But is there any science behind this 'miracle' product, or is it just snake oil?
Although emu oil is purported to benefit a long list of conditions, there's surprisingly little published research on this popular natural remedy to support such claims. The Australian aborigines have reportedly been using emu oil for centuries to heal wounds, reduce pain and relieve various muscle disorders. However, only recently have scientists started to take an interest in the oil, and most of the studies so far have been in animals.
A couple of rather cruel studies conducted by a team of researchers from Southern Medical University's Nanfang Hospital Department of Burns in Guangzhou, China, both found that emu oil applied topically can promote wound healing in scalded rats. In the first study, 30 Wistar rats with second-degree scalding were randomly assigned to receive either emu oil, povidone iodine or liquid paraffin. The latter two agents are commonly used in the treatment of skin wounds.
The results showed that, compared with povidone iodine and liquid paraf-fin, emu oil had a faster painkilling effect (measured by timing how long it took the rats to stop writhing from the pain), and increased the rate of wound healing.
"Emu oil can alleviate inflammation in the scald wound and promote wound healing in rats," concluded the researchers (Di Yi Jun Yi Da Xue Xue Bao, 2004; 24: 1255-6).
In the second study, nearly five times as many scalded rats were used, and emu oil was pitted against povidone iodine and a saline solution. Here again, emu oil came out on top. The rats treated with emu oil had significantly shorter wound-healing times, which the researchers attrib-uted to the oil's anti-inflammatory action. Also, the really good news was that emu oil was not associated with any adverse effects (Di Yi Jun Yi Da Xue
Xue Bao, 2005; 25: 407-10).
Other research shows that topically applied emu oil can speed the healing of chemical burns caused by croton oil applied to the ears of mice. In a study by scientists from the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, Canada, mice treated with emu oil had significantly less ear-tissue swelling after six and 12 hours compared with mice treated with a placebo (porcine oil) or no treatment at all. The biggest reduction in swelling was seen in mice treated with the highest dose (5 mL) of emu oil. These mice also had less swelling than the mice treated with an equal dose of porcine oil. After 24 hours, however, swelling was the same in all three groups (emu oil, porcine oil and no treatment), suggesting that the oil needs to reapplied regularly to be effective (Am J Vet Res, 1999; 60: 1558-61).
Besides promoting wound-healing, emu oil also appears to be useful for arthritis-again, probably because of its anti-inflammatory effects. In this case, Australian researchers tested five different topically applied emu-oil preparations on rats with experimental polyarthritis (arthritis involving five or more joints simultaneously), and found that four out of the five formulations were effective for reducing arthritic severity. The effect was comparable to that of the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen (Inflam-mopharmacology, 1997; 5: 127-32).
A follow-up study revealed that emu oil is more effective against arthritis than a number of other oils claiming to have therapeutic value for inflammatory disorders, including rhea, fish, flaxseed and evening primrose oils. It also demonstrated that emu oil derived from intestinal fat appears to have more activity than oil derived from rump fat (Inflammo-pharmacology, 1998; 6: 1-8).
Other animal studies have looked at the effects of emu oil administered orally. Most recently, researchers at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, investigated whether emu oil would have any impact on mucositis, the painful inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract usually seen as a side-effect of cancer treatment.
Using agouti rats with chemo-therapy-induced mucositis, they discovered that emu oil significantly reduced inflammation in the intes-tine and improved the "mucosal architecture" of the gut. The study concluded that "[F]urther studies investigating the potential benefits of emu oil as a nutritional supplement for the treatment of intestinal disorders are indicated" (Br J Nutr, 2010; 104: 513-9).
Yet another study compared the effects of oral emu oil, olive oil and coconut oil in hamsters with high cholesterol, a risk factor for athero-sclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries). The results showed that hamsters fed on diets supplemented with either emu or olive oil had significantly lower concentrations of total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or 'bad') cholesterol compared with animals supplemented with coconut oil. Moreover, neither emu nor olive oil had any effect on levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or 'good') cholesterol, known to protect against heart disease (Nutr Res, 2004; 6: 395-406).
Although the research so far is promising-suggesting that emu oil may be useful for a number of inflammatory conditions-the results of animal studies do not necessarily apply to humans. For this reason, clinical trials are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.
Thus far, there appears to be only one published clinical trial of emu oil to date: a pilot double-blind trial of the oil's moisturizing and cosmetic properties. This preliminary study involved 11 men and women, with healthy skin (no acne or eczema), who were asked to compare two different oils-emu oil and mineral oil-after two weeks of topical use of each.
Using data compiled from questionnaires, which assessed skin penetration and permeability, moisturizing properties, texture and any side-effects (such as comedogenicity or blackhead development, odour or irritation), the researchers reported that emu oil scored better than mineral oil overall. Moreover, all 11 participants said they preferred the emu oil to the mineral oil (Australas J Dermatol, 1996; 37: 159-61).
As for specific conditions, there is one study-a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial, the gold-standard type of clinical trial-that investigated the effects of emu oil in 120 men and women with osteoarthritis of the hand. The study participants were randomly allocated to one of six groups: 1) emu oil applied topically twice a day; 2) placebo (canola) oil applied topically twice a day; 3) emu oil taken by mouth twice a day (5 mL); 4) placebo oil taken by mouth twice a day; 5) emu oil applied topically and ingested; and 6) placebo oil applied topically and ingested.
At the end of the eight-week study, pain scores were found to be significantly lower in the emu oil users compared with the placebo oil users. However, curiously, topical applica-tion and ingestion of emu oil each had a more significant effect on pain reduction on their own than when used in combination.
Although this study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it can be found on the website of Emu Spirit, the Australian company that supplied the emu oil used in the study and assisted with its funding (see www.emuspirit.com/why-emu-spirit/osteoarthritichandpain.htm).
The bottom line
Clearly, considerably more research is needed on the effects of emu oil in humans and, in particular, inde-pendent studies. Many websites claim that the oil is beneficial for a laundry list of health problems, but there is simply not enough evidence at this time to support such claims. Never-theless, it's unlikely that using emu oil will do you any harm, at least when applied topically, so you may wish to give it a try for yourself.
Factfile: What's in emu oil?
Emu oil is made up of several different types of fatty acids, but mainly monounsaturated fatty acids. Oleic acid-an omega-9 fatty acid-is the major monounsaturated fatty acid in emu oil, comprising over 40 per cent of its total fatty acids. The oil also contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic acid (an omega-6 fat) and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat), as well as the saturated fatty acids palmitic acid and stearic acid (www.aea-emu.org/ resources/research/fatty-acid-analysis-emu-oil).
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