Quackademic medicine marches on: Essential oils and quackademia for the poor


After having written about how the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO) has promoted guidelines for cancer patients that are—shall we say?—less than scientifically rigorous, I was immediately confronted with just what we face in academic medicine when it comes to the infiltration of quackery, or, as I like to call it, quackademic medicine. It came in the form of an e-mail containing a Christmas message to the readers of the newsletter for the GW Center for Integrative Medicine (GW CIM), which is affiliated with George Washington University Medical Center.

All I can say is: Ugh.

Obviously, this being Orac and all, I can say more than that. I almost always do. First of all, I’ll remind you of just how much outright quackery is offered by GW CIM: Reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic, craniosacral therapy, infrared light therapies, glutathione infusions, Myers’ Cocktail, naturopathy (again, of course!), intravenous high dose vitamin C, and genetic profile results that include “customized interpretation of 23andme.com genetic profile results with specific accent on methylation and detoxification profiles.” So now what’s in this Christmas message in GW CIM’s Medella newsletter? Last time around, it was reiki workshops, which, as all regular readers should know is nothing more than faith healing that substitutes as the source of the mystical magical “healing energy” Eastern mysticism (as in the “universal source”) for Christian beliefs (as in god). The newsletter even proclaims:

The second degree of Reiki deepens your connection to universal source, connects you to a greater volume of Reiki energy, and strengthens your ability to channel the energy. You will be introduced to three sacred symbols, which serve specific healing functions: 1) powering up the Reiki energy, 2) healing at the mental and emotional level, and 3) healing across time and space. A large part of the training will be centered on the understanding and application of these symbols, along with supervised hands-on practice of advanced Reiki techniques on yourself and others. We will also discuss the ethics of treating others, and local resources for volunteering. You will receive two attunements at this level. Homework will include 21 days of self-healing, and ten documented sessions on others, after which you will receive your certificate. Prerequisite: Certificate from your Reiki 1 Training. Please register at www.gwcim.com.

Yes, GW CIM is trying to out-Cleveland Clinic the Cleveland Clinic.

This time around, though, it’s essential oils:

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the use of essential oils. As more and more people demand safer alternatives to synthetic pharmaceuticals, scientists and medical practitioners alike are seeking to validate the numerous health benefits of essential oils.

Essential oils are naturally occurring extracts derived from the seeds, stems, leaves, flowers or bark of plants, or the rinds of citrus fruits. Essential oils are 50 – 70 times more potent than their herbal counterparts. The therapeutic benefits of essential oils have been known for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans reference the use of essential oils for health and wellness. In the story of the three wise men, three gifts were considered important enough to be offered: aside from gold, the two others were essential oils – frankincense and myrrh.

We hear this sort of stuff about essential oils again and again. This sales pitch could have come straight from dōTERRA®. So far, this is relatively harmless claptrap, but unfortunately it doesn’t stay that way for long. First, there’s the implication that the healing properties of these oils were forgotten with the rise of evil pharmaceuticals:

The use of essential oils was lost in history until 1937, when a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, rediscovered their benefits by healing a badly burned hand with pure lavender oil. Therapeutic grade essential oils were next successfully used to treat soldiers during World War II. With the beginning of penicillin use in 1942, the therapeutic benefits of essential oils were forgotten. Only in the past two decades, as more people demand safer alternatives to synthetic pharmaceuticals, essential oils have once again gained in popularity.

You might think that an academic medical center wouldn’t publish something in its official newsletter that implies that something like essential oils could be used as antibiotics but were only forgotten because of the rise of penicillin use. Whether some essential oils have antimicrobial properties isn’t the issue. At issue is the insinuation that essential oils can do as well as pharmaceuticals and whether they’re viable alternatives to pharmaceuticals.

Certainly, it is possible that various essential oils might have useful properties. They are, after all, derived from natural products. However, there is the same problem here that there is with any other crude natural product: purity and consistency. Yet, like for herbal medicine, we see such claims:

Because a single essential oil can have hundreds of constituents, the therapeutic uses of a single oil could include antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, immune boosting and mood lifting applications. The scientific body of evidence is growing. A study published last month looked at the therapeutic benefits of Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) essential oil. It found that topical administration of Melissa displayed efficacy in an experimental model of diabetic pain, showing promise as a treatment for painful diabetic neuropathy. Another study involving Melissa officinalis found the essential oil to have antitumor activity against several cancer cell lines.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist checking out what study they might have meant by the reference to activity against cancer cell lines. This is the study they were talking about. It’s a study that shows that the major component of this particular oil (citral) decreased the viability and induced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in glioblastoma cell lines. It’s much like any study that finds in vitro activity against cancer cell lines: Highly preliminary and not particularly meaningful in answering the question whether essential oils can be an effective treatment for cancer. As for efficacy against diabetic pain, the other study, which was this one, was in a rat model.

Of course, the real issue here is whether an official newsletter from an academic medical center should read more like an advertisement for unproven treatments like essential oils. The GW CIM even notes that it is selling Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade essential oils and that information regarding their use can be obtained from the patient’s practitioner, GW CIM’s free monthly classes, or by scheduling a consultation with the Nurse Practitioner and aromatherapy specialist Mary Kendell.

Finally, we learn from the newsletter that GW CIM is going one step beyond, so to speak. Included in the newsletter is a pitch for donations to something called the AIM Health Institute, which, according to the newsletter, “will provide integrative medicine services to low-income and terminally ill patients in the Washington, D.C. area regardless of ability to pay” noting that “today, most integrative medicine services are not covered by health insurance, and for this reason are largely accessible only to those who can afford to pay out-of-pocket.” Of course, the reason that these services are not covered by health insurance is because they are not supported by evidence, services such as those provided by AIM: acupuncture, massage, Reiki, hypnotherapy, naturopathic medicine, osteopathy, yoga, integrative medical consultations and other integrative modalities.

Oh, goody. It’s not enough to provide quackery to the well-off worried well. Now GW CIM needs to export quackery like reiki and naturopathy to poor people as well. Just what they need!

And more evidence of just how far George Washington University has fallen with respect to medicine.