Lavender on fresh bed sheets. Eucalyptus in the steam room. Peppermint during Christmastime. Each of these essential oils has a distinct smell and typically a distinct use. The average person may think that essential oils simply smell nice. However, many essential oils are used frequently in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to treat a range of issues, including cancer.1 There are more than 300 different essential oils available, and it can be downright confusing to keep track of the purpose and use of them all. Therefore, this article is specifically a beginner’s guide to cancer-fighting essential oils for cancer treatment.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are “the essence of” a plant’s fragrance.2 One drop of essential oil can be multiple times more potent than the dried form of the plant. These rich oils are extracted via several different expression procedures, which often depends on the plant used and the purity needed.3 This expression leaves a volatile compound with a fragrant aroma and odor.
Essential oils are used for a variety of applications, from cooking and food manufacturing (chewing gum just wouldn’t be the same without the essential oil spearmint) to potpourri and cleaning products.
Do essential oils really work?
Essential oil use for medicinal purposes has been around since the beginning of recorded history. The ancient Egyptians may have been the first people to develop the expression process – King Tut’s tomb contained 350 liters of essential oils!4 The popularity of essential oils for medicinal purposes eventually spread around Europe and Asia, with several documented cases of effective treatment of various ailments using essential oils throughout history. Famously, Dr. Jean Valnet, a French medical doctor during WWII, successfully used essential oils to heal wounds of injured soldiers when antibiotic supplies ran out.5
Anecdotal evidence aside, published articles concerning the effectiveness of essential oils on disease in humans are mainly observational studies regarding palliative care. However, current research on the effectiveness of essential oils delves into a possible link between olfaction (sense of smell) and the limbic system in the brain, which is involved with emotions and memory.1 An alternate theory held by many traditional medicine practitioners theorizes that essential oil fragrances simply produce a psychological effect on the brain, rather than a symptomatic effect.6 More recently, exciting animal and in vitro studies of several essential oils have been published that show antimicrobial and antiviral activity, plus a direct change in immunological and behavioral responses to stimuli in rats by using different essential oils.7,8
Essential oils have gotten a bad wrap partly because there wasn’t a whole lot of scientific research going into studying them until recently. Also, some oils can be toxic if ingested or used topically, and there is currently no standard for the regulation of the words “organic” or “natural” for products intended for cosmetic use in the United States.9 In fact, the whole supplement industry has become the Wild West since the mid ‘90s because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can no longer control or regulate it in a meaningful way.10 Therefore, we are left with companies producing high-quality, organic essential oils being overshadowed by snake essential oil salesmen. In a perfect world, the FDA (and the Federal Trade Commission – FTC) would fairly regulate supplements and cosmetics, including essential oils, and pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t lobby to have the whole supplement industry shut down in order to push their patented pills and increase their bottom line.11 For now, always research the brand of essential oil you are purchasing, and remember – there is NO governing body that certifies essential oils in the United States.12
How do I use essential oils?
There are four basic ways you can use essential oils around the home – aromatherapy purposes, topically, ingestion, and as additives to cleaning products and other non-topical applications. Several websites, including this one, go into detail the four ways of using essential oils. As this is a beginner’s guide, do NOT ingest or apply topically any essential oils unless prescribed by a doctor or registered aromatherapist. Undiluted essential oils can be toxic, and have caused organ failure and death.10 If you are unsure if an essential oil is safe to use, the FDA has a list of “generally recognized as safe” essential oils for consumption/ internal use.
There are a few rules when using essential oils, and this website does a great job of covering the bases. I will not comment on how to use different essential oils, but I can’t stress enough you should do your own research on how to handle them all for whatever your purpose is. Always err on the side of caution – less is more when it comes to essential oils.
Cancer-Fighting Essential Oils
There are no current studies showing any essential oils possessing specific cancer-fighting abilities.1 However, there are many studies that show certain essential oils can aid in the treatment of cancer, and reduce the symptoms of traditional cancer treatment, such as nausea from chemotherapy.13 The following list contains essential oils that have peer-reviewed studies that show them to be helpful for cancer patients. Consult a doctor or knowledgeable professional if you intend to use them for home use.
