Healing the Gut with Essential Oils
We've been hard on our digestive system for decades, and it's only getting worse. Not only does the food (and drink) we consume play a direct role, but lifestyle factors right down to how stressed we feel can dole out damage to the gut. We know that gut health can be promoted using essential oils, but what if the damage is already done? If you are an adult in our society, chances are, this applies to you!
As some of the most intriguing and powerful components of herbal material, essential oils can be used as a tool to help heal the damaged gut…
Common Problems in the Gut
Sometimes, an individual's gut can be damaged without their knowledge. Perhaps the bacterial balance is off and the immune system is faltering. Maybe their emotions swing wildly, or cognitive function falters.
The gut is a command post for much of the body, with nervous system transmitters that rival the CNS in the brain and spinal cord. So even if you don't think you have gut problems – or you think you have unrelated issues – it's worth looking at your history, lifestyle, and dietary choices to consider whether you have damaged your gut in any way.
For everyone else, you know you have gut trouble because it manifests in uncomfortable, or often painful ways.
4 Gut Issues Affected by Essential Oils
Essential oils aren't always the perfect match for every gut health imbalance, but there are definite cases where their use is indicated and even preferred.
1) SIBO & Dysbiosis – The microbial balance in the gut can be shifted in many ways, usually categorized as dysbiosis. A particularly concerning form of dysbiosis is that of SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth), which occurs when bacteria that should be in the colon are found in the small intestine. Both generalized dysbiosis and the more specific condition of SIBO are connected with other health concerns, including IBS and metabolic disorders. (1)
Essential oils are indicated for SIBO and other gut flora issues when the essential oil is able to exhibit symptom relief without damaging beneficial bacteria. In 2012, a study analyzing the development of a probiotic (beneficial bacteria in supplement form) found certain essential oils to work well with the formula, creating a synergistic effect of increased benefits. (2)
A few years before that, eight essential oils were analyzed for their effects on gut dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance). The findings included caraway, lavender, and bitter orange as stand-out examples of essential oils that would harmonize well with the beneficial bacteria in the body. (3) These studies demonstrate the excellent ability that these essential oils have to affect detrimental bacteria while remaining gentle on the body and beneficial strains. Further research for dosing and ideal treatment methods will be exciting to see!
2) IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome was once considered little more than a non-diagnosis – the blanket term given when doctors essentially had no idea what was going on. Now, we know that IBS not only affects more than 10% of the global population, but that fewer than 30% of those affected will ever make it to the doctor to even seek a diagnosis. (4) IBS is usually managed with diet and medication, but essential oils – especially in enteric coated capsules that can make it past the stomach – have been indicated for symptom control, as well.
Although more extensive studies are welcomed, an extensive review conducted in 2008 shows peppermint oil exhibiting significant improvement over placebo, alongside dietary fiber – both of which stood alongside antispasmodic medications in efficacy. (5) To ensure the oil reaches the intestines, enteric coated capsule preparations are indicated by studies.
3) GERD – While the “gut” is technically the intestines, we usually use it interchangeably with the digestive system as a whole. As such, health trouble can start as quickly as the esophagus and acid reflux or GERD. This combination problem is related to stomach acids (both too much and too little) as well as a faulty “flap” that should keep the acid out of the esophagus. Acid levels can be affected by lifestyle and diet, as well as bacteria.One way to approach GERD with essential oils is to use oils that protect the stomach and improve digestive processes.
Ginger fits the bill, in tandem with turmeric, as indicated in a study released in January 2015. (6) The researchers tested antioxidant levels in rats with and without turmeric and ginger essential oils. The oils seemed to increase antioxidant levels as well as reduce damage done to the stomach wall. Culinary preparations would make sense here, providing a digestive system boost to your regular mealtime.
4) Nausea – Within the stomach, nausea is another common problem, associated with a number of ailments as a symptom ranging from unpleasant to debilitating. Anyone who has experience nausea knows that scent has a major effect on how you feel, in either a positive or negative manner. Inhaled essential oils are an excellent tool for managing nausea of nearly any cause.Backing this up with promising research, we see that peppermint and ginger work well together for alleviating nausea. (7) Refreshing citrus oils can also be beneficial, with lemon standing out as helpful for dreaded morning sickness nausea in pregnancy. (8) Aromasticks can be helpful to inhale the scent as needed, or simply open the bottle and enjoy the aroma in moments of queasiness.
