Aromatherapy and the SARS Virus

Jane Buckle, author of Clinical Aromatherapy in Nursing, quotes an article from the science pages of the Economist Magazine saying that “no viral epidemic has ever been stopped by drugs”. She goes on to say that synthetic viricides are difficult to manufacture and that none appear to be totally effective and are accompanied by moderate to severe side effects. Since new viruses appear all the time from unknown sources and since mainstream treatments are lacking, viral diseases represent a significant threat to health worldwide.

The effectiveness of some essential oils as both antibacterial and antiviral agents has been reported for a very long time. During the bubonic plague (caused by the Yersinia pestis bacillus) that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, killing more than 30% of the population in affected areas, it was observed that people who worked in the lavender distilleries and in other industries using essential oils rarely contracted the disease. Several recipes for preventing plague with essential oils became popular during this time and it was common for people to carry bundles of dried herbs mixed with essential oils on their person. In addition to lavender, cedarwood and cypress were often used. While certainly of interest, anecdotal evidence of this kind is not scientific. In more modern times, anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of essential oils against both bacteria and viruses has steadily accumulated and, to some more importantly, proper scientific investigations have been conducted since the 1950’s.

A number of essential oils have been shown in scientific research studies to have actions against a variety of viruses including Herpes Simplex I, Herpes Zoster (shingles), some strains of influenza virus, adenovirus, glandular fever, viral enteritis, viral enterocolitis, viral hepatitis, viral neuritis, polio, cowpox, human rhinovirus Type II, Newcastle Disease, mumps, parainfluenza virus 1,2, and 3, and even HIV-1. Specific essential oils have been shown to act against specific viruses. For example, essential oil of Houttynia cordata was shown in a 1994 Japanese study to have remarkable effects against HIV-1 but no effects against polio or coxsackievirus).

Writing in 1980, the famous French surgeon, Dr. Jean Valnet, reported his clinical success in treating serious cases of shingles and influenza with a mixture of essential oils. Some of the oils he mentions include pine, thyme and lemon which are widely used as antivirals in clinical aromatherapy practice today. During the 1990’s doctors Franchomme and Peneol also reported clinical success in the use of essential oils against viral infections.

In some studies, specific components of essential oils have been isolated and found to have antiviral properties. These include, among others, anethole, carvone, beta-caryophyllene, citral, eugenol, limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate. Several methods of antiviral action have been proposed for essential oils and essential oil components. For example, investigators have hypothesized that some essential oils interfere with surface glycoproteins in the viral envelope, thus preventing attachment of the virus to host cells. Other essential oils are believed to attack viruses in the host cells, possibly at the level of the cell membrane. Of course, many essential oils are well known for their ability to stimulate the immune system and may offer some indirect protection against viral infection through these effects.

Dr. Franchomme has suggested that coated viruses (those with an external lipid layer) are sensitive to those essential oils which have high levels of mono-terpene alcohols and phenols whereas uncoated viruses are sensitive to oils high in terpenoid ketones. Peneol suggests further that essential oils alter the pH and electrical resistance of the body in a way that is less favorable to viruses. Concerning the prevention and treatment of the flu, he suggests that if essential oils are used externally right at the onset of symptoms, the influenza can be stopped on the first day. He also suggests external use of essential oil blends as a preventative measure.

Although the research demonstrating the antiviral effects of essential oils seems to have been largely ignored by mainstream American medicine, it has not been ignored by companies in Europe involved in the development of natural alternatives to synthetic medicines. Patents have been filed abroad for antiviral preparations based on essential oils and commercial antiviral preparations employing essential oils have been available for some time.

Essential Oil Blends for SARS: What does this means for the current outbreak of SARS? Since SARS has only recently appeared, there have not been any studies which have examined the effectiveness of essential oils against this virus. Thus it cannot be said at this time that essential oils have any action against SARS. However, since essential oils have been shown to have effects against a very wide range of other viruses and are also known to be immune systems stimulants it is possible that some essential oils may also prove to be of help in reducing the spread of SARS. Given the present situation, there is an urgent need for research to determine the effectiveness of essential oils against SARS. Since the action of essential oils against viruses appears to have a marked degree of specificity (in other words, since only certain oils act against certain viruses), a wide range of known anti-viral essential oils should be investigated, as well as various blends of essential oils. In dealing with viral infections in general (flu, colds, etc.), clinical aromatherapists most often utilize blends of essential oils, rather than single oils. In order to be safely employed by many people, any essential oil blend needs to be free from those essential oils that are known to produce a high frequency of allergic reactions or to have other undesirable side effects. One of the great advantages of using essential oils is that they can be used externally, either by diffusing them into the air in the home or clinic; by applying them to the body in a massage oil; or by applying a drop to a face mask. Special nasal inhalers are also available. These are small clips that fit into the nose and protect the skin from contact with the oil.

All persons who choose to use any essential oil blend in SARS affected areas are advised to follow all other recommended and common sense precautions for avoiding the spread of SARS since scientific studies have not yet been conducted to determine the effectiveness of essential oils against SARS virus.

*This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

© 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School | All Rights Reserved

This article, “Aromatherapy and the SARS Virus” was originally published for Dreaming Earth Botanicals, LLC

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