Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.
Admittedly, I like remedies to have studies that back up safety and efficacy. I may be slower to recommend those that don’t. But I personally have used plenty of treatments that I never learned about in nursing school—chiropractic care, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, foot reflexology, glucosamine … you name it, I’ve probably used it. Including aromatherapy.
I do look for research about such remedies—either evidence that supports their use, or evidence against them. But the absence of research doesn’t necessarily move something to my “avoid” list. Some remedies are just common sense, and some come from long-standing traditions. In that case, I take some time to weigh the potential benefits against possible risks.
So I was astonished and pleased to find that there are thousands of articles in medical journals about essential oils—the basis for aromatherapy—supporting their use for a variety of purposes. Wondering if there are any risks? Read on. During my radio show with certified aromatherapist Lea Harris, I uncovered 7 cautions for every breastfeeding mother considering essential oils.
Don’t confuse the “essential oil” with the herb. Plants have three parts: root, stem, and leaves. Essential oils are made (usually, distilled) from the plant, not the leaves. So while you should feel no positive or negative health effects from eating fresh rosemary on your roasted potatoes, you may indeed feel some effects from the essential oil, rosemary. The same is true for cinnamon, cloves, and other plants that can be distilled into an essential oil.
Don’t ingest essential oils. Essential oils that may be safe and effective when breathed through your nose or massaged into your skin, usually are not safe for consumption. Do not ingest any essential oil unless you are working with a professional.
Avoid some essential oils when pregnant or breastfeeding. Although some Internet sources claim there’s nothing to worry about when using essential oils during these times, substances may cross the placenta during pregnancy or be excreted in your milk during lactation. Even when the “dose” that crosses into your milk may be small, you will want to carefully consider the possible effects. In general, I would urge you to err on the side of caution.
Some essential oils may affect your milk supply. Aside from safety, you should also wonder if the essential oil—or any substance—will affect your milk supply. Do we have good evidence? Unfortunately, no. For example, anecdotal reports suggest that peppermint oil can reduce milk supply in some but not all women; we don’t have a strong study to support that.
So, think it through. If you have an ample milk supply, you might be willing to take the risk. If you’re already struggling, remember that Lea and I agree that peppermint can negatively affect milk supply in some women. How would you feel if that happens to you? Note too that I’ve always believed sage—the herb—reduces milk supply; Lea says that sage—the essential oil—absolutely should not be used during the childbearing cycle.
Some essential oils should not be used with some medications. If you’ve had some medical complications from your pregnancy or delivery, or if you have another medical condition, you may be taking some medicine. You should know that essential oils can potentiate—make more dramatic—the effect of some medications, such as coumadin or heparin. Even if a drug and an essential oil may be safe while nursing, the two taken together might mean trouble.
Beware if your baby will be directly exposed. Some essential oils might be fine if your baby is exposed to them through your milk, but be unsafe for your child directly. For example, plenty of evidence shows the safety of lavender for the childbearing woman, but it is not safe to use for children. (Still want to use it yourself? You could use a personal inhaler to avoid exposing your baby to it.)
Stop, look and listen. Oh, this sounds so trite, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Stop and think about how powerful the essential oil is. Look at the exact name—for example, Bulgarian lavender is different from French lavender. (Lea gives several examples of this in the show.) Listen to the true experts—not everything in print or online is accurate. Lea gave some tips for how to spot credible sources. You might want The Complete Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Handbook for Everyday Wellness by Nerys Purchon and Lora Cantele, or perhaps Tisserand’s book.
“Natural” may not be safe. Caution is always a good step.