Is clary sage oil estrogenic?

According to Franchomme & Pénöel (1990), clary sage oil is estrogen-like, due to its content of sclareol, which is said to be structurally similar to human estrogens. The sclareol content of clary sage oil is given as 1.6-7.0%. In gas chromatographic analyses of clary sage oil, a sclareol content of 0.1-0.4% is typical. However sclareol concentrations tend to be underestimated due to the very low volatility of the molecule, so 1.6-7.0% is probably reasonable. Clary sage absolute is a solid material, and contains about 70% sclareol, which is also solid.

Some of the more common Internet comments about the hormonal effects of clary sage oil include:

* Clary sage essential oil contains sclareol, which mimics the effects of estrogen.

* Sclareol has an estrogen-like structure, contributing to clary sage’s effectiveness in treating amenorrhea, cramps, and menstrual pain.

* Sclareol, a compound in clary sage, is not an estrogen, although it can mimic estrogen if there is an estrogen deficiency. If there is not an estrogen deficiency, sclareol will not create more estrogen in the body.

* Certain essential oils have phytoestrogenic activity.  For example, sclareol, a constituent of clary sage, stimulates the body to produce its own estrogen.

* The high sclareol content gives clary sage essential oil its powerful action for relieving premenstrual tension in women as it has a balancing effect on hormones.

Note that four distinct claims are made in the above:

1) Clary sage/sclareol mimics the effects of natural estrogens.

2) Clary sage/sclareol mimics the effects of natural estrogens, but only if there is an estrogen deficiency.

3) Clary sage/sclareol stimulates the body to produce its own estrogen.

4) Clary sage/sclareol balances hormones.

Only the first of these is in line with the original statement made by Franchomme & Pénöel (1990). But is any of this supported by evidence? One of my first blogs was about parabens, and I made reference to the possibility that these chemicals might have estrogen-like effects. Many people avoid parabens for this very reason. Substances with such “hormone-disrupting” action are suspected of adversely affecting male fertility and breast cancer, among others.

clarysageSo, let me pose an obvious question: if clary sage oil has an estrogen-like effect, and if you avoid parabens because you believe that they have estrogen-like effects, do you similarly avoid clary sage oil?

If you look at Dene Godfrey’s comment on The Paraben Parable you will see that butylparaben was indeed estrogen-like in an in vitro study, with an action 100,000 times weaker than estradiol. But one in vitro test tells us very little about in vivo effects. As for sclareol, I am aware of no research that has any bearing on a possible hormonal action. [Clary sage oil is sometimes contraindicated in pregnancy, though there is no supporting evidence for this. It was used in two childbirth studies in the UK, with no apparent adverse effects (Burns et al 2000, 2007)].

Both estradiol and butylparaben contain a phenol functional group: a hydroxyl group (OH) attached to a benzene ring. The phenolic structure is important for estrogenicity, as is the presence of a second ring (Anstead et al 1997, Blair et al 2000). However, sclareol does not contain a phenolic structure, it doesn’t even contain a benzene ring. Sclareol is a labdane diterpene, and this class of molecule does not incorporate estrogen-like structures, nor is it noted for estrogenic activity (Topçu and Gören 2007).

Therefore, on the basis of its structure, sclareol is unlikely to have any estrogenic action. Even if sclareol was estrogenic, at about 4% of clary sage oil, it would have to have a very high binding affinity for estrogen receptor sites for the essential oil to have any effect, and this is extremely unlikely.

This does not mean that clary sage oil is not effective. It may well be useful in relieving menstrual pain, pre-menstrual symptoms, menopausal symptoms and other problems, but none of this necessitates an estrogen-like action. And, I’m not saying that sclareol could not possibly be estrogen-like, I’m just saying there’s no evidence that it is, nor does its structure suggest such an effect. This also means that there’s no evidence to support clary sage oil “balancing hormones”, mimicking estrogens only if there is an estrogen deficiency, or stimulating the body to produce natural estrogens.

Sclareol does have an interesting anticancer activity, including in vitro action against human breast cancer MCF-7 cells (Dimas et al 2006). An isomer, 13-epi-sclareol, which is also present in clary sage oil, inhibits the growth of breast and uterine cancers in vitro, and was slightly more potent than Tamoxifen, but was not toxic to normal cells (Sashidhara et al 2007). This suggests the possibility that sclareol might actually inhibit estrogen, and might after all have some capacity to interact with estrogen receptor sites. What we do know is that sclareol will not give you breast cancer.