Healing the Gut
We can't discuss gut health or healing remedies without discussing the importance of bacteria. Totaling more of our body composition by weight than our own cells, bacteria comprise a formidable ally or opponent, depending on the situation.
In a journal article describing the importance of gut flora, researchers detailed the “collective metabolic activity equal to a virtual organ within an organ,” created by bacterial populations in the body. (9)
If you're squirming in your seat at all of this talk of bacteria, you've probably internalized the “kills 99.9% of bacteria” line that keeps us from caring about our microscopic partners in health. More likely than not, you also have gut damage to heal.
Without restoring or protecting the bacterial balance in the gut, remedies and healing techniques will be ineffective or short lived or both. Fortunately, digestive-wellness essential oils are typically safe, and will presumably be used as part of an overall shift toward holistic wellness.
Be sure you don't discount the importance of gut health because it is responsible for a vast majority of your immune function! From a seminal 2008 report:
The gastrointestinal system plays a central role in immune system homeostasis. It is the main route of contact with the external environment and is overloaded every day with external stimuli, sometimes dangerous as pathogens (bacteria, protozoa, fungi, viruses) or toxic substances, in other cases very useful as food or commensal flora. The crucial position of the gastrointestinal system is testified by the huge amount of immune cells that reside within it. Indeed, gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) is the prominent part of mucosal-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) and represents almost 70% of the entire immune system; moreover, about 80% of plasma cells [mainly immunoglobulin A (IgA)-bearing cells] reside in GALT. GALT interacts strictly with gastrointestinal functions in a dynamic manner; for instance, by increasing intestinal permeability in replay to particular stimulations, or orientating the immune response towards luminal content, allowing either tolerance or elimination/degradation of luminal antigens, or sometimes provoking damage to the intestinal mucosa, such as in coeliac disease or food allergy. (source)
Healing the Gut with Essential Oils
While these oils carry evidence of benefit to overall gut health and can facilitate gut healing, do use caution when approaching disease states. As we all know, natural products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
Essential oils are powerful and should be treated with the respect they deserve. If you have or suspect a disease or chronic ailment, seek a doctor and professional for advice.
With that out of the way, let's highlight some of the gut healing benefits of essential oils, as backed by science.
Peppermint – Like its parent plant, peppermint essential oil is known for its digestive remedy capabilities. Peppermint has long been indicated for IBS via enteric-coated capsules. (10) This was revisited in 2013, with coriander and lemon balm mentioned for their effectiveness, as well. (11)
Thyme– An antimicrobial by day, gut healer by night, thyme is a superhero in the world of gut health. For SIBO, thymol and geraniol have been shown “effective in suppressing pathogens in the small intestine, with no concern for beneficial commensal colonic bacteria in the distal gut.” (12) Thymol, of course, is the major component of thyme, while geraniol is found in high concentrations in rose oil.
Lavender – Not only have we seen lavender as effective against dysbiosis, but it is a well-reputed source of anti-inflammatory and healing properties. Additionally – perhaps not coincidentally – lavender has been one of the most effective anxyolitic (anti-anxiety) essential oils, tested as a commercial internal preparation. (13) Whether the anxiety was calmed due to improved gut health or it's just a convenient double purpose, lavender is a key component of nearly any healing protocol.
Cumin – A recent study on IBS symptoms and essential oil treatments evaluated a 2% preparation of cumin essential oil in 57 patients with IBS. At the end of the four week maximum trial, symptoms including pain, bloating, and elimination problems were significantly decreased. (14)
This, of course, is just a highlight of the digestive oils. Ginger stands out for nausea and initial digestive complaints. Citrus oils are gentle and effective for both digestion and peripheral issues, like anxiety and microbial concerns. If you're serious about rebuilding your gut, essential oils should be near the top of your toolbox, researched and ready to go.
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