Frankincense: This essential extract is probably the most promising to cancer research. Made from Boswellia trees, frankincense (boswellic acid) has been found to have anti-neoplastic (anti-tumor) properties in vitro, possibly due to its ability to induce tumor protein p53 gene transcription, the body’s way of repairing and eliminating DNA damage.14-16 Frankincense suppresses bladder and pancreatic cancer cell viability, has cytotoxic effects on liver, colon, and breast cancer, and has immunity-boosting properties, giving frankincense the potential to be an effective cancer treatment in replacement of or addition to traditional cancer treatment.14-21
In vivo studies of frankincense are still few and far between, but promising work is being done. It has been used in prescription drug trials to successfully reduce mammographic breast density, which is a risk factor for breast cancer, and as a secondary treatment, frankincense has been used in proprietary creams to reduce radiation erythema (inflammation) and other skin reactions caused by radiation treatment for breast cancer21,22
Fennel: There are several different kinds of fennel essential oil, and the one most studied is Nigella sativa, also known as black-cumin. This plant has been used throughout history for its antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.31 Current research has shown its ability to induce apoptosis (cell death) in in vitro breast cancer cells, and reduce the size and growth of malignant tumors in rats.23,41
Lavender: Lavender is best known for its ability to relieve stress, but is also an anti-inflammatory and decongestant. It has been successfully used in aromatherapy massage to treat depression and anxiety, as well as improve sleep and overall wellbeing, in advanced cancer patients.24 Recently, lavender has been shown to possess cytotoxic and apoptotic effects on malignant human cancer cells, and protects against oxidative stress and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) in diabetic rats.25,26
Eucalyptus: A widely used essential oil, eucalyptus can be found in a range of products that treat colds and flu to helping muscle aches and inflammation. It is an antioxidant that has a cytotoxic effect on tumor cell lines, and specifically possesses anti-melanogentic (anti- malignant skin cancer) properties.27,28 Eucalyptus essential oil has proven antibacterial properties, and has healed malodorous necrotic ulcers in cancer patients.29
Chamomile: Chamomile is a soothing essential oil known for its calming properties. However, it is also a strong antioxidant, with antibiotic abilities and a cytotoxic effect on malignant cells.30,32 It has been used in aromatherapy massage in palliative care, with improved physical symptoms and quality of life in cancer patients.33
Bergamot: Bergamot, a member of the citrus family, is a popular stress reliever and fatigue fighter, but bergamot also possesses neuroprotective properties, the mechanisms of which are just now beginning to be understood.34 Aromatherapy of bergamot has shown a marked reduction in pain caused by cancer in clinical trials.35 Development is underway to improve the bioavailability of bergamot in order to use it for human cancer trials for treatment purposes.36
Peppermint: This essential oil contains potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, and is cytotoxic to cancer cells in in vitro studies.37,38 Furthermore, peppermint has radioprotective abilities, meaning it can protect healthy tissue during radiation treatment.39 It is often used to relieve dyspepsia and general gastrointestinal discomfort, as well as nausea, caused by chemotherapy use – peppermint tea is a good way to see if it alleviates these symptoms at home.40
Lemongrass: A popular anti-anxiety oil and sleep aid, lemongrass has proven antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects.42-44 Several in vivo and animal studies confirm its anticancer abilities.43,45 Lemongrass has also been used in clinical trials to successfully treat antifungal and anemia issues in humans46 Lemongrass may interfere with certain cancer medications, and that may be why it has not been tested in human cancer trials.47
Tea Tree: Tea tree is an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal essential oil that is often used to treat skin issues, such as acne and insect bites, as well as cleaning products.48 Aromatherapy with tea tree essential oil has shown improved sleep, reductions in anxiety and depression, and overall wellbeing in cancer patients.24 Current animal and in vitro studies suggest tea tree oil may fight melanoma and other subcutaneous tumors via diluted application on the affected area.49,50 Clinical trials have found success in treating oral candidosis (oral thrush) in oral cancer patients with tea tree oil.51
Evening Primrose Oil: This essential oil is most popular for treating pain, specifically mastalgia (breast pain), and inflammation.52 Clinical trials supporting these claims are mixed, but in vitro and animal studies of evening primrose oil demonstrates anti-inflammatory and anti-angiogenic activity.53,54 A small study showed that evening primrose oil may enhance the effectiveness of the popular breast cancer drug, Tamoxifen.55
Myrrh: Myrrh is a popular fragrance that may have promising uses for cancer treatment in the future. It is from the same plant family as frankincense, and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.56 A study released this year isolated the main constituents of myrrh and pinpointed a specific compound which demonstrates anti-cancer effects on mammary tumor cells both in vitro and in vivo.57 A further study suggests myrrh derivatives can regulate and prevent metastasis and induce apoptosis in cancer cells.58
The future looks bright for essential oil’s role in cancer treatment. Several plants exhibit powerful anti-carcinogenic effects, and their individual active compounds have been isolated and studied. Future research is needed to determine the effectiveness of specific essential oils and cancer treatment on human patients.
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 Frank, M., Yang, Q., Osban, J., Axxarello, J., Saban, M., Saban, R., et al. (2009) Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity. BMC Complement Altern Med. 18(9): pp. 6.
 Ahmed, H., Abd-Rabou, A., Hassan, A., and Kotob, S. (2015) Phytochemical Analysis and Anti-cancer Investigation of Boswellia serrata Bioactive Constituents In Vitro. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 16(16): pp 7179-7188.
 Yazdanpanahi, N., Behbahani, M., and Yektaeian, A. (2014) Effect of boswellia thurifera gum methanol extract on cytotoxicity and p53 gene expression in human breast cancer cell line. Iran J Pharm Res. 13(2): pp. 719-724.
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