Essential Oils for Cancer – do they offer hope?

Essential oils - can they cure cancer?

I do not write this article lightly; bringing false hope to people with serious and often terminal disease is despicable and unforgivable. So that is not my objective. This article is about presenting credible, confirmed medical findings for and against essential oils in fighting cancer. It is based on investigation of information from verifiable and authoritative medical sources. So is the claim of the efficacy of essential oils for cancer real or a scam?

We will begin by giving social context to the claims for and against essential oils and their possible role in fighting cancer. This is important because in the last twenty years or so, some science has been hijacked by politicians and corporations, and many natural healing products and regimes have been just as badly hijacked by self -serving marketers who should have no credibility at all.

What this often means is that we are much more skeptical about both science and natural cures BUT that we have become less rational - we tend to believe the things that fit in with our prejudices, and disregard those things that don't. Thus, good scientific evidence is denied by many people whose faith in science has been shaken; equally, very good empirical evidence for natural cures is often rejected by those who treat science as their new religion. Let's begin with a broad look at attitudes.

Science, Natural Cures and Deception

It's part of the popular mood in the west that everything 'natural' is good, and synthetic, scientific medicine if not bad, is at least 'not as good'. And yet, when people who have believed in natural medicine for a long time have their beliefs verified by science, they tend to be rather happy about it - they were right all along! So we need to be balanced in our viewpoints. So here's a few ground rules I shall be using in the article:

Three Important Facts

  • Scientists do not know everything and never will - be skeptical. Research results are often written to support an existing belief and are not always scientific even if the numbers are basic ally sound. Climate change is an excellent example of science that has been corrupted in this way. Essential oils for cancer might just be another.
  • Natural medicine and healing techniques are often founded on real experience and often have huge benefits. The evidence is often empirical rather than scientific but it IS often valid. The interpretation if this evidence is often biased by both the science establishment - who at best ignore it, or by the marketing companies - which wildly exaggerate it or even lie about it.
  • Modern medicine provides the biggest medical benefits in human history but it has become narrow minded and profit driven. Claims made for modern medicine can only be accepted at face value when the medicines concerned have been tested on humans - not on cells in petri-dishes, or even rats and monkeys - but human beings. 

Bearing these things in mind, we need to be particularly wary of all claims made for all medicines - natural and synthetic, including the claims for essential oils for cancer. Here's a reminder of the ethics of Big Pharma:-

Bayer had to pay hefty fines for claiming that one of its vitamin ingredients, Selenium, prevented prostate cancer In fact, studies have shown that Selenium not only fails to prevent the cancer in healthy men but can increase the risk of diabetes.. Bayer had to pay $3.3 million in Oregon, California, and Illinois for corrective advertising.
Business Insider 

Conventional Drugs and their Effects

Pharmaceutical anticancer substances are usually classified as being useful either  in preventing or in treating cancer . Those that prevent cancer are tend also to slow progression of the disease although they are a separate category. These drugs are almost all cytotoxic - poisonous to living cells - and they kill cancer cells directly or indirectly. That's why cancer treatment can be so traumatic - the medicine is attacking healthy and cancerous tissues. 

More recently developed drugs are cytostatic - they block cell division and so retard the disease. Between them, these two drug classifications - cytotoxic and cytostatic cover ​cancer prevention and cancer therapy in those two clear categories. 

How Essential Oils Fight Cancer - The Claims of Essential Oils for Cancer

Some essential oils are rich in the monoterpenes  Limonene and Perillyl Alcohol.  These two monoterpenes are known and recognized by both science and traditional healers. They are claimed to prevent cancer  as well as treat cancer. They do this by blocking initiation - preventing cells from becoming cancerous. This seems to place them in the category of being cytostatic

Both the above substances have been used in experiments and shown to suppress breast cancer activity in mammals both before they became cancerous and after i.e. they help to prevent and treat cancer. .
Essential  oils substances cure cancer in rats

Advanced rat breast cancer treated with limonene or perillyl alcohol​ showed up to an 80% response rate most of which were complete regressions.

Of course, rats are not humans, but they are mammals and these results give a solid scientific basis to the claims made for essential oils in fighting cancer. 

Researchers reported that they felt that that monoterpenes prevent cancer by altering very small masses of early stage cancer cells that cannot be detected. 

Limonene was found to prevent both mammary and liver cancers at their inception and once they were in progress. ​ Remarkable results showed that when rats were exposed to cancer agents in the liver, and then some of them were treated with perillyl alcohol, the rats which were treated had a 90% reduction in tumors compared to the untreated animals.

Overall, perillyl alcohol was found to be five times more potent than limonene, but it had similar excellent effects effects at higher dosage

Perillyl alcohol is a monoterpene isolated from the essential oils of lavendin, peppermint, spearmint, cherries, celery seeds, and several other plants. In animal studies it has been shown to regress pancreatic, mammary, and liver tumors, to exhibit possible application as a chemopreventative agent for colon, skin, and lung cancer, and as a chemotherapeutic agent for neuroblastoma, and prostate and colon cancer. Perillyl alcohol is active in inducing apoptosis in tumor cells without affecting normal cells and can revert tumor cells back to a differentiated state.

