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Supporting Immunity from Influenza with Essential Oils
With the news of potential pandemic influenza prevailing the airwaves, many folks are turning to natural medicines to support their immune system. There’s great interest in protecting one’s self and one’s family from Swine Flu, Avian Flu and the like. Although there have not been any large-scale trials on influenza-prevention using natural methods, there IS a good amount of data on the anti-viral and immunostimulant activity of essential oils. (For those of you not in-the-know, essential oils are the concentrated, carefully-extracted volatile chemical constituents of plants and plant materials).
Interestingly, it’s been the position of many of the world’s foremost aroma-medicine practitioners that the most medically important use of essential oils is for the attack of infectious illness. Here’s a review of the scientific data, some suggested antiviral recipes*, and instructions to use these oils for yourself and your family.
Research on Essential Oils as Antiviral Agents
Over the last decade, laboratory researchers around the world have found many essential oils are capable of directly eradicating viruses. Further, they may even prevent viruses from moving between cells within the body and limiting the spread of infection. This is not an over-optimistic interpretation of the data by an essential oil proponent, but the actual conclusions of controlled research studies.
Abstracts of all the research mentioned here can be found through pubmed.gov, the database maintained by the National Institute of Health and the US National Library of Medicine. If you wish, you can browse these results by entering search terms such as “essential oil virus”, “antiviral essential oil”, and more specifically “laurus nobilis SARS” (Laurus nobilis being Bay Laurel essential oil, and SARS a highly-infectious viral respiratory ailment).
While there is not yet data where essential oils have been tested against Swine Flu and Avian Flu specifically, as we’ll see there is every reason to believe the oils will be effective against these virus strains as well.
Interpreting the Data: Many Oils vs. Many Viruses
An interpretation of the research can be summed up (and this is only one writer/scientist’s interpretation) as this: MANY essential oils have antiviral activity, some oils more than others — which oil eradicates what virus depends on the oil’s natural chemical makeup AND the unique structure of the virus being tested. Finally that “whole” essential oils have a stronger effect than any single chemical component synthesized or extracted in a laboratory.
A study in the August 2009 Journal of Phytotherapy Research performed by scientists in the Department of Virology at the University of Heidelberg, noted that several chemicals commonly found in natural essential oils exhibited antiviral activity — being able to “reduce viral infectivity by greater than 96%”. The oils studied were Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, and Thyme (chemotypes were not mentioned in the abstract), tested against HSV-1. The researchers also compared the individual chemical constituents of these oils with whole natural Tea Tree, and concluded the “constituents present in natural Tea Tree essential oil revealed a ten-fold higher selectivity index and a lower toxicity” than the isolated single chemicals.
Bay Laurel and the SARS-CoV Virus
Many of the studies utilize the Herpes Simplex Virus as a “test subject”, because of the widespread prevalence of infection, along with the relative ease of testing. However, if one digs into the data, many papers present information relevant in in influenza pandemic. SARS ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’ is caused by the highly infectious SARS-CoV virus that made world-wide news in 2003. A study in the March 2008 Journal of Chemical Biodiversity noted Bay Laurel essential oil to have significant antiviral action against this virus. They’d also noted the natural constituents of this oil, which are also found in a great many other essential oils. This is why you’ll see MANY essential oils noted as antivirals — because many oils share similar natural chemical constituents.
So while this next oil is not readily available, the data is very interesting. In 2005, Chinese researchers evaluated the anti-influenza potential of the essential oil from a root used in Chinese medicine, concluding: “In vivo…it prevented influenza virus-induced deaths in a dose-dependent manner”. And the list of oil/virus combinations goes on and on. But this begs the question: how do we derive a formula for Swine Flu prevention?
Choosing The Best Essential Oils for Influenza Protection
Here’s where we’ll make the leap from the scientific evidence to relying on many many years of Aroma Medicine practice throughout the world. In the aromatherapy textbooks, the list of antiviral essential oils is long. This corroborates with the scientific findings that a great many essential oils DO in-fact have antiviral activity.
Where the help of skilled professional practitioners comes in is that in these texts, oils are prescribed by how effective they are against viruses that produce particular symptoms — respiratory tract infections are exposed to cineol-containing oils such as Eucalyptus Radiata and Ravensara Aromatica. Viral infections of the skin are often exposed to Melissa and/or Tea Tree. The doctors who have been using essential oils as medicine for years in Europe have developed a solid system, and can be relied upon in defining the appropriate list of oils for us.
