Can Essential Oils Help with Crohns Disease?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are aromatic substances that are extracted from plants, often through a distillation process. They can come from many different parts of a plant, such as the seeds, flowers, or roots.

Essential oils have long been used as traditional or home remedies for various conditions. Some compounds in essential oils have been found to have anti- inflammatory, antimicrobial, or antioxidant properties, just to name a few.

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When essential oils are used to help promote health and well-being, it’s called aromatherapy. In aromatherapy, essential oils are typically inhaled or applied topically through balms or massage oils.

Indian frankincense

Frankincense comes from the resin of Boswellia trees. It has a warm and spicy or woody aroma. Several species of Boswellia tree can be used to make frankincense, including:

  • Boswellia carteri
  • Boswellia sacra
  • Boswellia serrata (Indian frankincense)

The last of these, B. serrata, has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases. As such, it’s been researched for its potential to ease symptoms of IBD.

What the research says

A 2015 study looked at the effects of B. serrata extract on intestinal cells cultured in a lab. Researchers found that B. serrata extract appeared to protect these cells from damage due to inflammation and oxygen radicals.

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Human studies on the efficacy of B. serrata for Crohn’s disease are limited — and the results have been conflicting.

For example, a 2001 study found that B. serrata extract wasn’t inferior to mesalazine (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) in treating active Crohn’s disease.

However, a 2011 study found that, although B. serrata extract was well tolerated, it wasn’t more effective than a placebo for maintaining Crohn’s disease remission.

Overall, more research is needed to determine the efficacy of B. serrata for Crohn’s disease. Additionally, it’s important to note that no studies have been performed on the use of aromatherapy with B. serrata essential oil for Crohn’s disease symptoms.

Wormwood

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Wormwood comes from the plant species Artemisia absinthium. You may recognize wormwood as an ingredient in beverages, like absinthe and vermouth. It has a warm herbal or woody scent.

Wormwood has historically been used to help with digestive problems. It’s also been found to inhibit some markers of inflammation in the body.

Because of this, wormwood has been investigated as a potential therapy for symptoms of Crohn’s disease. However, as with B. serrata, these studies involved herbal blends and powder of wormwood rather than essential oils.

What the research says

In a 2007 study, 20 people taking daily prednisone for Crohn’s disease were given an herbal blend of wormwood for 10 weeks. During this time, their steroid dose was gradually tapered off.

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After 8 weeks, 65 percent of the participants taking wormwood had remission of their Crohn’s symptoms, compared to none in the 20-person placebo group. This continued until the end of the 20-week observation period.

A 2010 study looked at the effect of wormwood supplementation in 10 people with Crohn’s disease. These individuals had wormwood powder added to their Crohn’s disease treatment regimen.

After 6 weeks, 80 percent of the people taking the wormwood powder had remission, compared to 20 percent of the people in the 10-person placebo group. Markers of inflammation also fell in individuals taking the wormwood powder.

Other essential oils for Crohn’s disease

Now let’s look at other essential oils that may potentially help ease Crohn’s disease symptoms. Much of this research is in its very early stages, with studies being carried out in rat models of colitis.

Patchouli
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Patchouli essential oil comes from the leaves of the patchouli plant. It has a strong earthy or musky scent that’s slightly sweet.

Patchouli has been used in traditional medicine to ease digestive symptoms, like gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.

A 2017 study looked at the effect of patchouli essential oil in a rat model of IBD. Researchers found that patchouli essential oil reduced disease activity, as well as damage to the tissues of the colon.

Sweet basil

Sweet basil essential oil comes from the plant species Ocimum basilicum. This is the same plant that’s used as a spice in dishes around the world. It has a warm herbal scent.

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Sweet basil has been used in some types of traditional medicine to ease digestive discomfort and symptoms of IBD. It also has antioxidant properties.

A 2016 study investigated the effect of sweet basil essential oil in a rat model of colitis. Sweet basil essential oil was found to lower inflammation, as well as the severity of tissue damage in the colon.

Rosemary

Rosemary essential oil comes from the plant Rosmarinus officinalis. Like sweet basil, rosemary is used as a spice in many types of food. It has a fresh, woody scent.

