study of aromatherapy using lavender published in the March 2017 issue of the journal Nursing in Critical Care found that the essential oil improved sleep quality and reduced anxiety in people with coronary artery disease.
In addition, a review published in May 2017 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggests that aromatherapy with essential oils — including lavender and rosemary — may help improve cognitive function and slow the progression of memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Cognitive function problems and memory loss are both symptoms of MS, although the underlying causes are not the same as in Alzheimer’s disease.
Pain, another common symptom of MS, may also be alleviated by essential oils such as peppermint, lavender, frankincense, and vanilla, among others. A review of existing research published in December 2017 in International Journal of Molecular Sciences suggests these oils and others have “therapeutic potential” for a variety of pain conditions.
“It’s a big leap to say that these oils work well in mice so they must work just as well in humans,” Dr. Yadav cautions.
What Are the Potential Downsides of Using Essential Oils?
Yadav emphasizes that “natural doesn’t always mean safe.” Essential oils are products of an unregulated industry, so the quality and composition of different brands and essences may vary, she adds.
In general, it’s best to find an essential oil product that contains only the aromatic plant compound, with no additives or synthetic fragrances. Also, do your research and try to purchase products from a manufacturer with a reputation for quality and safety.
Although aromatherapy is generally safe for people, it may not be for pets. In addition, inhaling certain oils may be harmful for pregnant women and young children.
“Don’t overdo it with essential oils, or any other natural remedy,” Ciganovich notes. “It’s important to use these products as directed and not use more, even if it’s working really well. These products, just like prescription meds, can have side effects, so begin slowly to see if they work for you. Also, don’t discontinue your other MS meds without consulting your doctor.”