One of the biggest trends in natural treatments for ADHD is essential oils. Sold by companies such as doTerra and Young Living, essential oils are touted as being able to improve attention and to calm hyperactivity in children with ADHD and autism. However, the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) does not recommend these for treatment of ADHD or even mention them as viable alternatives. Are essential oils the next big thing in ADHD treatment, or are they snake oil?
Do they work?
Many supporters of essential oil therapy for ADHD point to research done by Dr. Terry Friedman, which showed some amazing results with lavender, cedarwood, and vetiver oils. However, this research was not published in a peer-reviewed journal and involved only 6 patients in each treatment group. While such research is a good start, it is hardly convincing.
Lavender has several studies showing its effectiveness in calming patients with anxiety or depression, and at least one study showing that it helped induce sleep. There are no studies of lavendar and patients with ADHD.
Vetiver has one additional small study showing that the aroma of vetiver roots increased attention in normal subjects. The study authors noted that essential oil and roots have different aromas, however.
Other ingredients found in formulas recommended for ADHD have no additional clinical studies supporting claims that they are calming or improve attention. These ingredients include cedarwood, ylang ylang, and frankincense.
Are they safe?
If something works for your child’s symptoms, your first reaction might very well be that you don’t care if it is placebo or not. If it works, who cares? But then there is a second question that really must be answered and that is, are essential oils safe?
1) You may not be getting what you think you are buying. Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA or any other federal agency. You cannot be sure that what was studied by a researcher is the same as what you are purchasing. Variations can occur from company to company and from batch to batch. Even doTerra admits that their “certified therapeutic grade” label is a company standard. The upshot of this is that you can never be really certain you are going to get the same dose from bottle to bottle of oils.
2) Even though these are natural oils, this does not mean there are no side effects.
Lavender aromatherapy, for example, has been shown to reduce accuracy in arithmetic reasoning. Lavendar oil applied to the skin has been shown to induce growth of breast tissue in boys, and has also been shown to have estrogen like activity in cell culture.
There are simply no studies of long term side effects of most essential oils and this means that we cannot tell if they are safe or if they may cause something serious, like cancer or autoimmune disease, if they are used consistently over a period of years. This is a particular concern, since ADHD is a chronic condition mostly identified in childhood.
In the short term, some oils are also known to cause allergic reactions. Ylang ylang, in particular, is well known to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.
Are they worth a try?
Essential oils have very little evidence to support their use for treatment of ADHD, and there is some research that suggests that there are risks, some long term and some short term. The evidence is not convincing enough that essential oils should be used as the only replacement for conventional medication for ADHD.
However, essential oils may be worth a try for occasional or short term use for a patient who has insomnia or occasional breakthrough symptoms on their existing treatment regimen, especially if the alternative is to add a second daily medication. Essential oils may also be worth trying in patients who are unable to take medication and who have failed safer natural therapies such as behavioral therapy or omega 3 fatty acids. In these cases it would be safest to first try to use the oils as aromatherapy before applying them to the skin.
Please note that there is no safety data concerning essential oils in pregnancy. Pregnant women should not use essential oils without first consulting their obstetric provider.