We suffer from seasonal allergies with symptoms of itchy eyes, runny noses and sneezing. We have a friend that recently suggested a combo of oregano oil and peppermint oil. One drop of oregano oil is diluted in juice, taken two times per week, and the peppermint oil is wiped directly into the nostrils (it does clear out your sinuses). I did a little looking online, and found that this "cure" is from the book The Cure Is in the Cupboard by Dr. Cass Ingram. After reading the Amazon reviews, it seems a bit shady that the special oregano oil is not actually IN your cupboard, but is only available through the author. Despite that, it seemed to work (at least at first), but was it merely placebo? Is there any harm from using these essential oils? Other suggestions, especially for the kids, would also be appreciated.
—Conrad, Heidi, Remy, and Siena
Indeed, the book you reference appears to have been published primarily to promote sales of Dr. Ingram's oregano oil. But writing a book simply to sell a product is nothing new. Scads of diet paperbacks come to mind, and this season, it seems every presidential candidate has written a book. Little-known, however, is that Fahrenheit 451 was secretly meant to sell air conditioners, Orwell's 1984 supported the calendar manufacturers, and all the works of Shakespeare, of course, were just a big, oh-so-obvious push for the mental health industry. Accepting this new reality, I had a great book idea to promote my own chiropractic practice, but Nora Ephron beat me to it. Would anyone believe that I already had a first draft of I Feel Bad About My Neck?
Ingram's oregano oil is not made from the same plant as the dry spice you might find sprinkled on a frozen pizza. Most dried oregano sold in the U.S. is actually Mexican sage, a plant with aromatic qualities similar to actual Greek oregano (also known as wild oregano). Laboratory testing has shown that oil made from the real stuff has antimicrobial properties (as do hundreds of other plant extracts). This book, and the claims made in it, would have likely faded into obscurity but for the timing of the October 2001 anthrax attacks. A research paper, released the same month, showed the oil to be as effective as antibiotics for bacterial skin infections in mice. Amid the media chaos at the time, some reports implied that oregano oil might be a cure for anthrax. To quell the frenzy, even the author of the study denounced the illogical leap. Still, a year later, the Federal Trade Commission was forced to crack down on dozens of Web sites that continued to promote the oil as a defense against biological weapons. As for allergies or other internal conditions, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support miraculous claims.
Peppermint oil has a slightly better reputation. Applied topically, it has been shown to relieve tension headaches and a few other similar discomforts. One property of peppermint oil is that it relaxes smooth muscle—the same type of tissue that lines the walls of our airways. Although this might explain how nasal application can clear your sinuses, it makes nostril dabbing somewhat unsafe for use in children or anyone with respiratory problems. Kids already have problems with fingers in noses—no need to encourage them further by making their prizes taste like Mentos.
So what works? A daily dose of fish oil, rinsing the sinuses with saline (or commercial saline mists) can help, but a surprising amount of medical literature indicates acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine is effective. In 2004, the journal Allergy published a study in which 52 allergy sufferers were given either proper or "random" acupuncture, with either a real or nonspecific mixture of Chinese herbs. More than twice as many patients in the genuine treatment group showed objective improvement versus the bogus crowd (85 percent vs. 40 percent). A similar Australian study of Chinese herbal medicine alone (randomized and blinded) found the same double-the-control response (61 percent vs. 30 percent). As for kids, a 2004 study in Pediatrics took 72 "tweens" and gave them either real or sham acupuncture (no doubt requiring bribes of iPods and PSPs) to find, as with the others, an actual treatment significantly reduced allergy symptoms.
Not great news for your children (salt water nasal rinses, fish oil and needles), but at least they'll be spared pizza-flavored orange juice. And, as far as a self-promoting book goes, this column has given me great inspiration. Look for my new children's book, Hundreds of Places to Hide: Strategies for Allergic Kids with Over-Zealous Parents.