Why this podcast?
I don’t think it’s a secret at this point that this is one of my go-to podcasts. It’s fun, informative, evidenced-based and with episodes of thirty minutes or less covering pretty much anything you can think of relating to pregnancy, birth and the early postpartum, this is definitely not the last time you’ll see it featured.
How does it look?
Unless this is your first visit to this blog you will have probably read about the Pregnancy Podcast multiple times. In case you haven’t, here is a short, and I mean super short breakdown.
40 Weeks keeps you updated with what’s going on in each week of your pregnancy.
Q&A episodes tend to be ten minutes and here, the host, Vanessa Merten, answers specific questions from listeners.
The main Pregnancy Podcast episodes are thirty minutes and any studies that are referred to are linked to in the show notes.
For a more detailed overview of the ins and outs of this fantastic podcast please click here.
Why this episode?
Essential oils are becoming more and more popular and I often hear of them being used during pregnancy and especially during birth. I have a few oils myself but don’t really know too much about them.
I do know that they are pretty powerful and not all oils should be used in all situations.
I was super happy to find that Vanessa had gone ahead and researched this so that I could get informed.
Who should listen to this episode?
Anyone who is interested in using essential oils during their pregnancy, birth or postpartum.
As a bit of a disclaimer, I want to underline that this post is not going to cover everything you need to know about essential oils.
Before incorporating essential oils into your life it’s really best to talk it over with your care provider as well as doing your research.
Vanessa starts out by confirming what I was thinking. That is, that this episode was a tough one to research. Much of the info about essential oils comes from the companies marketing those oils and could, therefore, be biased.
Finding evidence-based information is far from easy.
Before I go too much further I will say that this episode is, at thirty-eight minutes, on the longer side for this podcast but this really is a big subject so I totally see why.
Vanessa goes into quite a lot of detail which I won’t even try to replicate here. This post will bring you the highlights but I really encourage you to listen to the episode in full to get lots more info and to check out the research linked to in the show notes.
Essential oils are strong
This is perhaps one of the most important points.
Yes, they are natural but they are also powerful. A single drop of peppermint oil is said to be the equivalent to twenty-eight cups of peppermint tea. When you are using something that concentrated you need to take care.
Aromatically, topically or internally
Essential oils can be used in three different ways.
Aromatically means that the oils are released into the air around you.
Topically means putting the oils, almost always a drop or two in a carrier oil, onto your skin.
Internally means that you ingest the oil. This could be by adding a drop to water or taking oil capsules. It is very important to find out which oils can be ingested, and how, and which cannot.
Ingesting oils, especially whilst pregnant, is a controversial topic and many of the resources Vanessa explored recommend against ingesting oils full stop.
There is actually a fourth way of using oils and that is in homemade cleaning products, soaps or lotions.
Apparently, this is one of the most studied oils out there.
One (small) study that Vanessa found used saliva samples to test for levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. The researchers found that aromatherapy with lavender and rosemary oils decreased the levels of cortisol in the participants’ saliva.
Studies on pregnant women
One randomised controlled trial (with 13 participants) looked at levels of linalool and linalyl acetate, which are found in high levels in Lavender oil, Petitgrain and Bergamot. The researchers looked at questionnaires filled in by the participants before and after the oils were diffused. The responses suggested that the essential oils helped with fatigue, had relaxing effects and improved mood.
Another randomised controlled trial, this time with over five hundred participants, looked at aromatherapy for birth. Participants could choose from five different essential oils; Roman Chamomile, Clary Sage, Frankincense, Lavender (which was chosen by 45% of the participants) and Mandarin.
The results showed no adverse maternal or neonatal effects. No differences were found either in inductions rates, whether the participants had an assisted or vaginal birth, the use of oxytocin, length of labour or APGAR scores.
Another study involved eight thousand mothers who had all chosen to participate and use essential oils for different reasons. Some wanted to reduce anxiety, some were looking for pain relief options. The participants could choose from ten different oils which were administered in different ways eg a foot bath or a drop on a pillow.
Over half said that the oils were helpful and their midwives rated 50% of the aromatherapy administrations helpful.
The researchers found that Rose oil was the most effective at reducing anxiety, that Lavender oil was the most commonly used for pain relief, that for augmenting contractions Clary Sage was most commonly used and rated helpful by 36% of mothers. Peppermint oil was used to treat nausea and vomiting and more of those who used it without an epidural rated it as helpful than those mothers who used it with an epidural.
A super small but interesting study involved eleven women who used aromatherapy with Clary Sage oil. Clary Sage is thought to support contractions. Oxytocin levels in the participant’s saliva were measured and higher levels were found after breathing in the oil. However, the oil did not actually cause contractions.
In conclusion, Vanessa points out that, while further research needs to be done, there seem to be benefits from using certain essential oils during pregnancy and birth without any obvious negative effects.
Downsides of essential oils
Some people can have allergic reactions to oils, others may experience skin irritation, photo sensitivity, nausea, eye or throat irritation or dizziness. Vanessa underlines that, basically, everyone reacts differently to essential oils and it is important to read up on your oil of choice before using it as well as following the advice about how to use it.
Are essential oils safe for pregnant women and their babies?
