Ian Spohn, ND, is a staff naturopathic doctor for Energique who enjoys challenging the dogmas of both conventional and alternative medicine. He is a passionate supporter of the paleo diet and classical homeopathy.
Disclaimer: Turpentine can be toxic when used orally or even topically. Fatalities have been reported from ingestion of turpentine. This article is for educational and philosophical purposes only; we do not recommend the use of turpentine for any medicinal or therapeutic application.
In a bizarre echo of the ludicrous snake oil treatments that were prevalent in the 19th century, it has become a recent fad in alternative medicine to take turpentine. Yes turpentine, that distillate of pine tar most famous for its use as paint thinner, is now being touted much as it was by the doctors of long ago, as a sovereign cure for parasites with the astounding ability to somehow benefit just about every medical condition. It has lately been recommended for complaints as diverse and serious as autism and cancer – or merely to be taken as a powerful whole-body cleanse that can rid you of just about anything, but most notably parasites, which is also what it was most commonly used for historically. The interesting thing is that when all of these claims are analyzed, it seems intriguingly that there might actually be a grain of truth to it all. We all know that the use of plant essential oils has become a veritable craze, as they seem to be useful for so many things, containing each their own unique, if somewhat overlapping, armamentarium of well-researched active constituents. Certainly the essential oils of plants are integral to many of their medicinal properties and traditional applications, and it might well be that turpentine is the mother of them all.
What exactly is turpentine? The short and oversimplified answer given by most people is that turpentine is paint thinner and, therefore, a poison which only an utter fool would consider ingesting voluntarily. Sure, it was once used as a medicine, but that was back in the 19th century when doctors were stupid and fond of treatments that were excessively poisonous and outrageously lacking in any scientific justification. This is all technically true; turpentine is a natural solvent popularly used as paint thinner, like anything it becomes toxic in sufficient quantities, and it was recommended indiscriminately as a constituent of numerous patent remedies: for instance, the rather dubiously named Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, which was marketed in its day to heal any sore, cure any pain, and, of course, to also kill cancer.[i] But turpentine is much more than just a poisonous paint thinner and fraudulent panacea: it also has a long history of legitimate use in medicine. Hippocrates, for instance, took advantage of its solvent powers in recommending it to treat gallstones and to help clear chronic mucus in the lungs, back when turpentine was a natural product and not an industrial commodity.
Turpentine is actually an essential oil, one obtained from pine trees, but a special procedure is required to obtain it. The trunk of a pine tree must be cut deeply enough to reach the sap, at which point the tree mounts a healing response to the injury by secreting a balsam. This healing balsam is collected and distilled to obtain its essential oil, and this is what is called turpentine. It is basically a concentrate of the pine tree’s immune system. When an injury penetrates the tree to its sap, it begins, in response, to secrete a powerful defensive compound with the ability to kill bacteria, yeast, fungi, and even insect larvae on contact, thus protecting the tree’s wound from anything in nature that might try to parasitize the sugary sap which constitutes the tree’s lifeblood. So turpentine is basically the pine tree’s immune secretion, biologically engineered to kill bacteria, yeast, and parasites on contact, and which also happens to be safe for humans to ingest in small quantities. Hence, the zealous interest in its potential therapeutic applications.
What makes turpentine unique among the numerous other plant essential oils is its extremely high content of monoterpenes, specifically α- and β-pinene. These are a class of small, lipophilic molecules that are found in many medicinal plants and likely account in large part for a number of their medicinal properties. A partial list of the medicinal plants which contain monoterpenes would include such standouts as tea tree, eucalyptus, holy basil, rosemary, sage, lavender, citrus, yarrow, dong quai, ligusticum, cinnamon, clove, juniper, helichrysum, and, yes, even cannabis. Additionally, many well-known active plant constituents like camphor, thymol, menthol, limonene, and thujone are monoterpenoids, compounds closely related to or derived from the monoterpenes. It is tempting to attribute the widespread utility of essential oils in general to their monoterpenoid content. If this were the case, turpentine might well be considered the queen of all essential oils, being that it is about 90 percent pure α- and β-pinene.[ii] Because terpenes are small and lipophilic, they can be absorbed into the body through ingestion, topical application, or even inhalation, as with camphor-based chest rubs, and are able to enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, their small, lipophilic nature allows them to easily cross cell membranes and penetrate into every part of the body, where they exert a potent antimicrobial effect in addition to having other theoretically useful actions. They are also quite rapidly excreted: the elimination half-life of α-pinene is about 90 minutes, and a 10 milligram dose can be fully eliminated from the body within 24 hours,[iii] mostly through the kidneys. So basically, turpentine is an essential oil that will storm into every cell of the body, kill off, in theory, just about everything, and then exit the body just as quickly as it came. There are reported cases in the (old) medical literature of tapeworms being expelled mere hours after ingesting turpentine,[iv] attesting to the rapidity of its action.
