My son is only 11 years old, but aside from teaching him ways to manage his mental health since he was about 5 through practices like meditation, my other goal is to help him become a critical thinker. Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be developed through practice, and while I’m not teaching my son about all of our inherent cognitive biases and various mental models, I have taught him the golden rule of critical thinking, which is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Recently, my beautiful girlfriend Tristin and I binged watched the new Netflix docuseries Unwell, and I just can’t help but think how different these peoples’ lives would be if they learned the same golden rule. In the series, they do a deep dive on the wellness industry, and they cover topics from bee sting therapy, to 28-day fasting, and even people who buy breast milk online. But today, we’re going to be taking a look at the specific wellness industry of essential oils.
You may have heard of essential oil MLM’s like doTerra and Young Living when a high school friend you haven’t talked to in years tries to get you in their downline, but today we’re taking a look at a different angle. We’re going to look at essential oils through the lens of critical thinking as it’s presented as an alternative medicine. As a recovering drug addict who was addicted to prescription medications, I often research alternative medicines because I can be skeptical of the medical industry.
But if you’re like me, we need to learn how to critically think about alternative medicines because there can be dire effects. In the Unwell episode on essential oils, we meet a woman who started using essential oils and broke out into a rash. As the rash became more severe, she asked people in the MLM Facebook group, and they told her that this was just her body’s way of detoxing, but she was actually having an allergic reaction.
This woman was an adult, but the episode also shows a family who has made millions from selling essential oil courses and recipes, and they even have their children drink the oils with shakes. There’s another woman in this show who is desperate to help her daughter with autism, so she has now turned to essential oils.
Those who sell essential oils make big claims such as how these oils can help cure cancer and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. When we’re desperate for relief from psychological or physical ailments, we may bypass critical thinking and take the option that sounds too good to be true. Not only can this make our health worse, but we may have a loved one who is considering going down that path.
Today, we’re going to discuss how to think about the claims of those who push essential oils and ask if the placebo effect is worth it. We’ll also discuss a common logical fallacy that many wellness industries use to sell products. If you’d like to hear more about the MLM side of the essential oil industry, I highly suggest you check out the two videos from Cruel World Happy Mind. She recently did a 2-part series on this specific episode and not only discusses the MLM aspect, but she makes some excellent points about how the distrust of mainstream medicine pushes people towards essential oils.
Are Essential Oils a Cure-All?
Biology and medical science are complex subjects, which is why people go to school for a decade to become a doctor. Due to the complexity of these topics, those trying to sell us on essential oils try to take advantage of our ignorance. They attempt to take the complex subject of health and simplify it to sell essential oils as an alternative medicine.
One way they try to do this is by giving anecdotal evidence, which is something we should always be skeptical of. In this episode of Unwell, we meet a young woman who is a doTerra salesperson who makes about $20,000 per month. Part of her pitch is stating that she’s living proof that essential oils can cure cancer.
When she was young, she developed a potentially fatal form of brain cancer, and she was given the option of chemotherapy. Rather than doing chemo, her and her mother decided to try essential oils. Over time, the cancer went away, and the doctor said to just keep doing what she was doing.
And she’s not the only one who tells people that these oils can cure cancer. Earlier in the episode, we met a man who goes by Dr. Z. He’s a chiropractor who has made millions selling courses, recipes, and remedies about essential oils, and he’s also the one we mentioned earlier who feeds it to his kids. In this episode, he says he’ll probably get crucified for saying it, but he does believe that essential oils can cure cancer.
So, although Dr. Z. may just be trying to make money by stating these oils can cure cancer, what about the woman who used the oils, and her cancer went away? Well, this is why we need to understand the medical testing process and the importance of controlled experiments.
A great website to check out sometime is TylerVigen.com. It’s a great example of how ridiculous correlations can be. Here, you can see that not only did he find a link between the United States spending on science, space and technology with people taking their life, but he also found a correlation between people drowning in pools and Nic Cage movies.
If you’ve watched my Supernatural Psychology series, you’ve learned a bit about why our minds are wired to connect unrelated events. When it comes to medical treatments for illnesses like cancer or mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, we need to realize that we may waste our time in the wrong place. A person who spends a year using essential oils to treat their cancer may now be missing out on a treatment that actually has scientific validity.
While it’s sometimes difficult to find causation, some studies are able to prove higher correlations than others, and here are some things we should look for with studies:
- Has it been replicated and how many times? — No matter how many times you do it, the average amount of times you’ll get heads when flipping a coin will be 50%. If you only flip the coin 5 times, and it comes up heads every time, you may believe that coins always come up heads. But if you flipped that coin 1,000 times, you’d see a reduction to the mean. This is why studies must be replicated many times for there to be scientific validity.
