Essential Oils as Anti-Biotics

One of the blessings and curses of modern medicine has been the discovery and use of anti-biotics. Their use has saved many lives. When I was a youngster with severe pneumonia and on my way out according to the pundits a new ‘wonder’ drug was flown from America – one of the new anti biotics. No doubt these saved my life. However our family doctor or GP was also a homoeopath, so as he said and as I have always followed , “There is room for all medicines, never be dogmatic. Orthodox medicine is good in a crisis and alternative medicine good at prevention and recovery.” 

Aromatherapy philosophy in the English speaking world tends to lean toward a holistic, complementary or alternative view.  Mostly the practice is linked to massage and the support of the body function and systems.  However there is a tendency to lean upon French research into the effects of essential oils in a fundamental and orthodox approach. Chemistry and functional groups lie at the heart of this approach. Quite specific qualities are ascribed to essential oils based upon their anti-biotic role. This is often called the ‘Green Magic Bullet’ approach. Such an approach does not necessarily fit with the holistic aspects of Aromatherapy most espouse and certainly not in the world of the spa industry unless that spa has medical status.

Most people around the world ascribe to the germ theory of disease. This proposes that microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria are the cause of disease.  Names associated with the development of the theory are well known such as Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch who first identified a bacterium as the cause of anthrax and of course Joseph Lister, all great names in modern medicine. Although still a theory it is the basis of modern medicine and generally serves us well.

In the mid 1950’s tests showed that aerial sprays of essential oils reduced or eliminated the germ count which confirmed the sense of the traditional use of essential oils sprayed or diffused in a sick room area. But a good question is what are these so called germs and are they innately bad guys?

Bacteria can be found everywhere from the top of mountains to the bottom of oceans. Learn to love bacteria; they make the world go around. Shaped as spheres, rods and spirals they are the fundamental part of organic growing around 40 million cells can be found in one gram of soil. Indeed one can think of bacteria as little plants although officially now they have their own domain of life. 

We have a world of bacteria on our skin which begins to build from birth and this micro floral layer is our first line of defence against pathogenic bacteria. This bacterial ‘forest’ is as unique to us as our fingerprint.  It also constitutes a living dynamic layer which is vital to skin health and moisturisation called the skin acid mantle. Our gut, which is a specialised form of skin, also hosts a multitude of bacteria with which we have a symbiotic relationship. In other words bacteria contribute greatly to our health and to the health of the planet.  So why kill 99% of them when only 1% are harmful!

In the wrong place at the wrong time bacteria can undoubtedly cause harm. There are pathogenic bacteria that are associated or cause diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, and diphtheria and so on. Essential oils do have antibiotic properties and French work notably by Dr. Paul Belaiche a specialist in Aromamedicine as opposed to general Aromatherapy. Tests were arrived at by cultures of gut flora in a Petri dish into which various essential oils were dropped. The sensitivity of bacteria was then assessed by the reduction of the size of the culture. The name Aromatogram was coined to describe the resultant test data and in vivo tests that followed.

Today we are aware that the following oils are those that show the most activity against a broad range of bacteria: - Eugenia caryophyllata (Clove), Cinnamomum zeylanicum, Thymus vulgaris  (thymol chemotype), Origanum vulgaris (Oregano), Satureja Montana (Winter or Mountain Savory).  Of course we can see that these oils are also well known skin irritants so must be used with caution. And looking at the French research we musr remember That this is based upon internal dosage which most of those working with Aromatherapy are not qualified to administer.

Far safer are the non broad spectrum group of oils which are good bactericides but are limited to actions against specific bacteria such as pneumococcus or streptococcus nevertheless they are useful  for many infectious conditions especially chest compalints.  This group includes Pinus sylvestris, Eucalyptus globulus,  Lavandula angustifolia, Melaleuca leucadendron (Cajuput), Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree), Melaleuca viridifolia (Niaouli), Myrtus communis (Myrtle), and surprisingly amongst others  geranium or Pelargonium graveolens. 

As aerial dispersion is such an effective method for using essential oils the idea of using tussie mussies or nosegays for preventative ‘medicine’ in mediaeval times makes sense! Neither should the role of culinary herbs be overlooked as those oils with most bactericide properties are regularly added to food. 

A therapist has to decide where holism fits into this biocide approach. As my opening comments demonstrated there is probably a time and place for everything. As our modern antibiotics are becoming less useful due to resistance from bacteria by over usage the anti-biotic effects of essential oils should be increasingly valued. As supportive or complementary materials they clearly have a place and role. 

One interesting feature is that the skin is acidic the ph being 5.5, the gut varies by area, the stomach when resting is between 4 and 5 but when digesting may drop to 2, the ph needs to  vary due to the different enzymes present. In skin care we often use floral waters or hydrolats. These normally have a low ph as they contain he weak acids from the distillation process. We can readily see that they then have a supportive action of the good natural micro flora and sometimes appear to mimic the beneficial effect of the essential oil itself. 

Without bacteria the world would certainly stop. Essential oils can be used directly as biocides when needed but the majority of use in aromatherapy is in a supportive role.