Essential Oils Can’t Treat Lyme Disease
Why garlic isn’t better than antibiotics
Essential oils* are a perennial favourite as an alternative to conventional medicine. Maybe it’s because they smell nice — I personally love lavender — or maybe it’s because we love the idea that you can replace expensive drugs with a few drops of oil and some positive thinking.
Either way, essential oils have been promoted as a treatment for everything from anxiety to cancer, and most things in between.
In the latest of these claims, media everywhere is reporting that essential oils are even more powerful than previously claimed. Not only can they cure cancer**, they can get rid of Lyme disease. They’re even more effective than antibiotics!
Sounds like a win for alternative medicine.
Except, of course, they can’t. There’s still no evidence that essential oils are an effective treatment for Lyme disease, or really any other health issue.
The most recent study that’s making headlines was what’s known as a preclinical piece of research. What this means is that scientists were testing out the basic science behind some treatments, before they take it to actual living things, just to see if the ideas hold up.
What they did is fairly simple: they took a bunch of petri dishes containing the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, added some essential oils in solution, and checked back a few days later to see what happened. The effective treatments were the ones that “sterilized” the dishes, or in other words killed off all of the bacteria.
Yes, you read that right. The study that caused some media publications to label essential oils more effective than antibiotics in the treatment of Lyme disease was essentially squirting some liquid onto cells in a dish.
Now, there’s no issue with preclinical research per se. It is vital for the development of new treatments — we wouldn’t have any new drugs without it. But there’s a huge difference between a treatment being effective at killing cells in a dish and curing a disease in actual living human beings. Fire, for example, is very effective at killing cells in a dish, but not so much at treating a bacterial infection.
But even if this HAD been a clinical study, there’s another issue. You see, this study was looking at “persistent” or chronic Lyme disease.
Currently, the best evidence suggests that there is no such condition.
Chronic Lyme Battles
There’s no debate about Lyme disease itself. Lyme is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, spread through tick bites, and is a nasty infection. Importantly, it can be treated — effectively — with antibiotics, with most people getting better after a few weeks of treatment.
But then we come to the contentious space. Chronic Lyme.
I’m not here to litigate the case of chronic Lyme disease. There is no evidence that people who are infected with the Lyme bacteria can have a persistent, chronic, infection after treatment with antibiotics. Studies on patients who have been diagnosed with “chronic Lyme” have either failed to find any evidence of an ongoing infection, or have shown that these people did not have had Lyme infections in the first place.
What researchers have identified is a condition called “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome”, or PTLDS. In a minority of patients — somewhere between 1–10% — people start having debilitating symptoms often similar to chronic fatigue after they’ve been successfully treated for Lyme disease. The current best guess is that this has something to do with people’s immune response, but no one is really sure why it happens or who is vulnerable.
The only thing that we DO know is that the ongoing symptoms are not caused by an active Lyme infection. In other words, these people aren’t sick because they currently have Borrelia burgdorferi causing damage inside them.
What does that have to do with this study?
Well, the research in question was not looking at acute Lyme infection, the one that is easily treated by antibiotics. No, the study was specifically focused on chronic Lyme, the thing that we have strong evidence doesn’t exist. The lab that conducted this study has been trying for the last 5 years or so to identify treatments that might be effective for “persistent” — post antibiotic — Lyme infections, which is troubling when you consider that the best evidence we have indicates that these infections don’t actually occur.
Ultimately, this study means pretty much nothing at all.
If we take it at face value, it is a very early-stage preclinical trial that has shown that if you pour some chemicals on bacteria in a dish, they die. The next stage is to try this out in animals — rats, mice, or similar — and then eventually move to human clinical trials.
But there are literally thousands of this type of study done every month. There are millions of chemicals that will kill bacteria in a dish — of these, only a tiny fraction actually become clinical treatments. This study found that 10 essential oils were effective. If we use the average success rate for this type of preclinical trial being converted into a clinical treatment — about 5% — that means that maybe 1 of these oils will eventually become a treatment.
Unfortunately, this study was also on a condition that probably doesn’t exist. There are undeniably people who suffer symptoms after infection with the Lyme bacteria, but there is no evidence that a persistent infection of the bacteria can actually happen.
This research didn’t look at PTLDS, it looked specifically at chronic Lyme. And we know that chronic Lyme infections almost certainly don’t happen. So even that tiny fraction of a chance of this being meaningful is lost.
Don’t believe the hype.
Essential oils aren’t more effective than antibiotics.
*Note: this article is about “essential” oils, those that contain the “essence” of something (i.e. garlic, lavender etc), not “essential” oils, which are essential to human life. Yes, it’s confusing.
**Note: they can’t