- Was there a control group? — If we’re testing a medication, we typically need a few groups. So, if for example, if we’re testing an essential oil to see if it decreases depression, we’d want 3 groups: one using the oil, one not using the oil, and one given a placebo. The best type of study is a double-blind study where the patient and the doctor don’t know what group they’re in.
- How long was the study? — Longitudinal studies take place over years, but they’re often difficult to fund. We typically want to see how people do over time because there may be side effects that come from long-term use of a medication, or more importantly, some people may naturally heal over time.
In a recent book I was reading by Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, it discussed how even doctors are sometimes biased towards treatment. Sunstein goes on to say that patients should have the right to choose which type of treatment they’re going to get, and in the instance of cancer, you have three options: chemo, surgery, or wait and see what happens. A doctor who specializes in radiation treatment may nudge you towards chemo. A doctor who specializes in surgery may nudge you towards surgery. Sometimes, cancer goes away on its own, but guess how many doctors specialize in that area…not many.
Aside from looking at higher quality studies, one way we can avoid being taken advantage of by unproven and potentially dangerous alternative medicines is to look out for the appeal to nature logical fallacy. This logical fallacy says, “This is natural, therefore it’s good.” As we know, it’s not rational to just say because something is natural, it gives good results. Remember, plants in nature have evolved over millions of years to fend off animals from eating them, so many have toxins that we may have a reaction to.
In some cases, it’s quite possible that the cancer will go away on its own. For those who struggle with episodic depression, when life circumstances get better, the depression may go away. So, when I think about this, I often sit and reflect on how incredible the human body is at naturally healing itself in some instances. And that’s why, in this last section, we’re going to dive into the placebo effect.
Is the Placebo Effect Worth it?
Our mind is more powerful than many of us give it credit for, and it can often times turn belief into reality. When you were a child, your parents may have kissed your booboo, and it made the pain go away. Now, there’s no scientific research that proves that mommy kisses cure booboos, but there’s something to say about how it can make the pain go away. While mommy’s kiss didn’t cure the booboo, affection from someone you love makes the brain release endorphins, which is a natural pain reliever.
But what about essential oils? I’m sure there are plenty of people who have used these oils, and they feel less depressed and less anxious. In this episode of Unwell, the mother of the daughter with autism uses an essential oil diffuser and says her daughter is sleeping better. Although her daughter is non-verbal, the mother believes the daughter is sleeping better. Her belief that the daughter is sleeping better makes the mom happier and less stressed.
Recently, I read an excellent book titled Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal by Erik Vance. It’s the best book I’ve read on the many ways the placebo effect can work, and I highly recommend it. The author is an ex-Christian who becomes fascinated with how the power of belief can have legitimate physiological effects.
I often contemplate whether the placebo effect is worth it or not. If your lucky pair of underwear makes you think you’re having better luck each day, as long as you’re not getting a rash on your nether regions from not washing them, who am I to tell you that it’s a bad idea? Unfortunately, essential oils are much different.
The problem with the essential oil industry, as well as other wellness industries, is that they sell their product by demonizing medical science and professional medicine. As you saw from the woman who had a terrible allergic reaction to the essential oils, she turned to a Facebook group of other essential oil users rather than a doctor. Why? Because many people sold on essential oils believe they can’t trust doctors.
Fortunately, the episode also showcases some aromatherapists who are much more careful than someone you’d find peddling doTerra or Young Living. There are a few professional aromatherapists in this episode who disclose to their patients the potential dangers and side effects of these oils and what can happen if you ingest too much.
In one scene, we visit a medical facility where people come for treatment and can also explore aromatherapy. If these people are feeling relief due to the placebo effect, more power to them. My only concern in instances like this is that insurance doesn’t cover aromatherapy, and they don’t say how much these people are paying for treatment. So, I’d be worried that some of these people are wasting a lot of money, but if the placebo effect is working, how much is it worth to the person?
When it comes to the mother who uses an essential oil diffuser to treat her daughter with autism, personally, I don’t see it as a big deal. Unlike Dr. Z, she’s not mixing it with her daughter’s food. The mother uses a diffuser, so not only are the oils diluted by water, but the girl isn’t directly inhaling it from the diffuser.
So, best-case scenario, people are benefiting from the placebo effect of essential oils, but in my opinion, there’s a much bigger downside. From allergic reactions to people being ruined financially by this product, this is the exact reason why we need to critically think about alternative medicines. Medical science is a complex subject, but each of us should take the time to be skeptical when something is presented to us that sounds like it may be too good to be true.
If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.