The cure & the controversy
The popularity of essential oils as an all-purpose panacea
has been growing – but what are they
By Victoria Dean
After years of suffering regular bouts of a mysterious flu-like disease, Shelley Chamzuk was at her wit’s end. Mainstream medicine had been no help, so she turned to a holistic healer, who suggested she try something different: essential oils.
“I honest-to-God felt like I was going to die,” she recalls. “Every single time I went to the doctor, they said, ‘Sorry. It’s viral. There is nothing we can do.’
“When Western medicine absolutely could not help me, that’s when the oils can.”
Essential oils are natural products produced through the distillation of plants, creating a concentrated liquid that is said to purely represent the essence of the plant. The oil can then be applied to the body on areas of concern, put into a diffuser for aromatherapy, or massaged onto specific points of the hands and feet for reflexology, which is the belief that feet and hands have specific points that are energetically connected to particular organs. When the specific points are massaged, it channels relief to the corresponding organ or body part.
People have used natural oils for centuries to treat emotional and physical ailments.
Different herbs and plants are said to have different benefits. Eucalyptus helps relieve sinus infections and muscle tension. Lavender and chamomile aid relaxation and reduce stress. People also put essential oils in their cleaning and laundry products as air and fabric fresheners.
Some companies that distribute essential oils have gone so far as to claim the oils can help cure cancer.
The popularity of essential oils for medicinal purposes continues to rise. For some, the oils have become a lifestyle.
Shelley Chamzuk and Sherilyn McCallum are leaders of Young Living Momma Independent Distributor, a group of mothers who sell essential oils and organize meet-ups to talk about new products and invite special guests to share their personal experience using oils.
In addition to their local group in Alberta, the pair have built sales and distribution teams in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Yukon. One team has nearly 800 people, and their Facebook page even has more than 2,000 followers.
Chamzuk got interested in oils in 2010, when she was searching for alternative methods to help deal with those strange flu-like symptoms.
Later, when Chamzuk found herself dealing with more severe health concerns, she continued to rely on essential oils to help, along with Western medicine.
“I have dealt with cancer myself,” she says. “I have a tumor. I’ve dealt with a lot of things. Not saying that I am against our medical system here, because honestly, I’d be dead if it weren’t for it.
“But this, to me, is a very awesome alternative. Or, something that can go hand-in-hand. I’m very much pro-essential oils, as much as I can.”
McCallum was introduced to essential oils, when Chamzuk convinced her to buy a starter kit in 2013.
“We’ve been best friends for 30 years,” Chamzuk says. “We consider ourselves sisters.
“Basically, she didn’t have a choice when I said she needed to buy a kit. She knew she was done for. She’s always been so supportive of me and she came along for the ride.”
McCallum admits that the essential oils kit sat in her home untouched for a few months before she decided to give them a try.
“I’d had a fairly stressful job,” she says. “I would come home from work and I’d be agitated. I had this peace and calming oil. Someone had mentioned that it’s supposed to help calm you. And I thought, ‘Well, what the heck, let’s give it a shot. ”
McCallum spent the rest of the week diffusing the oil in her home and observing the effects it had on her. She says she began to sense the oil’s calming qualities was not only working for her, but her pets as well. That got her interested to look deeper.
McCallum began taking courses and researching more about the products.
“Now I am completely and utterly passionate about them,” she says. “I will use them over Western medicine as much as I can.”
Chamzuk and McCallum turned their passion for essential oils into a business in 2013, working together as distributors for Young Living.
“It’s been go-go-go ever since,” Chamzuk says. “We do a lot of travelling, talking and just really – just you know what – just telling people there is another way.”
As promoters and salespeople of essential oils, Young Living distributors get to attend “recognition retreats,” in places such as Ecuador, Idaho and Utah, where they celebrate their accomplishments, and attend educational and team-building events.
“We go to a convention every year, where a lot of us get together and they do a lot of training,” Chamzuk says. “We will go and learn things from the scientists, doctors, all of that.”
Young Living was founded in Utah in 1993, by a self-professed naturopath named Gary Young. It is a multi-level marketing business that critics have described as a pyramid scheme, which has grown to become the world’s leading essential oils distributor. It has farms in Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America, growing plants that are distilled into essential oils.
