As a rule, I avoid any party with the underlying purpose of selling me something. (Also, any party without cake.) So a few years back, when I attended an essential oils “party” as a favor to a friend, I arrived wearing my full armor of skepticism against these popular alternative health products. I had heard too many tales of people treating harmful conditions with nothing more than a few drops of oil — sometimes with disastrous results. I didn’t mind hanging out with a group of ladies to inhale some pleasant scents of lavender and jasmine, but for any health claims beyond aromatherapy, my BS filter was strapped on tight.

essential oil

My biases were confirmed when the party hostess made what I considered some pretty outrageous statements about essential oils’ abilities to treat a variety of illnesses and ailments. She asserted that a kit of essential oils (a very pricey kit, at that) could completely replace the entire contents of my medicine cabinet. These oils seep through your skin directly into your bloodstream, she said, bringing healing from within. When I asked a specific question about this physiological mechanism, she answered with a vague comment about “the science” her company had conducted. As someone who’s been trained to respect peer-reviewed research, the lack of hard evidence behind her sales pitch left me unconvinced. Needless to say, I went home without any frankincense or lemon balm of my own.

Still, not long afterward, when I complained of my recurring headaches to another pro-oils friend, she happened to give me a sample bottle of peppermint oil. “Just try it,” she said. “It’s worked wonders for my migraines.” Not wanting to offend, I accepted the tiny vial. Before long, like clockwork, my twice-a-month headache flared up. With nothing to lose (because, let’s face it, OTC pain meds don’t always do the trick), I rubbed a bit of the oil on the painful areas of my head and neck. Though it didn’t work like a miracle salve, I was amazed to find that it did actually take the edge off of my headache. The longer the tingly oil sat on my skin, the more I felt my cantankerous pain quieted, as though a cool, soothing compress had been applied to the soreness.

Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I didn’t want to drop major cash on any top-of-the-line oils, so I picked up a $5 bottle of peppermint oil at a discount retailer, just to have on hand. Since that time, I’m staggered to report, this inexpensive bottle has not only soothed my headaches, but has also given me dramatic relief from stomach pain on numerous occasions. When my family was on an extended vacation abroad, I came down with a bout of extreme stomach cramps. Terrified of having to go to the ER in a foreign country, I reached for the peppermint oil I had packed for headaches. (Somewhere I had read it could be effective for stomach pain as well.) I applied some directly to my abdomen and, sure enough, it was enough to get me through the worst of the pain — and avoid a trip to the hospital.

While I may not be a total essential oils fanatic these days, I’ve certainly become a devotee of peppermint oil for aches and pains. I honestly can’t say I know of any other medicine that compares in terms of low cost and low risk of side effects. And, hey, the Christmas candy cane smell is a nice bonus too.

To my surprise, a body of research does exist on this particular oil’s impact on both headaches and stomach pain. A 2016 study found that, as a headache treatment, peppermint oil was significantly more effective than a placebo, comparable to the active ingredient in Tylenol. And as far back as 2005, researchers looked at oral peppermint oil’s impact on IBS. They determined that, “to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life” in IBS sufferers, it could be the best choice for a first line of defense.

Oh, and the “seeps into your bloodstream” comment I thought was bonkers? Turns out there’s something to it: To varying degrees, compounds in different oils do get absorbed through the skin and enter the blood, where they can take effect on a cellular level.

In the end, I realize my “conversion” from essential oils skeptic to believer has taught me another powerful lesson. Sometimes, when it comes to health and healing, the hard science may be less important than the results. Even if essential oils only function as a placebo, if they bring relief from stomach pain or let me live with fewer headaches, does it really matter how they work?

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