Updated: Jan 10

Plant-derived oils are copiously touted to help every ailment. Science has an issue with that.

Samantha Brody is tall when she stands up on our Zoom call, and her wide cherub face displays an eternal enthusiasm. Her coiffed hair lays neatly across her shoulders as she puts a few drops of peppermint oil into a pregnant essential oil diffuser shaped like a tear drop. “My first experience with oils was not a great one,” she tells me. She pushes a button on the diffuser, and it glows purple and green and blue as a fine mist permeates the room. I can almost smell it. “I mixed up lavender oil with frankincense thinking it would help the sunspots on my hands. I didn’t dilute it and rubbed it into my skin. Big mistake.” The oil burned her skin, causing her hands to turn a bright pink. Then her body absorbed the oil and she developed large rashes from head to toe. Only a doctor visit, a shot of cortisone, and ten days of hydrating with water returned her to normal. “I confess, though, essential oils help me sleep. I swear by lavender oil.”

Essential History

While Samantha’s initial experience with oils was troubling, it is one based on lack of knowledge for the user, a common gaffe with essential oils. While the oils are plant-based and natural, the safety of any oil depends largely on the person using it, and with any plant product, these oils can contribute to skin irritation, respiratory symptoms, and even hormone-related issues. Despite those cautions, the essential oil market is now valued at $7.3 billion and is expected to reach $14.6 billion by 2026. Yet science seems to scoff at those numbers, as research is inconclusive as to how effective the oils are, and even if they are good for you.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years in cosmetics, perfumes and for therapeutic purposes by ancient cultures from Asia and India, as well as the Egyptians and Romans. Today, essential oils are used to add scent to cosmetics and cleaning products, and to flavor food and beverages. Companies such as doTERRA sell the more medicinal versions – small vials filled with different oils for everything from better sleep to acne – and the company claimed its revenue exceeded $1.7 billion in sales in 2020. Yet this medicinal form is a late trend in the United States, as many other countries have used oils for centuries.

Dilini Vethanayagam, an MD and associate professor of pulmonary medicine at the University of Alberta, says Western countries are simply late to the market. “I’m originally from South Asia, and alternative medicines are very popular there, but that’s over many decades of training,” she reminds us, as most consumers using essential oils don’t have PhDs in chemistry.

A Coping Mechanism

It has been theorized that people today – especially during a pandemic - are turning to essential oils because they are disappointed by Western medicine, and as a coping mechanism in anxious times. Writer Annaliese Griffin wrote in Quartz that it is especially true of women, since modern medicine and the tremulous U.S. healthcare system has failed them many times. “The medical system is even more terrible for women, whose experience of pain is routinely minimized by health practitioners. … Enter the wellness industry, which specializes in creating safe, welcoming, amber-lit spaces that make people feel cared-for and relaxed, and which treats the female body as its default. … The problem is that the rest of the wellness industry hitches a ride on their coattails of compassion and competency, benefiting from the utter lack of warmth found in mainstream medical treatment.” Her sentiment echoes the lack of empathy in the medical field and provides another form of attraction to essential oils to heal our woes.

Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, and known for demystifying chemistry, tells us that many plants’ compounds are volatile: “Some [are] destined to attract pollinators, others to ward off bugs that have the intention of making a tasty meal of the leaves. It is the volatile chemicals that are regarded as the plant’s essence and are the ones captured in the ‘essential oil.”

Muddy Water

Many of the proclamations concerning essential oils is derived from studies demonstrating that the oils’ chemical compounds have certain benefits, for example, like tea tree oil, which has antibacterial and antifungal properties. The issue, says Schwarcz, is justifying the antibacterial properties to say it can cure your acne. It’s a leap to suggest oils can cure or treat medical conditions. To add to the muddy water, some claims are based on studies where essential oils were tested on rats or other animals rather than humans, or studies that were inconclusive, and of course results indicating a placebo effect.

Schwarcz says that distributors in the essential oil market often make suspicious claims to drive sales. “Some of the people the company has snared with its promises of wealth through multi-level marketing end up making a bevy of claims about essential oils helping with cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, mononucleosis and arthritis,” he says.

As with other complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), the essential oil market is unregulated. Just a few years ago, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to essential oil marketer Young Living’s. They concluded the company’s websites and social media accounts were mislabeling their products as drugs even though they were not approved as such. The company was marketing their products as cures, treatments, and preventions for everything from viruses to Parkinson’s, all of which were unfounded.

The Sensory System

Some recent studies demonstrate there’s no convincing evidence that aromatherapy can help hypertension, anxiety, depression, pain or symptoms of dementia. Schwarcz says that studies shown to prove the benefits of essential oils are not reliable, due to plain genetics and brain chemistry. “The scent of lavender may have a calming effect in some people and help with sleep, but it can cause headaches in others,” he says. And this highlights the complicated views on the benefits of essential oils.

