Essential Oils for Addiction Treatment

Authored by Helen Parson

Edited by Alexander Bentley

Reviewed by Michael Por

Essential Oils for Addiction Treatment

 

Essential oils are the subject of many claims, mostly about the health benefits they can bring, especially when used through aromatherapy. Some of these include their use to help treat addiction. Indeed, some proponents even go so far as to suggest specific oils for specific addictions.

 

However, like any alternative or complementary medicine, there is no scientific or clinical evidence to suggest that essential oils can be an effective treatment for addiction.

 

Despite this, they can be a part, and a helpful part, of addiction treatment. The key is to consider them a complementary form of therapy which can help the patient on their journey towards an addiction-free life11.N. Dagli, R. Dagli, R. S. Mahmoud and K. Baroudi, Essential oils, their therapeutic properties, and implication in dentistry: A review – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606594/.

 

Claims Behind Oils for Addiction Treatment

 

Proponents of essential oils have made various claims about their effectiveness, which have varying degrees of plausibility.

 

Perhaps the least plausible are those that call on eastern medical traditions. These will often ascribe the causes of ill-health, mental and physical, including addiction, to blockages in the body’s energy flow. The claim is that aromatherapy, and other alternative medicines, can be effective by removing these blockages. There is, however, no evidence supporting this tradition of medicine.

 

More often, and perhaps more plausibly, the claim is that oils will, through their smell, have a chemical effect on the brain. This leads to claims that the different oils, with different smells, will have different effects.

 

Examples might be that chamomile can help alleviate anxiety, therefore helping to address cravings caused by changes in the brain chemistry, or that lavender can help promote sleep, and have a sedative effect, therefore help address the side effects of addiction or withdrawal.

 

A common definition of alternative or complementary medicine is the lack of evidence, or even a plausible explanation, for its effectiveness. Studies into essential oils have found no evidence to support the claimed effects that are ascribed to them.

 

Scientific Opinion of Essential Scents for Addiction Treatment

 

The main reason essential oils are, clinically, considered ineffective is because they have no active ingredients. While proponents will ascribe particular qualities to specific oils, when analyzed these oils will not contain any ingredients that have psychoactive qualities.

 

This is even true when the source of the oil could plausibly have a psychoactive effect. An example of this is valerian, which does have some compounds that can have a sedative effect, including binding to receptors that play a role in addiction, but the processing of an essential oil removes or destroys all the active compounds. Indeed, even in forms that retain some of those ingredients, they are at a concentration that is so low it would not be considered effective.

 

Many of the effects ascribed to essential oils can be explained by the placebo effect. In other words, the same effects can be generated when the patient is, unknowingly, treated with an totally inert substitute instead of an essential oil. Interestingly, though, while medical science suggests essential oils themselves have no direct benefit, they are increasingly interested in the placebo effect, whatever the cause.

 

Recent studies have looked at the clinical effectiveness of stimulating a placebo effect and have even found that patients who know they are being given a placebo, a so-called ‘open-label placebo’, will still benefit.

 

How Can Essential Oils be Used in Recovery?

 

This placebo effect raises the prospect that essential oils could play a part in addiction treatment. While it would be unethical to suggest they are an effective treatment for addiction to promote a placebo response, they still can, for some people, play a useful role in their journey towards recovery. There are several ways essential oils can play a role, supplementing conventional treatment, to help a recovering addict.

 

The most obvious benefit is the placebo effect itself. As noted, even knowing that any effect is likely to be a placebo does not appear, in some cases, to remove the placebo benefit. In this regard, it might be considered that, as long as other proven treatment continued, there is nothing to lose and perhaps a lot to gain in the use of essential oils. This might be especially true for those patients who believe in alternative medicine or simply appreciate the more holistic approach it offers.

 

A second benefit is related to the brain’s structure, and how smell can help. Although essential oils have no active ingredients and no effect on brain chemistry, smell and memory are both processed in the brain’s limbic system and are, therefore, closely associated.

 

The limbic system is, in evolutionary terms, one of the oldest parts of the brain and manages processes including smell, long-term memories, emotion, and behavior. This is one of the reasons that many people will find that some smells evoke very powerful, and often very old, memories.

