“Addictions” and Essential Oils: The Science
In part I, I discussed the importance of considering biochemical individuality and the many factors that should be considered for optimal brain health and assisting someone out of destructive patterns. I also provided an overview on how essential oils can be a truly integrative approach to rebalancing the body, mind, and emotions. This makes them an effective tool to implement while addressing unwanted cravings and the discomfort of breaking away from any substance, including food!
Going from this broader, macroscopic viewpoint, let’s dive into some details with studies that describe how essential oils may specifically modulate addictive tendencies.
Rehabilitation of Dopamine in Rats
One theory on drug addiction is based on its link to various brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Certain substances are said to trigger the “reward center,” causing a release of dopamine. In some individuals the response is enhanced, leading to cravings and an eventual “tolerance” to these substances. This creates the need for increased quantities in order to achieve the desired effect. Therefore, pharmacology manipulating this neurotransmitter, and others, have been one method of treatment in addictions. (1, 2, 3, 4) (Please read the part I to understand that this is only one component.)
In a study with rodent adrenal cells, various essential oils were found to “rehabilitate the dopamine transporter (DAT).” This would lead to a decrease in tolerance and better “control.” The authors stated:
Our study implies that the essential oils may rehabilitate brain dopamine function through increased DAT availability in abstinent former drug users.1
Thyme Essential Oils Helps Decrease Morphine Withdrawal Symptoms in Rodents
In another study with rodents, it was found that various species of thyme essential oil displayed opioid activity and could inhibit morphine withdrawal symptoms. The authors described the relevance of this finding in relationship to the current opioid addiction crisis and the need for natural alternatives for addressing treatment. They describe the background and implications of this finding as follows:2
Addiction to drugs, including opioids, is a brain disease resulting in a loss of control over drug-taking or compulsive drug-seeking, despite its noxious consequences (1). Opioid dependence makes permanent physiological and psychological alterations leading to relapses of the disease. It is a serious social burden and has destructive influence on health and standard of living of an addicted person. Uncontrollable compulsion to take the drug and anxiety of craving and relapse are reasons of the opiates use. Efficient treatment protocols, and prevention of dependency development and addiction are not yet accessible (2)…
A separate strategy, usually following withdrawal and detoxification, is the treatment of addicts with pharmaceutical interventions primarily aimed at opioid maintenance therapy, usually with opioids such as methadone or buprenorphine. An important question is whether nonaddictive, non-opioid drugs, can satisfactorily substitute for maintenance therapy in treating opponent processes and craving. In this regard, treatment of addicts with non-opioid drugs, especially natural plant products represent another type of intervention (5).
Thymus species are well known medicinal plants. In traditional medicine, leaves and flowering parts of Thymus species are widely used as tonic and herbal tea, antiseptic, antitussive and carminative as well as treating cold (6-8). Thymus oil and extracts are widely used in pharmaceutical, cosmetic and perfume industry besides flavoring and preservation of several food products (9). It has been reported that naloxone reverses the antinociceptive and analgesic effect of Zataria multiflora and Thymus vulgaris (10, 11). This evidence indicated the role of opioid receptors in activity of Thymus species.2
A similar study in mice found that rose essential oil also decreased morphine withdrawal. However, this was by a mechanism linked to GABA receptors, differing from thyme oils’ effect on opioid receptors. The researchers state:3
This research was done to test the effect of Rosa damascena essential oil on withdrawal signs of naloxone-precipitated morphine in male mice. Morphine dependence was induced by injection (IP) three times daily at doses of 50, 50 and 75 mg/kg, respectively, for 3 days. On day 4, after the last administration of morphine, Rosa damascena essential oil was administered at different concentrations (5, 2 and 40%, IP) 30 min before administration of naloxone (5 mg/kg, IP). The following actions were taken as signs of withdrawal and records taken for jumping as a number and scores of 0 to 3 were given for incidences of grooming, teeth chattering, rearing, writing, diarrhea, wet dog shakes and climbing during a 30 min period. Results showed that different concentrations of Rosa damascena essential oil significantly reduced signs of morphine withdrawal compared to the control group in terms of number of jumps (p < 0.05 and p < 0.01), grooming, teeth chattering, rearing, climbing, wet dog shakes and writhing, but not for diarrhea (p < 0.05). In conclusion it seems that GABAergic activity induced by flavonoids from Rosa damascena essential oil can alleviate signs of morphine withdrawal, but further studies need to be done to better understand this mechanism.3
Human Studies and Review Article
In the 2016 Spring edition of the Journal of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (pg 21-25), Jane Buckle discussed the results of her own students’ research from all around the United States on the use of essential oils, their application, and their impact on several addictions. She also provided a brief review of the scientific literature on animals and humans.
Her students’ research focused on the use of various essential oils for nicotine, alcohol, substance, and food abuse. The number of test subjects in each study ranged from four to 170. She reported that several oils stood out for supporting hypnotic benzodiazepine withdrawal (a mixture of juniper, rose, and oris) and nicotine dependence (angelica, black pepper, and helichyrsum).
In the review of human trials in peer-reviewed literature, results for efficacy were stated as follows:
Benzodiazepine and nicotine dependence – similar protocols as the students used demonstrated positive results.
Substance abuse- ylang ylang and peppermint supported opioid withdrawal in some small trials.
Alcohol- a study with initially 99 subjects, and a drop out rate resulting in only 36 participants, compared aromatherapy to acupuncture for assisting with alcohol cravings during treatment. It was found that both were equal in reducing cravings. Another study looked at alcohol withdrawal and reported that lavender, roman chamomile, and ylang ylang helped with symptoms of restlessness.
Food – a 2005 study with 30 women compared two essential oils to a control. It was reported that the “mandarin group had average weight loss of 2.4 pounds and the lavender group had average weight loss of 5.3 pounds. The control group; however, also lost weight, but the average was 1.2 pounds.”
In another study with 21 volunteers, fennel oil resulted in less cravings and a slight increase in weight lost vs. the control group (3.51 pounds vs. 2.81, respectively.)
These trials, combined with the holistic actions of essential oils on the whole body, provide evidence that essential oils, in a comprehensive program, can be a very helpful tool for supporting those who wish to break addictive cycles.
In part 3, the conclusion, I will discuss more about my methods and this concept of individualizing mood support protocols for assisting behavioral change.
References not linked above:
- Choi MS, Choi BS, Kim SH, Pak SC, Jang CH, Chin YW, et al. Essential Oils from the Medicinal Herbs Upregulate Dopamine Transporter in Rat Pheochromocytoma Cells. J Med Food. 2015 Oct;18(10):1112-20. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2015.3475. Epub 2015 Aug 21.
- Khodayar MJ, Taherzadeh E, Siahpoosh A, Mansourzadeh Z, Tabatabaei SAH. Thymus Daenensis Extract and Essential Oils Effects on Morphine Withdrawal Signs in Mice. Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products. 2014;9(3):e9959.
- Abbasi Maleki N, Abbasi Maleki S, Bekhradi R. Suppressive Effects of Rosa Damascena Essential Oil on Naloxone- Precipitated Morphine Withdrawal Signs in Male Mice. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research?: IJPR. 2013;12(3):357-361.
- Jane Buckle. Journal of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. 2016; Spring ed. (pg 21-25)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information. (Affiliation link.)
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. Proper medical management of emergency situations in mental disease should always be implemented first. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.