Essential Oils & Autoimmune Disease
You might have read on the Internet or heard from your doctor, that if you have an autoimmune disease, you shouldn’t use essential oils because they stimulate the immune system. This isn’t necessarily valid, and as per usual, the Internet doesn’t always get it right, so let’s talk about it.
Essential Oils As Immunomodulatory
We don’t know a whole lot about how essential oils impact the immune system, but we are learning. And we have seen that they can be immunomodulatory.
Immunomodulation is the action of increasing response in the immune system when there are deficiencies, or suppressing the system, usually in the case of allergies, autoimmune disease, or organ transplant. The goal in suppression is to weaken the immune system. In these cases, the immune system is working overtime in destroying the body’s own tissues or having a misguided reaction/hypersensitivity to a generally harmless substance.
What we see with essential oils is that they can do both things, and that their constituents on their own can do both things. They can both augment and also suppress parts of the immune system.
Eucalyptus oil, for example, can activate in the innate immune system, which is the naturally existing immune system we have. It increases phagocytic activity and pathogen clearance from the body. But it also can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines. These are signaling molecules that come from immune cells that encourage inflammation. Inflammation is a key part of disease. This action was seen both with the whole essential oil, but also the main constituent 1,8-cineole. This is important.
Other Immune Responses
Essential oils are also known to prime T-cells, which is creating an immune response. Increasing the immune system. And this is a form of allergic response to an essential oil. The main antidote to this is to dilute essential oils as it reduces the risk of developing this allergic response.
But we also use essential oils to reduce allergies at the immune level. Lavender, for example, inhibited IgE response and release of histamines. These are antibodies that are produced in response to an allergen and then attach to mast cells and release histamine which causes allergic symptoms. Typically, during allergy season, people take antihistamines to reduce those symptoms. Lavender oil was shown to stop that antibody response and stop the release of histamines. There are a few other constituents like citronellol and limonene that have similar effects.
Peppermint, spearmint, as well as thymol, carvacrol also show they reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines, and have inhibitory effects.
Adaptogenic & Heterogeneous
The research shows that essential oils can do both. They can increase activity and take care of infection or suppress activity. Some of the conclusions around this are that it is contributed to the whole essential oil, but often the effects are greater for specific constituents. When they isolate menthol from peppermint for example, the effects are greater for menthol on its own than peppermint as a whole. The oil as a whole has effects as well, but what this says is that the oil has a synergistic effect, but that it can also work as antagonist. It can either donate to or stop pharmacological properties.
This means that there’s no definitive way that it will work. It can do both things. Essential oils are heterogeneous, meaning they have multiple actions due to the multitude of constituents and the synergistic way they work, but they are also adaptogenic as well. Meaning, they will work differently in each person.
Origins of Myth
The idea that people with autoimmune disease should not use essential oils might be attributed to safety information reported by some experts. The comment was that lavender might not be appropriate for people with MS, multiple sclerosis based on its ability to increase some immune cells. This went haywire on the Internet as it often does. The follow-up this person has given is that this is theoretical. We don’t actually know. It’s possible that this might happen, but it isn’t definitive. Those specific immune cells he was discussing are typically high in people with MS, but sometimes they’re also low. Sometimes they fluctuate. None of this research was tested on any patient who has MS. Most of the research was done in vitro, in a petri dish, or in animal studies and so it’s not definitive.
We don’t know how essential oils might impact autoimmune disease, but there are no studies that indicate that essential oils worsen autoimmune disease.
So, should you use them or not? The answer is that you can if you choose to. The best approach is around symptom management and stress reduction. And here’s why:
- The role of stress in the immune system is important. Stress releases cortisol in the body. In the short term, cortisol does important things, but elevated levels over time have profound effects. Short term, acute stress, appears to have a positive effect on the immune system. But chronic, long term stress has a negative effect on the immune system. The more stress there is, the more immunosuppression occurs, which means that people tend to get sick and have slower wound healing and other things. But also, for autoimmune disease, stress enhances the risk of developing autoimmune disease. People with auto-immune disease also have difficulty down-regulating the immune system, meaning suppressing a response, after exposure to stressors. This leads to the immune system being activated, which leads to exacerbation of disease, which creates more stress in the body.
- Aromatherapy is a great complementary therapy for reducing stress and reducing the impact of stress in the body. Simply inhaling certain essential oils can reduce cortisol levels. It also works through the brain and psychological mechanism. Focus on using essential oils in these ways, to help symptoms like pain, difficulty sleeping, irritability, mood dysregulation, stress reduction etc.
- The best approach is to focus on stress and symptoms. Use gentle doses, so low dilution blends appropriate for the concern, and look at reducing the impact of stress in the body with aromatherapy. These can be essential oils like lavender, orange, bergamot, neroli, vetiver, valerian. Focus on getting good sleep. And in terms of holistic health for your autoimmune disease, lifestyle and diet factors are extremely important.
- The best advice is to avoid the research. Learn how essential oils works in your body. How it affects you will not be the same way it affects someone else and there are no definitive answers here. Overall, the protocol should focus on symptom management, stress reduction and reducing the impacts of stress, and using gentle doses. Don’t rev your stressed body into max gear.
Can you use essential oils? Yes, if you choose.
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