Thanks to Sherrie Bitts for raising the question of sclareol safety on the Aromatherapy Thymes blog, and to Lora Cantele for suggesting this to me as a subject.

References

Anstead GM, Carlson KE, Katzenellenbogen JA 1997 The estradiol pharmacophore: ligand structure-estrogen receptor binding affinity relationships and a model for the receptor binding site.

Blair RM, Fang H, Branham WS et al 2000 The estrogen receptor relative binding affinities of 188 natural and xenochemicals: structural diversity of ligands. Toxicological Sciences 54:138-153

Burns E E, Blamey C, Ersser S J et al 2000 An investigation into the use of aromatherapy in intrapartum midwifery practice. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 6:141-147

Burns E, Zobbi V, Panzeri D et al 2007 Aromatherapy in childbirth: a pilot randomised controlled trial. BJOG 114:838-844

Dimas K, Papadaki M, Tsimplouli C et al 2006 Labd-14-ene-8,13-diol (sclareol) induces cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in human breast cancer cells and enhances the activity of anticancer drugs. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 60:127-133

Franchomme P, Pénöel D 1990 L’aromathérapie exactement. Jollois, Limoges

Sashidhara KV, Rosaiah JN, Kumar A 2007 Cell growth inhibitory action of an unusual labdane diterpene, 13-epi-sclareol in breast and uterine cancers in vitro. Phytotherapy Research 21:1105-1108

Topçu G, Gören AC 2007 Biological activity of diterpenoids isolated from Anatolian Lamiaceae plants. Records of Natural Products 1:1-16

20 comments to Is clary sage oil estrogenic?

  • Yes, yes, yes!!! The voice of reason, research and definition. I so love that you took the four separate statements and broke them down. While trying to do research to complete our database, I am finding so many illusive and often times contradictory statements in the many (and increasingly so) aromatherapy texts available, including the classic ones. We have to start looking at these statements with an eye towards EVIDENCE, not just because it has been repeated over and over again by other companies, websites and authors. Thank you Robert!!!

  • Dene Godfrey

    Robert, just a point of clarification – the figures I quoted for butylparaben were from the in vivo study, and not the in vitro study.

    It seems to me that the only studies on clary sage oil seem to have measured oestrogenic activity, ie the ability to bind to oestrogen receptors. You have not quoted any references to work on determining the effect of the oil on global gene expression, and this (to the best of my knowledge) is the best way of determining the ability to actually mimic oestrogen. If there are no studies on global gene expression, then there is no good evidence that the oil can mimic oestrogen. Oestrogenic activity and oestrogen-mimickry are very different properties, although the terminology is quite confusing!.

  • It’s interesting that there has been such an ‘estrogen scare’ lately. Estrogen like compounds can have various effects on the body from promoting growth to inhibiting growth depending upon how these compounds interact with the estrogen receptor. A little bit of estrogen-like compounds in the right place can do a world of good. Vegetable oils that are high in estrogen-like sterols can be used on the skin to keep it healthy and many studies have found that diets high in these sterol rich oils like olive oil have health benefits as well. thanks for your always wise posts.

  • As usual, you continue to peel the onion for us. However, the increased amount of sclareol in Clary Sage absolute raised my curious eyebrows, Robert. In the absolute, you say the 70% sclarol content is solid. The sclareol content in essential oil is possibly greater, but misread because of the volatility issue, but wouldn’t it appear as bits of solid in the eo perhaps (not exactly, but similar) like Citrus peel oils? This disparaging wide range between the two products doesn’t quite make sense to me. Any further thoughts? Thanks.

  • Excellent article Robert, thank you for clarifying this issue with clary sage. While I have had great results with clary sage over the years in controlling PMS symptoms, there is nothing like hard evidence and the voice of reason.

  • Marcia, the sclareol content of clary sage oil is 4%, ie greater than the 0.25% that shows on gc analysis, not greater than the 70% in clary sage absolute. I’m sure you know that essential oils and absolutes from the the same plant are often compositionally very different. The absolute is solid because it contains much more sclareol, compared to the liquid essential oil.

  • from a study of an agricultural institute in austria i learned that the sclareol content of clary sage oil depends on the time of distillation as it is only found in relatively long distilled oils (as quite a heavy molecule it would only pass after an hour or so of steam distillation). thank you so much for that information as i had a young woman with agrressive breast cancer in one of my recent workshops and wasn’t sure whether to recommend the oil for realaxing and upliftig reasons.