While turpentine won its greatest reputation in the historical treatment of parasites, α- and β- pinene have proven to possess numerous other beneficial effects,[v] summarized below, which would seem to justify many of the traditional indications belonging to the aforementioned pinene-containing plants:
-Antimicrobial: the pinenes have been shown to destroy numerous pathogens from bacteria to yeast and fungi, and their presence in plants like eucalyptus, holy basil, and tea tree likely explains many of these plants’ traditional uses.
-Anticoagulant: derivatives of α-pinene have been shown to reduce platelet aggregation and may be responsible in part for the blood-moving properties traditionally attributed to herbs like yarrow and dong quai.
-Antitumor: α- and β-pinene have been shown to induce apoptosis in cancer cells in vitro. This may explain cinnamon’s intriguing, but as yet unproven, potential as a cancer-fighting agent.
-Gastroprotective: α-pinene has been shown to have antiulcer effects in mice and to stimulate gastric motility. This may contribute to the digestive benefits of herbs like bitter orange peel, and, indeed, many classic carminatives like cinnamon and peppermint are rich in monoterpenes or related monoterpenoid compounds.
-Anxiolytic: α-pinene binds to and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain, no doubt contributing to the relaxing effect of herbs like lavender, even the aroma of which can be sedating.
-Neuroprotective: in the nervous system, α-pinene also protects against oxidative stress, possibly accounting for the reputations of sage and rosemary in supporting cognitive function.
-Anti-inflammatory: α-pinene has demonstrated anti-inflammatory activity in human chondrocytes, which might explain the traditional use of coniferous plants like juniper as antirheumatic agents.
-Analgesic: α-pinene successfully reduced dental pain in rats, possibly explaining clove oil’s reputation for relieving toothache.
-Antiallergy: α-pinene was shown to reduce allergic symptoms and nasal IgE antibody levels in rats. This may explain the traditional use of ligusticum against seasonal allergy symptoms and of helichrysum oil against contact dermatitis.
In the golden age of patent medicines, that is the 19th century, doctors were recommending that turpentine be taken for literally everything, often in large doses that proved too toxic for the patient. Yet modern research does seem to support, at least in theory, its potential as a panacea. But is it too toxic to be taken seriously by modern complementary and alternative medicine? The revival of turpentine as a medicine has become extremely controversial, with the trend’s essential progenitor – Jennifer Daniels, MD – being forced to surrender her medical license for recommending it to patients in the wake of her own personal healing experience. So how toxic is it, really?
Turpentine is actually considered nontoxic in small doses, and, in fact, it has been given generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a flavoring agent in foods and beverages (where it is used in very small quantities). The toxic threshold for turpentine is two milliliter per kilogram body weight.[vi] This would represent a dose of just over one tablespoon for a 10 kilogram child or more than four ounces for a 70 kilogram adult. Historically, turpentine was often administered in drop-doses on sugar cubes, which would be well within the safe limits as established by modern toxicology. Given its potential as a therapeutic agent, it is probably worth an attempt to scientifically verify its uses and establish a formal system for safely dosing it, as opposed to the current trend of either trying it indiscriminately based on something one read on the internet or else ignorantly decrying its use entirely. Turpentine is far from being a wholly benign agent: its antimicrobial and antitumor activities pertain to its ability to disrupt cell membranes and interfere with mitochondrial function, which it does to healthy cells as well. Overdoses will cause permanent damage to the kidneys and nervous system, if not death, and it is certainly not something that should be taken regularly in any quantity for general wellness as some of its advocates recommend. Its generally disruptive nature in cells has been shown to promote genetic instability,[vii] providing an ominous indication that it is likely carcinogenic. So while it holds promising potential for treating or at least benefiting a vast number of ailments, especially such as would only require its intermittent or short-term use, the notion of taking it daily as a tonic to somehow render you invincible by eradicating all pathogens and inflammation in your body is probably just what it sounds like – too good to be true.
[i] “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil.” Wikipedia. Accessed online 2/28/20 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlin%27s_Wizard_Oil
[ii] Gillabel, Dirk. Healing With Turpentine. Published online 2017. Accessed 2/28/20 at http://www.soul-guidance.com/health/turpentine.html
[iii] Schmidt L, Goen T. Human Metabolism of α-pinene and Metabolite Kinetics after Oral Administration. Archives of Toxicology. 2017 Feb;91(2): 677-687. doi:10.1007/s00204-015-1656-9
[iv] Lettsom, John Coakly. Cases Illustrating the Effects of Oil of Turpentine in the Expelling the Tape Worm. The Belfast Monthly Magazine, Volume 6. Published 1811 Jan 31. Accessed online 2/28/20 from http://www.soul-guidance.com/health/media/turpentine/turpentine1809.html
[v] Salehi B, Upadhyay S, Erdogan Orhan I, et al. Therapeutic Potential of α- and β-Pinene: A Miracle Gift of Nature. Biomolecules. 2019;9(11):738. Published 2019 Nov 14. doi:10.3390/biom9110738
[vi] Ellenhorn MJ, et al. Ellenhorn’s Medical Toxicology: Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Poisoning. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1997.
[vii] Salehi et al. 2019
Any homeopathic claims are based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence. Not FDA evaluated.
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