National Center for Biotechnology Information

Clinical Trials on Humans: A Strong Boost for Aromatherapy and Essential Oils for Cancer

Subsequent trials on humans with perillyl alcohol were disappointing. The substance was given in gelatin tablets to patients for several months; the large number of pills required caused intestinal problems that induced nausea, fatigue and vomiting. Many patients could not tolerate the effects and withdrew.

The trials did not proceed to the clinical phase, but we cannot help but think that the trials were fatally flawed and the results had nothing to do with the effects of perillyl alcohol - but rather with the very poor way they were administered.

In contrast, trials in Brazil allowed patients to 'sniff' the substance and results in patients with brain cancer were very promising at much lower doses than those used in the 'pill' trials and side effects were negligible - a HUGE boost for the claims of aromatherapy I think.  ​

Can We Believe The Science?

In a nutshell - yes! The papers I read for this article were not driven by big pharma or essential oils salesmen - they were written by genuine research scientists without pressure from commercial interests. Notice how the researchers used pills on humans and they were not effective, whereas aromatherapy was. 

We know that the essential oils act directly on the limbic system of the brain and 'sniffing' is a far faster route to the brain. For breast cancer, research on humans seems to be well behind tests in the laboratory on cell cultures - which is a shame. 

One can't help but wonder if the medical establishment is horrified that the 'old wives tales' might be true after all and is reluctant to proceed in investigating essential oils for cancer. But there again maybe that's just another dumb conspiracy theory! (we all have them one way or another).  On balance though, science and traditional medicine seem to be in basic agreement that there's something about essential oils that fights cancer - the scientists have simply gone on to find put what!

Where the Science Goes Wrong

Science is essentially an affair of reduction -  finding out which components in the oil are responsible for the anticancer effects that are claimed. This is rational, but sometimes wrong. Many of us feel intuitively that  in the same way that humans are not mere collections of chemicals with a computer-brain, so many natural substances are greater than the sum of their parts. It is gratifying that some scientists are also realizing this now and reconsidering their approach.

It is very difficult to attribute the biological activities of a total essential oil to one or a few active principles, because an essential oil always contains a mixture of different chemical compounds. In addition to the major compounds, also minor compounds may make a significant contribution to the oil’s activity. From the results above we could infer that the antibacterial and anticancer activities of Rosmarinus officinalis L. essential oil is the cooperative results of their components." -

Molecules 2012
Antibacterial Activity and Anticancer Activity of Rosmarinus officinalis L. Essential Oil Compared to That of Its Main Components

Claims by Aromatherapists and Natural Healers

In general, proponents of essential oils, when writing about the beneficial medical effects tend to quote from papers such as those I used to write this article, highlighting the good effects.

This is the main problem with claims made for essential oils - very few of the articles making these claims identify tests done on human beings, and when they do the results are not always as good as the results obtained in the laboratory on rats and cultured cells.

This may be due to the delivery method as in our example above or it may be that the isolated substances do not work well in the body for reasons yet unknown. BEWARE THE CLAIMS! THERE ARE SCIENTIFIC INDICATIONS THAT GIVE US HOPE BUT THERE IS NO CURE FOR CANCER YET.

The Case Against Essential Oils for Cancer

There is no real case against the claims for Essential Oils in fighting cancer - the scientific evidence exists and is credible. However, it is incomplete and no one should regard essential oils as a miracle cure - they are most emphatically not.  BUT.....

The Placebo Effect when testing essential Oils for Cancer

​We have reached reasonable conclusions with respect to the potential of essential oils to prevent and fight cancer based on their physical properties, but so far we have not considered the effects of these oils on the mind.

The limbic system is the seat of the emotional center and is partly responsible for our fight or flight response, our emotional reaction to events, our hormonal secretions,our  motivation, pain reflex and mood changes.

When we inhale  essential oils, the small molecules  travel through the nasal passage to  receptor neuron  that transport them  to the limbic brain and the hypothalamus.  The hypothalamus regulates blood pressure, controls the heart rate and adjusts our feelings of  hunger and thirst.

If you smell an essential oil that has a calming effect on the body, what happens is that  the hypothalamus receives the input to relax from the oils, and then creates neurochemicals that are sent through the body and which make you relax.

I suggest that these well documented capabilities of essential oils to relax the human psyche have an additional placebo effect in some cases, which might be at least as powerful as the physical effects noted in the laboratory and which may induce remission in some cases.

Summary and Conclusions​

Essential Oils show great promise in the laboratory, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm them as useful in treating cancer in humans i.e there is no proof of the efficacy of essential oils for cancer. 

It is difficult to get approval and funding for research on essential oils..
.Essential oils have been used on humans for thousands of years. As a result, they don't fit into the conventional clinical science approach of testing a substance in the lab first, then on animals, and then on humans. As a result, if a researcher proposes to test an essential oil with humans first, they may be turned down. This is because research review boards tend to approve research studies that follow the more usual scientific research path.

University of Minnesota
Taking charge of your wellbeing

This should not discourage us from using essential oils to alleviate suffering, but we should be extremely cynical about the wilder claims made for remission on the basis of essential oils alone

.  We suspect that Big Pharma will leap at the opportunity to start their own lines of essential oils based medicines during the next ten years, but we should treat any such products with the same skepticism as we do those from essential oils companies unless credible trials on human beings are used as the basis for any claims they may make.


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