  • Great article! There is so much rumor and misinformation out there regarding essential oils. It’s so refreshing to find someone who doesn’t just cut-and-paste conjecture from other sites. Well done!

  • We can all agree clary sage contains sclareol which may mimic natural estrogens. As a clinical herbalist and aromatherapist, I use clary sage in my Women’s Alchemy blend for hormonal balance, PMS through menopause. My training has been that plants containing constituents with hormone balancing effects assist the body in conjugating and eliminating the xeno estrogens which are the endocrine disruptors causing the reproductive cancers in the first place. Is this not the case? When should we, if at all, be cautious with using this lovely oil? I have read in the literature not to use in easy stages of pregnancy.
    Thanks for your wisdom, Robert. We are so blessed to have you in our world.

  • Green

    The way I’m seeing it – everything is good in moderation. If you don’t have enough oestrogen, problems occur. If you have too much, similarly, problems occur. In love, life and health, moderation is key.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • If Clary Sage is used to treat PMS symptoms doesn’t that mean that it is the opposite of an oestrogen? I am having some major issues with excessive oestrogen production at the moment and was looking into something more natural before the doc prescribes progesterone creams and came across Clary Sage. It seemed to be good for all the problems I am having (water retention, snappy-ness, massive fibroids and now cysts as well), but if it mimics oestrogen and would cause me to produce even more I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole!!

  • Sabine, to quote Dene Godfrey: “Having estrogenic activity is not the same as being an estrogen mimic. Estrogenic activity is measured purely by the ability of a substance to bind to an estrogen binding site. What it does when it is there is another matter. If it then behaves in the same way as estrogen, then it is an estrogen mimic, and there is possible cause for concern. If it does not behave in the same way as estrogen, then this is a totally different situation.” Clary sage oil is not an estrogen mimic, though it quite probably does bind with estrogen receptor sites. In doing so, it could block activity from the body’s own estrogens, the net result of which would be a reduction in estrogenic action, not an increase.

  • sue

    I have had breast cancer after being on HRT oestrogen only patches for 20 years , having had a hysterectomy at 37 years old. I am now experiencing dramatic hot flushes at night, Can I safely use clary sage to control these flushes as I have been advised not to touch anything with oestrogen.

  • Sue, the science strongly suggests that clary sage oil has no estrogenic action.

  • Melissa

    Came across this article because I am trying to use Clary Sage to treat PMS, whatever the science says, when I used it for 2 mos it had an immediate and drastic effect on my cycles, having 2 in a row with days in between for 2 months in a row. Sent me into panic…well 20 years ago had a reaction when introducing estrogen to my body through the birth control pill (an all-over body rash). Hadn’t introduced anything to my body like that until Clary Sage this fall. As soon as I stopped the Clary sage, the symptoms stopped. So, I’m not sure what is considered estrogenic action…

  • robert

    Whatever the reason, clary sage oil is clearly not a good one for you. How much essential oil did you use, how did you use it, and how often?

  • Eric

    I was recently diagnosed with very low testosterone for my age. So from what I’ve read that means I probably have higher amounts of estrogen then I should. I’m a 37 year old male. So would it be possible to use clary sage to help lower the estrogen in my body since it binds with estrogen? This low testosterone has really hurt my life and family in many ways. The last thing I want to do is make matters worse. If clary sage can naturally help me lower my estrogen that would be great cause I do not want to use testosterone therapy like shots or anything. I am trying to raise my testosterone naturally by diet and exercise. Also, if Clary Sage will help how should I apply it? To the testicles or bottoms of feet or what? And how often? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • leigh

    ive had a complete hysterectomy and im not on any replacements of any kind. I feel great but was wondering if maybe i should do something to keep me more youthful since I am not creating any hormones on my own. don’t want to shrivel up tike a prune. lol i am loving essential oils right now is there one i could be usng that would help.

  • robert

    Hi Eric,

    There’s no evidence that clary sage oil would help you, so it would be very much a long shot.

    I suggest you either check out this new product based on truffles: http://www.hormonebooster.com/

    Or try DHEA, which makes exactly the same claims, but is the cheaper and more tried and tested http://tinyurl.com/l5jlqqu.

    Neither of these contains testosterone as such.

  • robert

    Hi Leigh,

    You might also benefit from this new product based on truffles: http://www.hormonebooster.com/

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