A short list of essential oils that one can select from to support immunity against influenza infection includes the following: Melissa (having significant anti-HSV activity, it is also thought to be a potent immunostimulant — boosting the ability of our immune defense), Tea Tree (a very broad spectrum antiviral/antimicrobial), Rosalina (also known as Lavender Tea Tree, with a natural chemical profile containing constituents of both these oils), Lavender (commonly used as an anti-stress agent — which itself supports immune system function — and also having antiviral action), Bay Laurel (Laurel Leaf, reported effective against SARS-CoV), Ravensara aromatica, Eucalyptus Radiata (one of many Eucalyptus species, this one is most often noted as “antiviral”), Frankincense (considered by some the most effective immunostimulant oil available), Thyme, and Hyssop decumbens (a highly regarded antiviral, with a highly complex natural chemistry makeup).
An Influenza Prevention Recipe
An example blend including these oils: 2 parts Melissa, 1 part Thyme (Thujanol, Geraniol or Linalool), 4 parts Lavender, 3 parts Ravensara, 4 parts Eucalyptus Radiata (Narrow Leaf), 3 parts Hyssop, 6 parts Rosalina (Melaluca ericifolia) and 3 parts Bay Laurel. A “part” can be anything — a milliliter, a drop, an ounce — just as long as they’re consistently the same volume.
For children between 2 and 13, use 4 parts Lavender, 3 parts Rosalina, 1 part Ravensara, 1 part Eucalyptus and 3 parts Bay Laurel. This recipe is excellent as a lower-cost version for adults as well — and has been made more gentle for the young ones (consult Valerie Worwood’s “Aromatherapy for the Healthy Child” for more on using essential oils with kids).
How To Use The Oils for Influenza Prevention: Diffusion
The best way to use these oils is through diffusion, which is essentially “rapid evaporation”. A nebulizing aromatherapy diffuser will make a fine mist of essential oil which cleanly evaporates in your surroundings. This method allows a low concentration of the oils to be inhaled regularly. The effect is to actually disinfect the air in your home, as well as getting the oils into one’s lungs and bloodstream in small amounts.
A feature of oils’ activity is that they are reported to reduce the ability of viruses to penetrate cell walls, so the lungs and sinuses become protected just by breathing the oil-infused air. Be careful not to overdo it though — the aroma should never be overwhelming or irritating, and your body will tell you if you’ve had enough. The oils do their immune-supportive job in subtle ways, which require only the smallest amounts of oil.
The casual inhalation of the oils also gets them into circulation throughout the bloodstream, penetrating all the organ systems, and most importantly the lymph system — home to our immune function. A cold air nebulizing diffuser (as oppposed to an ‘ultrasonic’, which dilutes the oils with water) would ideally be run 5-10 minutes every hour for this purpose.
Topical Application and Baths
Immune-protection topical oil blends can be easily mixed, putting the essential oil formula in a carrier oil such as Coconut or Jojoba. This concoction can then be massaged daily into the feet (a highly receptive area of the body) or into regions of lymph nodes: the neck, armpits and sternum. Adding the essential oils to a carrier at a 5 to 10% concentration is suitable (10% would be 1 part essential oil mixture to 9 parts carrier oil).
If you’d like to use a topical formula for children, use the “childrens” recipe above, and lower the concentration in the carrier oil to 1% for ages 2-4, 2% for 5-7, 3% for 8-12 (a 1% concentration is 8 drops total essential oils in each fluid ounce of carrier, 2% is 16 drops per ounce, etc). Soaking in a bath with oils added to the water is also an excellent way to gain their benefits — for young kids, add 2 drops essential oil to a teaspoon of ANY carrier oil (olive oil from the kitchen will do fine), then swirl this into the bath once it’s been drawn. 4 drops essential oil blend for older children, and 6 drops for adults.
Conclusion: Essential Oils, Infectious Illness and the Future
As noted earlier, the world’s leading aroma-medicine practitioners believe the most important healing potential for essential oils is in the area of infectious illness. Of course, one should evaluate every available means of strengthening their immune system and those of their loved ones — there are many ways health professionals will recommend to do this.
Considering the scientific data, essential oils are certainly a very worthy method of providing this support. Given all the contagions, Swine flu, Avian flu, and ones yet to be named, natural medicines have the long-term advantage of not being easily “adapted to” by viruses. The oils are so complex, and have evolved as the defense mechanism of plants over millions of years that they may present a far greater challenge to a virus to become resistant to when compared to synthetic preparations. And they’re such a joy to use — you’re house will be smelling fantastic while you’re keeping healthy; a great many amateur practitioners will concur that think you’ll find essential oils very worthwile.*