Essential oils appeal to parents

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As a neonatal nurse, Brittany Webb often thinks: doctor and pharmacy. Not: plants and all natural.

Or at least she did.

Recently, the Franklin mother of two has given her medicine cabinet a complete overhaul. Once a go-to mommy resource for pharmaceuticals to quell the sniffles or calm an upset tummy, Webb said she no longer even opens the cabinet door.

"Except for Band-Aids," she jokes.

Instead, she reaches for her kit of essential oils.

The concentrated liquids of plant compounds are touted by some for medicinal and therapeutic benefits — and Webb is a believer.

Peppermint has replaced Tylenol for headaches. Melaleuca has taken the place of Mucinex. And lavender is the go-to fever-reducer instead of Motrin.

On Facebook, in the nail salon, through an email chain — every direction you turn these days there is a mom talking about using essential oils to protect and treat their kids' ailments rather than using traditional medicines.

They say it has transformed their families' health.

There has been little published research on essential oils, so many medical experts don't feel educated to speak to the safety, effectiveness or purity. And essential oils, like some vitamins, supplements and herbal remedies, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so no government agency is checking on the purity of these products.

Still, more parents are considering the back-to-nature benefits.

They tout it as a better alternative to subjecting a child to multiple rounds of antibiotics or steroids. They also feel it gives them a greater ability to manage their child's health.

Brittany Webb, a neonatal nurse at Vanderbilt, talks with the moms in her home for an Essential Oils 101 class.

"It's empowering as a mom to feel like you have ability to take care of your kids and don't have to run to someone else every time they are sick," said Mindy Spradlin, a 32-year-old Franklin mother of four.

"So often, we have it engrained in our minds that we don't know anything and we stop listening to our intuition and think only the professionals can tell us what to do.

"Really, we probably know more than anybody . and we have the tools."

Spradlin's essential oil moment came nearly two years ago.

Her 2-year-old was sick. Really sick.

He was waking up every 45 minutes at night with coughing fits to the point of vomiting. It scared her enough that she was ready to go to the emergency room.

The pediatrician, she said, diagnosed it as a horrible inflammation in the respiratory tract and said there was little that could be done. The doctor sent her home with a nebulizer to mist some albuterol — a medicine that is used to treat wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness.

But Spradlin was desperate. She also had a newborn at home and wanted healthy children as much as she wanted sleep.

Spradlin, who already leaned toward natural and alternative options for her family, decided to use an essential oil instead.

"On a total whim, I began to use frankincense," she said.

The first night she diffused it in his room, her son woke up one time instead of 10. Even after seeing the results, the skeptical mom thought maybe it was a fluke. She wanted to know more.

"That is what really got me curious and fueled my passion," she said.

Curiosity has spread throughout Middle Tennessee communities.

In Webb's neighborhood, moms such as herself who have become sales representatives for essential oils companies host informational parties at their homes.

Women gather together, eating brownies with peppermint oil and drinking water with lemon oil. They swap stories about friends who have calmed children's night terrors with lavender, treated viruses with oregano and made natural bug spray with German chamomile.

"The nurse side of me loves the biology, and the mom side of me loves the fact that I had something to help viruses now," Webb said.

Although many people associate oils only with aromatherapy, there are actually three ways oils can be used — they can also be applied topically or taken internally.

A hard-cover essential oil reference book helps parents come up with oil home remedies, and almost all the sales moms talk about how health care has become more home-focused necessitating fewer trips to the pediatrician.

Vanessa Smith, a 31-year-old pregnant mom, listens intently as she smells the small oil bottles being passed around the group. She likes the appeal of fewer doctor visits and lower bills.

"I have three kids with one on the way, so anything you can do to save on going to the doctor is great," she said.

Any parent considering essential oils for their children should be "cautious" about doing so without making the family's pediatrician aware, said Dr. Catherine Stallworth.

"I think that it would be a wise thing to do this in conjunction with a health care practitioner who has experience in this," said Stallworth, who works in the field of "integrated medicine," which combines Western medicine with understanding of ancient healing traditions, and is an essential oil user.

There are no governmental bodies or organizations that approve or certify essential oil quality.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not "approve" dietary supplements or foods. It gives approval for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The FDA does approve a list of ingredients called GRAS (generally recognized as safe), which are OK'd for use as food additives, preservatives and cosmetics.

Many essential oils are in that list, including the popular lemon and peppermint, but there are also many uses of essential oils that fall outside that parameter.

Without oversight, claims that an oil is "therapeutic grade" or "100 percent pure" are based on that particular company's own guidelines, not a regulating agency. That makes it important for consumers to research and find companies they trust.

It is also important, Stallworth said, to understand the precautions that need to be taken for pregnant women and young children.

Undiluted essential oils are highly concentrated and potentially very toxic if taken internally, she said. They must be kept out of reach of children.

Essential oils in infants less than 12 months must be diluted with a carrier oil, which is something like olive oil.

Peppermint essential oil and varieties of eucalyptus oil should be avoided in children 5 and younger.

With pregnant women, there is the potential for essential oils to be absorbed through the mother's skin, into her bloodstream and, subsequently, through the placenta to the baby. While some are OK for use if highly diluted, others such as sassafras, wormwood, cassia, pennyroyal, mustard, mugwort and elecampane, should be completely avoided during pregnancy, Stallworth said.

Most who use the oils feel confident enough with the safety information provided through published resources not to worry about the use.

And they don't look at them as an either/or solution to Western medicine, either. Instead, they see it as complementary and integrated medicine.

Oils are not going to cure broken bones or humongous gashes (though Webb said it they might stop the bleeding or disinfect the cut), and in no way is she saying to stop going to the doctor.

Spradlin agrees: "They are not like magic. It's not like they work 100 percent of the time and fix everything in five minutes. But they do help significantly."

Spradlin feels like their use helps give parents power back.

"I just want moms to know to not be afraid of it," Spradlin said. "Even if they are not naturally minded they can still incorporate oils. You don't have to be crunchy granola-eating person to incorporate it in their lives."

Kids and moms are happier, she said, and everyone is healthier.

"It is such a win win."

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