Pam Dalton, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says that while scents may be calming to people, “they likely aren’t working due to any pharmacological or biological effect, [but] rather a sensory/psychological effect.” You may enjoy the scent of mint because it makes you feel more alert when it stimulates a nerve that allows you to perceive exhilaration (or not).

There is valid data suggesting that oils may be beneficial, and PubMed defines them like this: "Aromatherapy uses plant materials and aromatic plant oils, including essential oils, and other aromatic compounds for the purpose of altering one's mood, cognitive, psychological, or physical well-being." There are ongoing studies for the oils as a natural treatment for stress, anxiety, and even for symptom management in cancer patients. Yet many of the studies are run by the large essential oil companies to try and counter-balance statements like this one from the National Advertising Division (NAD), which claimed false advertising in the oils.

A study in 1990 demonstrated that inhaling peppermint essential oil enhanced alertness, focus, and concentration, ingesting it, however, did not. Yet another one confirmed that smelling peppermint enhanced accuracy of memory.

The sensory system is a tricky one. Smells often trigger memories and even physical stimulations, so studies done with essential oils are easily skewed. The reactions to oils are mood-based changes, in that scents create expansive neurological events that probably cannot be explained – yet – by physical science. An entire gamut of subjective memories is connected to scents, even scents from childhood. Dalton is at work on a cancer project funded by an essential oil company, but she says she’s still skeptical. Most research looking at the benefits of aromatherapy on cancer patients as complementary to chemotherapy is a bit of a stretch, and as with other treatments, the results are mixed.


Then there are the hormonal caveats to using oils. Dr. Romy Block, board-certified endocrinologist and co-founder of Vous Vitamin, says essential oils may create endocrine disruptors that interfere with the natural production of hormones. "These chemicals can either lower or raise the normal hormone levels in the body," Dr. Block says, "causing disruption of development, reproductive changes or even interference with the immune system."

There's not enough evidence yet, Dr. Block says, but a series of essential oils were linked to hormone-related health complications. Lavender oil, for example, shows an association with early breast development in girls. Two popular oils, lavender, and tea tree are shown to lead to a condition called prepubertal gynecomastia (abnormal breast tissue growth) in boys.

Dr. Block advises against one of the most popular methods, diffusing lavender and tea tree oils, because of the potential complications, especially in children, teens, and even pets. The best strategy, she says, is to consult with your health care provider before you diffuse these oils. Most essential oils are generally considered safe to inhale or apply topically, yet not diluted properly they can cause different reactions in different people, as they did for Samantha.

Vethanayagam, whose practice focuses on allergies, says ingesting oils is probably safe in small quantities. “The lungs are very sensitive, but the stomach goes through many processes to take out the bad stuff,” she says. Yet not all oils are the same quality, and some are not even meant to be ingested because of that. Only the best, high quality oils should be ingested, and most of the poorer ones say not to ingest on the label.

The Power Of Scent

Essential oils have a long history of medicinal use, but the science on them remains inconclusive. Yet that science is complicated by the power of scent and the varied reactions to applying them topically or using them in a diffuser. One thing is certain, essential oils offer comfort to many. “If the smell of lavender relaxes you for whatever reason, sniff it at bedtime when you find it difficult to disengage,” Dalton says. “If the smell of wintergreen makes you feel more energized, take a whiff when you’re heading off for a run on the treadmill.”

As we go to end our Zoom call, my new friend Samantha is touting the benefits of the peppermint oil she is diffusing. “You know? It just gives me that blanketed feeling of a hug that never ends.”


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An astonishing medical recovery puzzles science and provides optimism to traumatic brain injury patients.

Had Simon Lewis returned to his bungalow to get a different coat, or had they never taken the detour to look at a house, the accident never would have happened. This would be something he would think about the rest of his life. As it is, on an early Los Angles evening, Simon and his wife Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard in a brand-new Infiniti Simon had just purchased. The immaculate street is lined with maple trees and the sun is beginning to set, flickering light between the trees. Marcy suggests they look at her boss’s newly renovated house since they are near, so they begin a detour. Suddenly a white van traveling at seventy-five miles an hour rips through the stop sign on Beverly. It blindsides Lewis’s car, slamming it into the curb, where it becomes airborne and is stopped by a maple tree at the corner of Beverly and McCadden Place.


Simon sustained a broken skull, jaw, arms, clavicle, and pelvis, with compound fractures in nine ribs. Yet the injury that would change his life was the catastrophic brain injury because of the crash.