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Rosemary can have effects on the digestive system and has been used to relieve digestive symptoms, like indigestion and constipation. Like many of the essential oils we already discussed, rosemary also has anti-inflammatory effects.

A 2011 study assessed the impact of various doses of rosemary essential oil in a rat model of colitis. It was observed that rosemary essential oil reduced disease severity and tissue damage in the rats at all dose levels.

Peppermint

Peppermint essential oil comes from the plant Mentha piperita. Along with spearmint, it’s in the mint family of plants. As such, it has a strong minty scent.

Peppermint essential oil has antispasmodic effects, meaning that it can relax muscle spasms. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. As such, it’s been researched as a therapy for the symptoms of a variety of digestive conditions, particularly irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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A 2018 study looked at the effect of menthol — an active ingredient in peppermint essential oil — in a rat model of colitis. Menthol treatment was found to improve body weight, reduce tissue damage, and lower markers of inflammation.

Ginger

Ginger essential oil comes from the root of the plant Zingiber officinale. The ginger root itself is often used to provide flavor to many different types of dishes. It has a strong spicy or fiery scent.

Ginger has been used traditionally to alleviate a variety of digestive symptoms. Some examples include pain, gas, and nausea.

A 2014 study looked at ginger oil in a rat model of colitis. Researchers found that higher doses of ginger oil lowered both the extent and severity of inflammation. The severity of tissue damage was also reduced.

How do I use essential oils for Crohn’s disease?

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Here are some important points about how to use essential oils for Crohn’s disease. We’ll discuss some general considerations first and then cover the different types of applications.

General considerations

Always speak with a healthcare professional before using essential oils for Crohn’s disease. They can advise you on how to use the oils, the potential risks involved, and any side effects that you may experience.

This is especially important if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Some essential oils, such as wormwood, may be harmful to use during this time.

It’s important to know that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils in the same way it does drugs or medications. Because of this, always get your essential oils from a reputable source.

Using essential oils topically
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Essential oils are very concentrated and can cause skin irritation. To prevent this, you can dilute them in a carrier oil before they’re applied topically. Some common types of carrier oils are jojoba, avocado, and coconut.

When starting out with essential oils, it’s a good idea to use a more diluted preparation. For a 2.5 percent solution, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommends using 15 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil.

Some people may have a skin reaction to certain essential oils, so it’s always a good idea to do a patch test on a small area of skin first.

To do this:

  1. Place a small amount of diluted essential oil on the skin of your arm or wrist.
  2. Cover the area with a clean bandage for 24 hours.
  3. Remove the bandage and check the area. If you notice areas of redness or swelling, don’t use the essential oil on your skin.
Inhaling essential oils
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When inhaling essential oils, always make sure that you’re in a well-ventilated room. If, at any point, you experience respiratory irritation or develop a headache, leave the room and get fresh air.

NAHA recommends sticking to the following guidelines for inhaling essential oils:

  • Direct inhalation. Place 2 to 4 drops of an essential oil on a cotton ball and take a couple of deep breaths through your nose.
  • Steam inhalation. Add essential oils to a bowl of boiling water at a dilution of 6 drops per ounce of water. Cover your head with a towel, leaning over the bowl and inhaling through your nose.
  • Sprays. Add up to 15 drops of essential oil per ounce of distilled water to a spray bottle.
  • Diffusers. Carefully follow the product instructions that were provided with your diffuser.
Internal use of essential oils

You may have seen blogs or websites that suggest adding essential oils to foods and drinks. However, it’s very important to avoid doing this unless you’re acting under the guidance of a properly trained professional.

This is because some essential oils can be toxic when ingested. Also, remember that the FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, meaning that some products may contain harmful impurities or adulterants.

The takeaway

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Crohn’s disease is a condition that can cause symptoms, like abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating. In addition to standard treatments, some people may choose to use essential oils to help with their symptoms.

Research is currently very limited on the efficacy of essential oils for Crohn’s disease. Some oils that have the potential to be beneficial for Crohn’s symptoms include Boswellia serrata, wormwood, patchouli, and ginger.

It’s important to follow safety guidelines when inhaling essential oils or using them topically. Avoid ingesting essential oils, as some can be toxic. Talk with a doctor before adding aromatherapy to your Crohn’s disease treatment plan to make sure it’s safe for you.

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