Placebo? What about the rats?

rats love to give massages

rats love to give massages

I have heard it said that a pleasant-smelling massage is surely very relaxing, but there’s nothing more to aromatherapy than that. And if there is, well it’s just that old placebo effect. It must be so because, I am reliably informed, there are no clinical trials showing that the administration of essential oils has any statistically significant therapeutic value. And, if there are any clinical trials showing a real effect, apparently they are flawed. All of them. But, if there happened to be any flawless clinical trials showing an effect, well whatever essential oil they used should be licensed as a medicine. After all, that stuff is not safe in the hands of quacks!

So anyway yes – it’s all just placebo. Now, here’s my point: What about the rats? What about those legions of rats that have been dosed with essential oils in in vivo studies? The ones that, unlike the sorry rats in another group, did NOT grow tumors, or have seizures, or develop some other induced disease state? Did they all attend a lecture on the importance of the placebo effect before their date with a lab technician?”

In 1989, scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that incorporating orange oil at 5% in the diet of rats meant that only 47% developed breast cancer, instead of 80%, as happened in the control group. In another study, rats dosed orally with 200 mg/kg body weight of black seed (Nigella sativa) essential oil for 6-8 weeks fared very much better than control group rats in terms of colon cancer. OK yes, that’s a huge dose. But what about the rats that slept longer because they inhaled valerian oil, or the ones that slept for a shorter time because they inhaled lemon oil?

No, I don’t like the idea of animal testing. And I do appreciate that the rats in these kinds of study were not massaged. They were dosed orally, or by injection, or by inhalation. Sometimes the doses were massive, but sometimes they were not. The point is that real effects have been seen, even with small amounts, and even just with inhalation. Now, I know that the results of animals studies are not always seen in clinical trials. I remember one researcher, when asked by a journalist whether a particular drug under development could really cure cancer, replying “yes, if you’re a rat”.

I’m just saying – what about the rats? What semi-magical hocus pocus made those rats well?

3 comments to Placebo? What about the rats?

  • Very good question. My guess is that the researchers assumed that the rats couldn’t read or understand English so they didn’t take any double blind precautions or maybe…just maybe aromatherapy actually works. I know I’ve seen it work on my kids even when they were too young to know the placebo effect I was going for in them.

  • So totally frustrating – those of us who use essential oils see on a daily basis how effective they are, but at least here where I live it’s a huge uphill battle. Your blog, Robert, is going to be very helpful in turning the tide of skepticism. My daughter started early with each of our grandchildren – I don’t think any of them have had an antibiotic since we started using essential oils. Placebo – I don’t think so. Not to mention neither my husband or I have found it necessary to take antibiotics – we just start using the oils at the first sign. If we do happen to catch anything, it quickly goes away after diffusing a cold & flu blend. But, that’s not enough to convince someone to use them, which is why I’m working so hard to get a good database up on our website. Not that there aren’t already quite a few, waving at Marge, Andrea, Wendy and Kayla, but want it on our website to show our customers research and information about the various oils. I’m just a few years behind you guys – catching up!

  • Vance

    You wrote, “The point is that real effects have been seen, even with small amounts, and even just with inhalation.” But the only “real effects” mentioned in your article involving inhalation are vague references to some rats that purportedly slept longer/shorter without identifying how much they inhaled or how much more/less they slept. We can also blow a dog whistle and demonstrate effects on dogs, but what is the relevance to humans? Is science so pathetic a process, unable to convincingly demonstrate “real effects” of aromatherapy on humans, that we must resort to rat studies and accept an imagined correlation?

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