Lewis went into a coma the night of the accident, on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) of three to 15, GCS3 means no motor response, no verbal response, and no visual response. It was as close to death as one can get. Studies suggest that patients with GCS3-5 have less than a 10 per cent chance of a living a normal life, particularly if they fail to respond within fourteen days of the injury. Lewis remained in a coma for 31 days.

As horrific as Lewis’s accident was (it killed his wife, Marcy), his incredible recovery and tireless work for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) research has helped broaden TBI awareness. With TED talks and his book, Rise and Shine, he helps give hope to victims of traumatic brain injury, and his story demonstrates the brain's incredible ability to regenerate itself. Yet it also highlights a growing trend in brain science: cognitive training. "What my experience demonstrates is how much we can train the brain measurably and repeatedly," Lewis told the Sydney Morning Herald. "And that applies to everyone. We need to start screening children at school who are falling behind, and treat their difficulties, rather than writing them off. There are techniques that rebuild the processes of your mind."

The odds of surviving a coma are notoriously hard to predict, with brain injury being the most complex affliction for the most complicated organ in the body, yet cognitive training helped Lewis become a functional TBI survivor.

Cognitive Training

Cognitive training is not new concept, but one that emerged in the 1940’s to treat the brain-injured soldiers as they prepared to return home. The cognitive assessment and training market is predicted to be worth $18.01 billion globally by 2027, and much of that growth comes from brain training for every demographic. Its functionality is proven with the older population as well as children, and the market has exploded with phone apps, online platforms, and brain train groups. While these companies often make generous assertions on what their products do for the brain, scientists are ambivalent about the some of the claims the companies make. Only some of the research demonstrates brain training works in non- TBI people.

A study published in 2010 monitored eleven-hundred adults that performed exercises designed to improve attention, reasoning, memory, and visual-spatial skills, and it concluded that they improved accomplishing the tasks themselves but those skills sometimes did not transfer to life improvements. Some scientists believe intensive brain exercises can exhaust people and be counterproductive instead of beneficial.


Part of Lewis’s injury was a “catastrophic brain insult," where a stroke obliterated a third of his right hemisphere and induced a brainstem contusion with severe internal bleeding. Neuroscientists used to assume each part of the brain had a set, inflexible role, and if certain areas were injured there was nothing to be done, other than live your life with the deficits. With the science of neuroplasticity, or changing the way the brain functions, they have realized that the brain is more pliable than previously thought. With the right cognitive training, it is possible to alter other areas of the brain, so they are assigned the tasks of the damaged areas.

Cognitive training like the kind Lewis received and continues to do has proven results in TBI patients that emerged from comas. The challenge remains that the longer patients remain in a coma, the less chance they have of regaining full brain function. For Lewis's case, it took many medical professionals to rebuild his mind, and he attributes much of his recovery not to a world class brain expert, but to Dr Lois Provda, an educational therapist in West Hollywood.

When he was referred to her, in October 1995, his IQ was 89, just a point below normal (between 90-110) on the Revised Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. Provda treated him three times a week, and by February 1997, Lewis had an IQ of more than 151, a score that is considered genius.

“She had me working with Kapla building blocks, and memorizing numbers backwards and forwards,” says Lewis. “I had to put cartoon images in sequence, to help me with cause and effect, the idea that one event leads to another. Another exercise was called Interactive Metronome, where I’d have to write things with a metronome clicking out a beat. It was exhausting!”

Today, most of Lewis’s medical staff consider his brain to be, if anything, overactive. Alert and infectiously cheerful, he's morphed into a curious academic, sling shotting from task to task by pure enthusiasm. A Cambridge law graduate historically, he was always known for this intelligence, yet the way his brain seemed to remodel after his accident is unprecedented.

Recovery Isn't Just Neuronal

For recoveries in TBI like Lewis’s, it’s a patient's attitude and support system that really distinguish how well that recovery goes, says Jeffrey Kreutzer, the editor of Brain Injury magazine, and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Patients who stay at home and say, 'I don't need advice, I'll figure it out myself, leave me alone' - they do poorly. But someone who seeks out social relationships, volunteer work, does much better. Recovery isn't just neuronal – it's a process that involves family support, as well as a positive attitude.”

Simon Lewis is an inspiring example of this attitude, although he is still receiving treatment more than two decades after the accident. His brain does not work in many ways, and he has significant disabilities. He wears special prism glasses to drive. He can think about lifting his left foot, yet it does not move. To walk, he uses a revolutionary device that stimulates the foot muscles. Without it, he cannot walk. There is still residual pain from his reconstructed pelvis, and vision issues in both eyes. "My memories used to be like a photo album," he says. "You could flick the pages and go back in time. But now, the album's gone, all I've got are the photos, and I can't tell what order they came in," he says.