Young has said that, after a logging accident put him in a wheelchair when he was 24, he started using essential oils to deal with the pain of recovery. He has said that the essential oils helped restore his mobility and cope with his depression.
Young’s online bio lists a master’s degree in nutrition, but makes no mention of the university where he earned it. It also cites a doctorate in naturopathy from Bernadean University, which is described by the website Quackwatch as an “mail-order diploma mill.” The university claims accreditation by the World Council of Global Education and the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, neither of which is recognized by the U.S Secretary of Education.
Young Living members are ranked on a 10-tier system, based on the number of products they have sold. Distributor is the lowest level and accounts for 94 per cent of all members. In 2016, distributors earned a dollar a month on average, with a median of zero. A top-ranking distributor, or Royal Crown Diamond, a tier that comprises less than 0.1 per cent of members, makes around $1.8 million annually.
Over the years, Young Living has been involved in a number of legal issues regarding the legitimacy of the brand’s promises. In 2014, the U.S Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter written to Young Living accusing it of making claims that their products could be used to treat autism, cancer, Ebola, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Another popular essential oils company, doTerra, was also under scrutiny for making the same claims.
Aside from the scandals in which the company has been involved, the therapeutic effectiveness of essential oils has also been questioned.
According to an article on the website Live Science, essential oils may have an effect on the body because “plant oils stimulate smell receptors in the nose that send chemical messages through the nerves to the brain’s limbic system, which affects mood and emotions.”
The article warns that they should still be used with caution, because the studies that have been done are small and the products have yet to meet the golden standard criteria.
Elsewhere, the use of essential oils has been described as pseudoscience, and any benefits dismissed as placebo effect.
“Sometimes it’s not that easy to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience,” MacEwan University psychology professor Rodney Schmaltz says.
Beliefs or methods that do not meet the standards of science, but are presented as though they do, are considered to be pseudoscience, he explains. Thus, a product sold to people with claims presented in scientific jargon, that it can cure or alleviate some vague emotional state that can align with almost any condition.
Not being scientists, most people aren’t equipped to distinguish between science fact and pseudoscientific fiction.
“A lot of the evidence that is presented to sell a pseudoscience is emotional, anecdotal, and can seem persuasive,” Schmaltz says. “If you know what to look for, you will realize there is often no data whatsoever to support this, or that the data is quite poor.”
According a profile in New Yorker, Young opened Young Life Research Clinic in Springfield, Utah in 2000, with the intention of using essential oils and other alternative medicines to treat a range of ailments, but the clinic struggled with a number of legal issues.
In 2005, Young shut down the clinic and opened one in Ecuador. He never spoke publicly about the reasons for the move.
“There is certainly potential for harm,” Schmaltz says. “If you look at medicines, or supposed medicines, but they don’t have any evidence backing them, there can be harm in the sense of opportunity cost.
“And that is time you’re spending using something that may not work or has not been shown to work. That time can actually be spent getting treatment,”
It is not unusual for someone who is desperate for cure or relief to seek out alternative options that promise to help.
“It can be a very natural reaction to seek out anything,” Schmaltz says. “And, unfortunately, there are some people who will prey on those people who are in a very bad situation.”
Not all are crooks, he adds, and some “believe what they do is right.”
“But there are some who are outright frauds, basically taking money, taking advantage of people. But in a very bad situation,”
Schmaltz says it’s important to remember that people who believe is alternative medicine aren’t stupid. Most alternatives are sold right beside certified medication, and it’s natural to infer that, if the two types are sold together, they are equally trustworthy.
“Look at somebody like Steve Jobs,” Schmaltz says. “Brilliant in one area, but when he had that cancer, that is a fairly treatable form of cancer, he went on a fruit or juice diet, or something. So he went kind of the alternative medicine route, and it killed him.”
According to Live Science, Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, and allegedly delayed having potentially life-saving surgery for several months while he experimented with alternative therapy that included a special diet. The story has never been confirmed.
Using alternative medicines like essential oils, is not intrinsically wrong, Schmaltz says, but users do need to think critically. If someone sees positive results after using an essential oil to help cure an illness, that person needs to consider that they may feel better because their body is recovering naturally, and the oil had little or nothing to do with it.
“If something smells nice, you feel good, which is fine. And if they were selling it as that, great. But if they’re saying it’s going to cure anything, that’s where there is a problem.”