Essential oils have been used for more than 5,000 years, but they have only recently become mainstream.

For some, the verdict is still out on their advertised benefits, and whether they simply represent a money-making scheme. But many believers are encouraging people to try them — one drop at a time.

The International Organization for Standardization defines an essential oil as “a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.”

Because of their purity, and that they’re derived from plants, essential oils are believed to have numerous health and wellness benefits.

Three local wellness advocates for doTERRA essential oils are firm believers, and use the oils in their everyday lives.

The science

Physical therapy assistant Alicia (Rebuck) Varney, of Shamokin, and her husband, Craig, a registered nurse with Geisinger Health System, didn’t know anything about essential oils and were initially skeptical.

Alicia Varney supported a friend by attending a class on essential oils and learned how they can be used as medicine. She stresses that they can’t replace modern medicine, but can supplement it.

One of the Varneys’ children has asthma, allergies and eczema, and they didn’t like the constant use of steroids on their young child. They learned about alternatives to antihistamines in the class and decided to give lavender essential oils a try.

“Since that day almost four years ago, the effects were amazing,” Alicia Varney said.

Still, they wondered: “We see a change, but we don’t quite understand it, and we were still on the fence ... was it really a placebo effect?”

To better understand, Varney delved into the science. She said she can only speak for the doTERRA, and encourages others to do their own research.

The chemical makeup of an essential oil is complex and unique, and that chemistry is dependent upon the plant growing in its indigenous environment. Varney compared it to growing an orange tree indigenous to Florida in Pennsylvania; the climate and soil would change the chemical structure, taste and shape of the orange, she said.

Molecules in essential oils are highly complex, making it difficult for the body to develop a resistance. The tiny molecules can penetrate a cell membrane, allowing the oil to treat the viruses that live inside cells, Varney said.

The oils work because plants have a same cellular makeup to humans. When they are put into our bodies, “they’re in a familiar environment and go to work on our body’s behalf in a positive manner,” Varney said.

When speaking to someone about essential oils, Varney stays mindful of medication the person might be taking, and advises consulting their doctor.

“I don’t want to play a doctor role,” she said. “What I love about essential oil is that it’s an addition.

“Instead of running to Ibuprofen or Tylenol, which we know in the long term can lead to liver damage and eventually liver failure,” she added, “you can use an essential oil that can potentially do the same exact thing for you and have no side effects.”

Brands matter

Mary Jane Humes, of Shamokin, began taking classes on essential oils for a position as a virtual assistant, but the more she learned, the more she was convinced to use them for herself and her family.

“I grew up being interested in a lot of herbal medicine, and so essential oils are the same plants they often use for herbal healing, but 50 to 80 times more powerful because it’s more of the essence of the plant compound,” said Humes.

As a wellness advocate at her business, Drops of Grace, 345 Bear Gap Road, Elysburg, Humes said she carries only the highest quality oils, which aren’t always the cheapest.

It brings up the question of why people would buy expensive oils instead of mass-retailed ones.

Because essential oils aren’t FDA regulated, companies can print what they’d like on the bottles, she explained. A bottle may claim the oil is 100 percent pure, but could contain a few drops of the actual oil with the remainder consisting of filler. And the purity matters, she said.

Using vanilla extract, a food grade essential oil, as an example, Humes said, “When you buy your vanilla, you can pay a lot of money and get the pure or spend less and get imitation.”

The way the oil is extracted means everything, and Humes said that can impact the cost.

“For a lot of companies, the cheap way is to use chemical means of extracting, so when you get something, say from Walmart, you probably pay very little and it’s probably synthetic,” she said.

Humes refers to those oils as having a “toxic tag-a-long,” and the best way to identify their existence is if the bottle says “external use only.”

“There are two companies I’m totally aware of that take the longer and more expensive process of extracting the goodness of the plant without any sort of chemicals,” she said.

Using the oils

Kristen Stover, of Sunbury, has always been a believer in natural medicine and was turned on to essential oils four years ago when her father was battling cancer.

His cancer seemed to “spread like fire” after being administered certain medication, leading Stover to seek a more natural process — including one that wouldn’t produce side effects.

She said her use of essential oils is not related to a disbelief in modern medicine; it’s more that she believes people should limit use of medications.

“Try the natural, toxin-free lifestyle first, and if that works, then you don’t have to go to the synthetically modified fillers of a toxic medication that a lot of times just create new symptoms,” she said.

A small town adopting to new trends can be tricky. Stover said she’s experienced some hesitation, but she’s finding people are more open minded about oils after trying them.

“Once they learn the science behind essential oils, and when you give them a sample at an educational class and they try it, they see how it affects them and how it works,” she said.

Stover said she’s had people come to her in a final effort to find relief, and that they found it with oils.

The way oils are used — external, ingestion or diffusing — depends on personal preference. Stover said she uses them in all three ways, including diffusing all day with oils that assist with sleeping, breathing and immunity boosting.

“Diffusing is great because it’s putting out the aromatic compounds in the air,” she said. “So even though you’re breathing them in, you’re still getting them into the body and blood stream.”

Open mind

Stover enjoys sharing how the essential oils have impacted her’s and her children’s lives.

She’s a firm supporter of doTERRA because a code on every bottle allows users to look up when it was made, what compounds it’s made of and more.

Stover said essential oil enthusiasts can be the target of skeptics, but she encourages everyone to have an open mind.

“What will it hurt trying something pure and unadulterated and a good, natural alternative?” she asked. “We’re not saying you don’t ever need modern medicine to intervene, but if you can try the natural route, it’s going to cleanse your body inside out. Don’t be afraid to try it.”

‘Starter set’

For those interested in trying essential oils, Kristen Stover offers this “top 10 starter set.” The oils and their intended benefit include:

1. OnGuard: immune support.

2. Breathe: respiratory support.

3. Deep Blue: muscle/joint support.

4. Oregano: huge immune support.

5. Lemon: detoxing, cleansing and uplifting.

6. Lavender: calming, relaxing and skin support.

7. Melaleuca (tea tree): skin support.

8. Peppermint: energizing and digestive support.

9. Digestzen: major digestive support.

10. Frankincense: anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, cellular health.

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