“Ease Respiratory Discomfort with Essential Oils”
By Allison Davis, RN, BA, Nurse-Herbalist
More people than ever are suffering from respiratory issues. The increasing prevalence of environmental toxins in the air we breathe along with increased emotional stressors in our daily lives has led us to an unprecedented rate of asthma in the United States. “Asthma prevalence increased from 2001 to 2010 and is now at its highest level.”  Parents are often concerned and discouraged about the side effects such as the chemical and psychological dependence of cortisone medications typically used in pharmaceutical treatment options. Do natural options exist for those suffering with breathing difficulties, and are they effective?
Essential oils are the volatile, aromatic essences of plants extracted from the leaves, stems, roots, flowers and other parts of the plant. Essential oils are used topically (absorbed through the skin after being diluted with a carrier oil), inhaled (in cupped hands, on tissues or cotton balls or dispersed into the air into tiny particles with a diffuser) or ingested orally (the least effective, the method with the most risk and should only be performed under the recommendation of a qualified health professional). “Ingested essential oils are absorbed into the liver before they can reach the lungs” making oral use of essential oils for respiratory disease impractical and perhaps dangerous.
Often the chemical constituents in therapeutic-grade essential oils are the same substances that protect the plant itself from disease and predators. Now scientists are studying these oils in hopes of understanding how they can be used safely and effectively in human treatment.
As an asthma sufferer my entire life, I can attest to the fact that there is often an emotional component to respiratory distress. Many essential oils are very soothing to the nervous system. Unlike pharmaceutical medications that attempt to isolate a single chemical constituent for a single therapeutic use, herbs (and essential oils being a very potent form of herbal remedies) have a synergistic effect on multiple body systems. This means you could find essential oils that would help balance the emotions as well as the respiratory system and the immune system. Some asthmatics suffer from increased mucus production they have difficulty expelling from the body, others have respiratory illness precipitated by allergies, and then there are those whose asthma is triggered by viral infections such as the common cold. Essential oils exist that have properties that help with all of these issues.
Some patients with respiratory illness are fearful of inhaling a pure, therapeutic grade essential oil given that many of them have only experienced synthetic fragrance which typically causes them more respiratory distress. Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D. (a leading chemist and researcher of medical aromatherapy) recommends introducing these clients to a massage with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) used for restlessness, nervousness and as an anti-inflammatory and Mandarin (Citrus reticulate) a nervous relaxant, antispasmodic and general tonic. (I find it very interesting that the French city of Grasse, the perfume capitol of the world having abundant fields of Lavender has a very low rate of respiratory disease. Lavender essential oil contains ester linalyl acetate which has calming and anti-inflammatory effects.)
After the first step of a massage with essential oils, Schnaubelt then recommends the introduction of stronger oils more specifically geared to their specific condition via application topically to wet skin during or after showering. This modality when used in the shower also affects the body through inhalation and is in line with the findings of Boyd and Sheppard that concluded in their 1970 paper that “inhaled expectorants may be superior to system expectorants.” Of course, Western Medicine relies on oral, systemic expectorants. Although essential oils such as Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus citriodora), Cajaput (Melaleuca lucadendron), Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita) have been used in cough syrups for years, nurses have traditionally used steam inhalations of Eucalpytus (Eucalyptus globulus) as a more effective way to open airway passages. Eucalyptus essential oil has chemical properties (ketones) that ease the secretion of mucus. Using this oil with steam provides additional moisture allowing mucus to be eliminated from the body often providing relief from respiratory difficulties.
Jane Buckle, RN, Ph.D. is another expert in aromatherapy who has dedicated much study to its use in clinical practice, specifically for nurses. She cites a study by Lockhart where they used inhaled essential oil of Frankincense on eight subjects (20-52 years of age), five females and three males, throughout a period of 6 weeks. Following patch testing and assessment for allergies, the subjects were given a bottle of pure essential oil from the same supplier (same batch number) and asked to inhale it when they felt an asthma attack coming. All subjects felt their anxiety levels decreased when they inhaled the frankincense, and all subjects decreased the use of their normal inhalers.  There are studies currently investigating Boswellic acids in Frankincense essential oil, specifically how they work as an anti-inflammatory in the body.
As in conventional Western Medicine, you would not want to implement treatment without first being evaluated by a practitioner. Before using essential oils for specific ailments, one should be evaluated by a provider who is knowledgeable in plant remedies. Your provider should perform patch testing to reveal any sensitivity and should determine the oils, dose and route best for treatment. Essential oils used for therapeutic purposes should be of therapeutic grade where the plants have been grown organically without the use of pesticides and batch tested for the presence of chemicals needed to enhance healing. You should never discontinue your prescribed medications without the advice of your medical practitioner (MD, PA or NP). That being said, there are many essential oil remedies that hold great promise at least as an adjunct for those suffering with respiratory issues.
Allison Davis is a Registered Nurse and Nurse-Herbalist. She is currently pursuing her Master Aromatherapist Certification at www.heartofherbs.com . She owns Nature’s Wellness Solutions in Wilmington, N.C. where she provides holistic consults and creates individualized Wellness Plans for her clients. Please see her website: www.natureswellnesssolutions.com or find her on Facebook at “Nature’s Wellness Solutions.”
 “Trends in Asthma Prevalence, Health Care Use, and Mortality in the United States, 2001–2010” NCHS Data Brief, Number 94, May 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db94.htm
 The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy. Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D. 2011. ISBN 978-1-59477-425-6
 Medical Aromatherapy: Healing With Essential Oils. Kurt Schnaubelt Ph.D. 1999, ISBN 18-83319-69-2
 Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. Mindy Green and Kathi Keville. 1995. ISBN 1580911897
 Medical Aromatherapy: Healing With Essential Oils. Kurt Schnaubelt Ph. D. 1999, ISBN 18-83319-69-2
 “Nutmeg and Camphene as inhaled expectorants.” Archives of Otolaryngology (Chicago). 92: 372-378
 Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice. Jane Buckle. 2003. ISBN 0 332 07236 1
Disclaimer: For educational use only. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Educational programs are available through Heart of Herbs