This, Vanessa says, was not an easy question to answer. There are a lot of different sources that list oils which are safe to use during pregnancy and those to avoid but they vary widely and don’t tend to explain why or what information this advice is based on.
Most sources seem to recommend avoiding essential oils in the first trimester and one of the largest essential oil companies states on their website that, before using any oil, you should check with a trained health care provider who is experienced in essential oil use.
Each of their products also carries the statement –
“If you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication or have a medical condition consult a health professional prior to use”
This kind of disclaimer is pretty common among essential oil companies.
Pregnant = sensitive
During pregnancy your skin is often more sensitive. Oils could more easily cause irritation and citrus oils can make your skin even more sensitive to the sun.
Using less of an essential oil in the carrier oil could help with skin sensitivity and, because your sense of smell is heightened during pregnancy, you probably wouldn’t lose too much of the aromatic effect either. Using a diffuser for shorter lengths of time might be another way to limit exposure.
It is thought that essential oils cross the placenta. The research that Vanessa used to create this episode did not find any negative effects on the unborn babies. Some women use less oils during pregnancy while some avoid them all together. Many essential oil advocates feel that the fact that oils cross the placenta is a good thing as the baby will benefit as well as the mother.
The thing to remember is there are a lot of different opinions about the use of essential oils but there isn’t a whole lot of solid evidence to support one side or the other.
Essential oils, babies and pets
There are certain oils that should not be used, especially if you are diffusing them, if you have children at home. These include Peppermint, Rosemary, Eucalyptus and Winter Green.
Anis, Clove, Garlic, Juniper, Thyme, Winter Green and Yarrow should be used with caution around dogs and if you have a cat consider avoiding the diffusing of Cinnamon, Tea Tree, Thyme, Birch, Winter Green, Clove and Oregano.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy
This non-profit organisation states on their website that, properly diluted, the below essential oils appear to be safe to use in pregnancy –
Benzoin, Bergamot, Black Pepper, German Chamomile, Roman Chamomile, Clary Sage, Cyprus, Eucalyptus, Frankincense, Geranium, Ginger, Grapefruit, Juniper, Lavender, Lemon, Mandarin, Marjoram, Neroli, Petitgrain, Rose, Sandalwood, Orange, Tea Tree and Ylang Ylang.
They also list essential oils that should be avoided by women who are pregnant, in labour or breastfeeding, including –
Aniseed, Basil, Birch, Camphor, Hyssop, Mugwort, Parsley Seed, Parsley Leaf, Penny Royal, Sage, Tansy, Tarragon, Thuja, Winter Green and Wormwood.
Benefits of essential oils for pregnancy, labour and postpartum
I love that Vanessa is open about the fact that the research around essential oils is not great but that she still gives you some ideas on which oils could help with various issues. So, here are a few ideas –
Morning sickness – you could try Spearmint, Ginger, Citrus oils or Peppermint. Peppermint is thought to decrease milk supply in breastfeeding mothers and some resources say it should not be used around children.
Blocked nose – Eucalyptus or a bland of Lemon, Lavender and Peppermint could help.
Aches & sore muscles – A blend of Copaiba and Peppermint is thought to be helpful as are Black Pepper, Sweet Marjoram and Chamomile.
Headaches – Grapefruit, Ylang Ylang or Peppermint might help with those.
To improve your mood you could try one of several oils including Frankincense, Citrus oils and Neroli. Blends of oils to help with your mood are also available from many essential oil companies. Vanessa points out that it’s important to check all the ingredients in a blend before using it to ensure they are all safe.
Tiredness – Peppermint and Lemon could be helpful.
To relax and help you sleep – Lavender and Chamomile.
What else does the episode cover?
Sooo much! If you are curious about essential oils I really suggest listening to this episode all the way through……..and taking notes! Vanessa covers what essential oils are, their safety, what to consider when choosing where to buy your oils – including some super handy tips, goes into some detail on how and why they work and just generally looks at oils and their uses from a lot of different angles.
I was glad that Vanessa pointed out that the time to start with essential oils is probably not during labour and that oils should not be added directly to the water in your birth pool if you are using one (they could irritate your baby’s skin once they are born).
On the other hand, diffusing oils may not be a great option either because if you suddenly decide a certain scent is actually really awful, it’s pretty hard to clear it from the room. You might want to put a few drops of different oils on cotton balls and bring them in separate containers.
That way you can open one for a while but you have the option to put the lid back on if the scent is no longer working for you.
Vanessa mentions using a ziplock bag to keep the cotton balls in but from what I have read, essential oils can break down plastic, releasing chemicals. So, storing them in a glass or other non-plastic container might be best.
To wrap up
If you are new to essential oils in general or new to using them during pregnancy, birth or the postpartum, this episode is a great place to start for some all-around great information. As Vanessa mentions, the evidence either for or against essential oils is not great and evidence-based information is scarce. However, this is definitely a good starting point and will give you some food for thought.
If you used essential oils during your pregnancy, birth or postpartum I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time!
Emily Wills is a doula based in Stockholm. She believes that birth can be a beautiful and empowering experience and started this blog as a way of sharing some really great podcasts. She is also a mother of three and an enthusiastic runner.