Can Essential Oils Relieve Inflammation?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on September 26, 2016Written by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN on September 26, 2016

Understanding inflammation

You can't escape essential oils these days, but can you actually use them? People who use essential oils claim that they are helpful for everything from relaxation and sleeping to reducing inflammation in the body.

Inflammation occurs in the body when the immune system is activated. Inflammation can have many different causes, such as from an infection or even a reaction to a food allergy. The body senses that something is wrong, so it sends blood cells to that area to help heal what's wrong and kill off any "invaders.”

However, not all inflammation is good. Your body can't necessarily tell whether something is wrong or if you're just stressed because of a big work project. Either way, it will produce inflammation to try to help in any way it can. Over time, this may tire out your immune system or cause problems in other parts of your body.

What the research says

Antioxidants can reduce the harmful effects of inflammation in the body. This may be why you hear a lot about the importance of eating antioxidant-rich food to keep you healthy. Some researchers have also looked at whether essential oils can be used as antioxidants to help reduce inflammation. Although research is limited, there’s some evidence to suggest that essential oils help.

A 2010 study found that the following essential oils had anti-inflammatory properties:

  • thyme
  • clove
  • rose
  • eucalyptus
  • fennel
  • bergamot

Researchers found that these oils reduced the expression of the inflammatory COX-2 enzyme by at least 25 percent. Thyme essential oil had the most effects, reducing COX-2 levels by nearly 75 percent.

The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy also lists many oils that may reduce inflammation, including:

  • roman chamomile
  • ginger
  • helichrysum
  • patchouli

How to use essential oils for inflammation

Because inflammation affects the whole body, essential oils can be used in a few different ways to treat it:

Diffusion: You can buy an essential oil diffuser online or even at stores such as Wal-Mart or CVS. A diffuser will allow essential oil particles to disperse directly into the air. Inhaling the scent may help you relax. If your inflammation is stress-related, this may be beneficial.

Massage: You can apply diluted essential oil directly to the affected area to help reduce swelling and pain.

By mouth: Although rare, there are some types of essential oils that are meant to be gargled. Researchers in a 2011 review found that using an essential oil mouthwash was helpful in reducing gum inflammation caused by gingivitis. Be sure to consult your doctor before trying this method. Essential oils aren’t meant to be swallowed.

If you plan to use essential oils topically, there are a few things that you should keep in mind. You should never apply undiluted essential oil to the skin. Be sure to add 1 ounce of carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba, to every dozen drops of essential oil.

Before application, do a skin patch test. This is generally done on the inside of the arm. It will allow you to determine whether your skin is going to react poorly. If you don’t experience any irritation or inflammation within 24 hours, it should be safe to use.

Risks and warnings

Using an essential oil to ease inflammation isn’t a first-line treatment. If you have inflammation in your body, it means that somewhere, something in your body is crying out for help.

In order to really treat the inflammation in your body, you have to go to the source. Consult your doctor so they can help you figure out what’s wrong. You don't want to "mask" the inflammation with essential oils without first fixing the underlying medical issue.

In some cases, if you’re sensitive to a certain essential oil or have an allergic reaction, you may make your inflammation worse. Use caution if you have asthma or another respiratory condition.

If you’re pregnant or breast-feeding, you should exercise caution when using essential oils of any kind.

What you should do now

If you’re experiencing unusual or persistent inflammation, consult your doctor. They can work with you to determine the cause and figure out how to best ease any discomfort that you may be experiencing.

In the meantime, you can try using essential oils or more traditional remedies for inflammation. These include taking an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, or using heat or cold therapy to relieve discomfort.

Keep reading: Best natural remedies for psoriatic arthritis »

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