 

Addiction can be linked with past trauma. It is, therefore, plausible that essential oils can be used to aid recall of more positive memories and emotional states, or even be used to create new memories of these, that will assist an addict. While a smell alone will not amount to treatment, it is possible that, combined with therapy, it could be used to help reinforce changed behaviors by providing a relatively easy way to trigger and access positive memories which can help as part of the patient’s coping strategies.

 

A third, and final, benefit is the creation of new rituals and habits. One of the aims of therapy is often to identify the triggers and behaviors that lead to the addict feeding their addiction. An example might be an addict who turns to substances in response to stress: cognitive behavioral therapy would seek to identify and change the response and subsequent behaviors to identify a way to break the cycle and engage, instead, in a non-addictive activity.

 

Indeed, essential oils can be particularly useful for this purpose. Many addicts will develop a ritual around their behavior, from ‘good luck’ superstitions before gambling, or finding pleasure in the preparation of a drug to take. The range of ways that essential oils can be taken means that they can replace the old ritual, but also become part of a mindfulness practice, whether that’s part of applying them to the body, setting up a diffuser, or preparing them in a tea.

 

Benefits of Essential Oils for Addiction

 

  • Improve your skin health
  • Uplift mood
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Induce calmness and help you enjoy quality sleep
  • Reduce sinus inflammation and treat cold and flu
  • Decrease chronic pain
  • Boost your immune system

 

It is not recommended to rely on oils for detox

 

When a drug or alcohol addict suddenly halts their substance consumption, they usually encounter some painful condition. These are called withdrawal symptoms as the human body enters a phase of detoxification. Without proper medical supervision detox can be deadly and you should rather consult medical professionals in a rehab center to get rid of addiction in a safe way.

 

Withdrawal symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction

 

  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Substance cravings
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Stomach problems
  • Nausea
  • Lack of focus
  • Anxiety

 

Risks to Using Oils & Scents

 

In general, essential oils are harmless. Since they have no active ingredients, they have relatively little effect on the body that might cause harm. This is especially true if they are used purely for aromatherapy, like any smell, they might be pleasant or unpleasant, and might evoke memories, but the effects are limited to the perception of the smell.

 

Essential scents might pose some risks if used in different ways, however. Some oils, if applied topically, may cause irritation, especially if the individual has sensitive skin. Some may also contain ingredients that can cause digestive problems if ingested.

 

It is important to check that the oil has been manufactured for the planned use. Even then, because essential oils are not regulated in the same way as medicines, it is wise to use with caution, testing a small amount first, to ensure it has no adverse effects.

 

Those who are pregnant or with a pre-existing condition should exercise particular care, especially if using essential oils for ingestion. The risk of toxins or contaminants remaining can present a risk in these situations and, therefore, those in this position are best avoiding essential oils.

 

Essential Scents Are Not a Substitute for Professional Addiction Treatment

 

Perhaps the biggest risk from essential oils is that they might be used as an alternative to proper treatment for an addiction. Unfortunately, there are many who will make claims for alternative medicine that simply cannot be substantiated.

 

Just like there are some who can defeat an addiction on their own with nothing more than willpower, there will be some who feel that essential oils helped them get clean. The fact is, however, that for the vast majority of people the best way to beat an addiction is with professional support and proper, conventional treatment.

 

A professional addiction facility will be well-equipped to help manage the detox, rehab, and recovery process of addiction treatment. This will include offering things like conventional medicine to help manage withdrawal and proven therapies to help prepare an addict for their addiction-free life, as well as helping to address any co-occurring conditions, such as a mental health problem, that might be associated with the addiction.

 

And a professional facility will also be able to incorporate things like essential oils into the treatment as a complementary therapy. Whether this is because the addict has an interest in alternative medicines or simply as a way of encouraging mindfulness, essential oils can help by stimulating positive memories or just creating new rituals of peace and calm.

 

It is hard to overcome an addiction. Unfortunately, despite some claims, essential oils are not a miracle cure, but many people do find them helpful and, alongside conventional treatment, they can form part of the journey from addiction to a clean and sober life.

 

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    1.N. Dagli, R. Dagli, R. S. Mahmoud and K. Baroudi, Essential oils, their therapeutic properties, and implication in dentistry: A review – PMC, PubMed Central (PMC).; Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606594/
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