Yet his memory – and his brain - are vivid and intact. He recalls the accident and the emotions that come with it as though it were yesterday, and that inspires him to spread TBI awareness, and it reminds us that cognitive training might just change brain science.


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Updated: Dec 18, 2020

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.” - William Blake

Along the African Savannah on a wet and foggy day four decades ago, giraffes meandered along the tree lines, occasionally shaking their heads in the rain. They began feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, trees that produce many succulent leaves and pods that the giraffes adore. Suddenly, the animals stopped eating and jerked their heads up and down in quick succession, as though having eaten something bitter. They began walking away from their food source, only stopping to eat from branches one hundred yards away.

Make Them Eat Ethylene

Scientists observing the animals that day later discovered the acacias had pumped toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large animals. The giraffes didn’t like the caustic taste and moved to other safer sources in the vicinity. The acacia trees produced a warning gas (ethylene) that not only spited the animals but signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that danger was imminent.

Immediately, all the trees also pumped the ethylene into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were not deterred and moved to find trees that were too far away to get the warning message. Another option for them was to move upwind where the scent messages are not carried to nearby trees.

Our Silent Companions

Trees hold a majestic place as the world’s oldest living organisms. Since humans have occupied the earth, they have been our silent companions, pervading our most enduring stories. Author Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” As the science expands, it’s obvious trees have a lot to teach us about communication, connection, and even love. Theirs is a silent, complex language, and one that shares information via electrical impulses, taste, and smell.

Indigenous people living in the forests across the earth understood the trees; they knew that they communicated and could send chemicals into their leaves. They understood that if an oak tree tumbled into a river, that the water became acidic, encouraging plankton to flourish. As arboreal research from scientists around the world documents the role forests play in making our world a better place to exist, we’re only just beginning to understand arboreal consciousnesses. What the research shows is that trees experience pain, have memories, and that tree parents live together with their children. And they talk to each other.

“All the trees here, and in every forest that is not too damaged, are connected to each other through underground fungal networks. Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages,” says Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author. Because of his work in tree research, a broader audience is introduced to the field, and science better understands their behaviors. The latest arboreal studies, conducted at universities around the world, confirm what Wohlleben has long suspected from practically living in the forest - trees are conscious, social, deeply sophisticated, and even intelligent.

What Is Love To The Trees

In a mountainous forest in western Germany, Wohlleben slushes through thick fresh snow with enormous black boots. He stops at two large birch trees and points into their branches.

“These two are old friends,” he tells writer Richard Grant with the Smithsonian Magazine. “They are very considerate in sharing the sunlight, and their root systems are closely connected. In cases like this, when one dies, the other usually dies soon afterward, because they are dependent on each other.”

It was long assumed that trees just existed, struggling for sunlight and water along with all the other trees. Wohlleben proves the opposite is true. Trees of the same genus are communal and quite often form bonds with trees of other species, even an emotional connection. The evolution of forest trees shows them living in cooperative, symbiotic relationships, governed by communication and a joint intelligence analogous to an ant colony. And the real connections are occurring underground.

Mycorrhizal networks consist of minute, hairlike root tips that unite trees together with microscopic fungal filaments to form an underground network. These networks appear to exist as a conjoined association between trees and fungi, and it’s believed they share nutrients like water and food.

In this cooperative environment, the fungi consume part of the sugar that trees photosynthesize from sunlight. The sugar feeds the fungi, and they forage the soil for nutrients that are consumed by the trees. Every member of a forest is connected and works together to live.

The Love Between Beech Trees

Wohlleben explains the time he discovered a gigantic five-foot beech stump in this forest, and he surmised the tree’s demise as occurring 500 years ago. When he chiseled the surface with his knife, Wohlleben found something astounding. The wood was still green with chlorophyll. There was only one possibility; the neighboring trees kept it alive with nutrients through the expansive network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he told the Smithsonian. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”

When other “family” member trees are sick or dying, the other trees help nurture it back to life by the root and fungi system. When they need water, they share their own. Trees are social beings that never isolate from the ecosystem but keep a constant and broad connection to the environment they live in. They communicate to fungi, grass, and even birds.

Wohlleben and other scientists tell us trees can detect scents through their leaves, and they possess a sense of smell just like humans. They also have a sense of taste. For example, when certain trees are ambuscaded by leaf-eating caterpillars, they taste the caterpillar saliva, and release pheromones that invite parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs in the caterpillars, and the wasp larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside. “Very unpleasant for the caterpillars,” says Wohlleben. “Very clever of the trees.”

So, a forest is not merely a forest. Neighboring trees assist each other through their root systems, by a complex system of reciprocities. If this is not incredible enough, these arboreal connections are even more complex. Trees seem to recognize their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives. So, like humans, a tree is only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. There is something to learn from that, and we should begin to listen.


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