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Starting a new year. For the past 12 years, I have written an article for the Science-Based Medicine blog every Tuesday. I have often thought that the best way to illustrate the value of science-based medicine is to examine medicine that is not science-based. A bad example can be memorable and instructive. I thought I would start 2020 by writing about a particularly bad example, Vibrant Blue Oils Parasympathetic. I won’t call it the worst ever, because every time I say that, something worse is sure to come along. But it’s a good example of the worst. Vibrant Blue Oils Parasympathetic is about as far from science-based medicine as you can get: a mixture of pseudoscience, misrepresentation, lies, and imagination.

The autonomic nervous system

The Vibrant Blue Oils website explains “How Parasympathetic is Critical to Your Health“. It claims that “digestion, detoxification, and immune functions are only turned on when your body is in a parasympathetic state” and you should optimally be in a parasympathetic state 80% of the time. And “almost all disease and dysfunction result from you not being able to drop into the Parasympathetic state.” What follows is a confused, simplistic discussion of the autonomic nervous system with its two components: the sympathetic branch governs the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic branch is known as the “Rest, Digest, and Heal” state.

The term “the parasympathetic state” is not recognized by science. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together and neither is ever “turned off.” There is no “parasympathetic state”, but there are ways to increase parasympathetic activity. An article from the Canyon Vista Recovery Center lists ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to decrease stress and anxiety. The list includes exercise, meditation, massage, prayer, play, deep breathing, spending time in nature, and doing things you enjoy. It even suggests gently touching the lips to activate the parasympathetic fibers there. Another website lists “12 ways to rest and digest“, repeating many items from the other list and adding acupuncture, yawning, gum chewing, and immersing the face in cold water. One thing these lists do not mention is essential oils.

Essential oils

Vibrant Blue Oils claims that essential oils are a natural way to achieve the parasympathetic state. Their Parasympathetic blend is “a proprietary synergistic combination of two essential oils: clove oil (which is highly stimulatory) and lime oil (which “has super small molecules”). These oils allegedly carry other healing properties, and are said to dull pain, heal infections, purify blood, and balance blood pressure. They claim that lime oil was found to be more effective than antidepressants, but I couldn’t locate any such study. Systematic reviews have concluded that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition”.

I found one reference to the potential of essential oils for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Clove oil is one of several essential oils that contain eugenol. The study referred to was in mice that developed gastrointestinal dysfunction when stressed by being restrained. The eugenol was instilled directly into the stomach by gavage. Not aromatherapy, not IBS, and humans are not mice: not relevant.

They recommend applying the Parasympathetic blend to the vagus nerve three times daily, ideally before meals (why?). They incorrectly state that the vagus nerve wraps through almost every organ in the body. The way to apply the oil to the vagus nerve is to apply it to the mastoid bone behind the ear. The vagus nerve does indeed have an auricular branch, but I question whether applying essential oils to skin over the bone of the mastoid process would produce any measurable effect on the vagus nerve or on the parasympathetic nervous system, and they offer no evidence or rationale.

There is a lot of nonsense about vagus nerve toxicity (not a recognized medical condition) and how to recover from it. They offer other essential oil products to support the gallbladder, kidneys, lymph, and liver. “To support the flow of bile and, with it, toxins out of the body, apply Gallbladder™ on the right side of the body under the bra under-wire or along and slightly under the right rib cage two to three times daily”.

You can buy a 5cc (1 teaspoon) bottle of Parasympathetic for $36.95. They also offer essential oil products for circadian rhythm, hypothalamus, sleep, frankincense, and more.

Conclusion: No science here

Vibrant Blue Oils Parasympathetic is a very bad example that mixes pseudoscience, misrepresentation, lies, and imagination. Fantasy-based, not tested, not supported by any scientific evidence.

And yet people will buy it. A typical testimonial:

First time I used your oil, I literally felt my heart lifting. Ever since then, I don’t go anywhere without your parasympathetic oil. Now I’m trying your fertility blend and I’m feeling positive that I will get pregnant. Thank you so much. I really love what you do.

Hope springs eternal, customers have placebo responses, and people who disregard science make money.

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Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.