One Wednesday morning I saw a middle-aged lady with the flu whose muscles were hurting so badly she was intermittently crying during the office visit. She qualified for admission to the hospital for IV fluids, but she wouldn’t have it. I knew her to be stoic, and not a complainer, but wondered if she might be harboring, in addition to the flu, a depression. After asking a few pertinent questions she seemed to be suffering from influenza and nothing else.
She lives alone and has for many years since her divorce fourteen years ago. She’s a tough girl (can I use that word here?), but has no one to care for her in her acute illness. No one to bring her water or anything. But, she said she’d been in this situation before, and even more challenging ones, and had made it. And she would make it again.
She said if it weren’t for the body aches and overall pain, it wouldn’t be so bad. She kind of stayed to herself, which probably exacerbated her discomfort. She had neighbors but hers was the kind of situation that if she died at home she might not be found for a day or two until someone realized her car in the driveway had not been moved for three days and the newspapers were piling up by the mailbox. When asked about someone helping her, she said one neighbor was out of town and the other was caring for a sister who lived up in the country. What about a church member, I asked. She said she’d call two and see if they could help her with things.
She made it clear she didn’t like taking medication (her own worst enemy) but she would consider taking something now. So Tamiflu was prescribed along with a couple of other things, something for pain. She walked out, daubing her eyes with tissue. I told her to call back later and let us know how she was feeling. And in the morning too.
By Friday morning she hadn’t checked in so I asked my nurse if she’d check on her. She reported that there was no answer. I had her call the emergency contact person listed in her chart and she, a niece, said she didn’t know where she was and said her aunt was usually home about this time but under the circumstances would ride over and check on her.
A little while later the niece called back. One of the neighbors said she had gone to the Fairgrounds in New Orleans to the horse track. I guessed she was feeling better.
When I saw her again a few weeks later for something else I asked her if it was true that she’d gotten well so quickly and had gone to the racetrack. She said she had and that her sister in Florida happened to call and had recommended she take frankincense, an essential oil, which she rubbed on her neck, chest, abdomen, and under her eyes (for sinus relief). She also burned it for the fragrance thinking inhaling the fumes would be therapeutic. I suggested she probably got well from the Tamiflu before she had from the frankincense. She said she hadn’t filled the Tamiflu prescription.
I was skeptical of the frankincense contributing to her cure as like most essential oils they are touted to be therapeutic for a multitude of illnesses and conditions, paradoxically so. There’s not a lot of science or random studies behind essential oils though they’ve been around since the cave days.
But interestingly, if one is to make an argument for the therapeutic effects of essential oils, which seem to be rising in popularity again, including being the object of multilevel marketing schemes, an internet search finds that most essential oils, including frankincense, contain chemicals called terpenes that cross the blood-brain barrier, which in the case of frankincense purportedly increases oxygenation of the pineal and pituitary glands. To what end that might aid in helping one get over the flu or anything else I’m not sure.
The function of the pineal gland is to help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. The pituitary gland, among other things, stimulates the secretion of steroid hormones.
The downside to essential oils is a rash if used undiluted, skin irritation, agitation, hallucinations, and seizures. There’s one study that shows the cumulative effect of essential oils over time can cause damage to the liver and kidney. Another downside is they’ve been subjected and sold through multi-level marketing programs the motivation of which from the seller is to push the product, maximizing or exaggerating its therapeutic effects, at the expense of, or minimizing, even hiding, the adverse effects.
But I’ve had enough exposure to patients who’ve responded to any number of unorthodox remedies to know that being rendered well from the flu by frankincense might not be totally out of the question – especially for this lady, who by the way won $52 at the track.