Jaundice is not a disease but rather a sign that can occur in many different diseases. Jaundice is the yellowish staining of the skin and sclerae (the whites of the eyes) that is caused by high levels in blood of the chemical bilirubin. The color of the skin and sclerae vary depending on the level of bilirubin. When the bilirubin level is mildly elevated, they are yellowish. When the bilirubin level is high, they tend to be brown.

Bilirubin comes from red blood cells. When red blood cells get old, they are destroyed. Hemoglobin, the iron-containing chemical in red blood cells that carries oxygen, is released from the destroyed red blood cells after the iron it contains is removed. The chemical that remains in the blood after the iron is removed becomes bilirubin.

The liver has many functions. One of the liver's functions is to produce and secrete bile into the intestines to help digest dietary fat. Another is to remove toxic chemicals or waste products from the blood, and bilirubin is a waste product. The liver removes bilirubin from the blood. After the bilirubin has entered the liver cells, the cells conjugate (attaching other chemicals, primarily glucuronic acid) to the bilirubin, and then secrete the bilirubin/glucuronic acid complex into bile. The complex that is secreted in bile is called conjugated bilirubin. The conjugated bilirubin is eliminated in the feces. (Bilirubin is what gives feces its brown color.) Conjugated bilirubin is distinguished from the bilirubin that is released from the red blood cells and not yet removed from the blood which is termed unconjugated bilirubin.

Jaundice occurs when there is:

  • too much bilirubin being produced for the liver to remove from the blood. (For example, patients with hemolytic anemia have an abnormally rapid rate of destruction of their red blood cells that releases large amounts of bilirubin into the blood).
  • a defect in the liver that prevents bilirubin from being removed from the blood, converted to bilirubin/glucuronic acid (conjugated) or secreted in bile,
  • blockage of the bile ducts that decreases the flow of bile and bilirubin from the liver into the intestines. (For example, the bile ducts can be blocked by cancers, gallstones, or inflammation of the bile ducts).
The decreased conjugation, secretion, or flow of bile that can result in jaundice is referred to as cholestasis: however, cholestasis does not always result in jaundice.

A small number of essential oils have been found to be helpful in treating jaundice, but it must be emphasised that this is a serious illness and the patient must be under the care of a doctor. Aromatherapy treatment can be given at the same time, and may be used to relieve discomfort and strengthen the body's powers of recovery.

The oils which are most likely to help are Camomile and Peppermint, to relieve nausea in the early stages, Lemon, Rosemary and Thyme to strengthen  the liver. Jean Valnet also mentions Geranium.

Massage very gently over the whole area of the liver, stomach and abdomen. If the liver is too distended for massage to be comfortable, use cold compresses of Camomile, Rosemary or Thyme. Once the patient feels strong enough to take a bath, put 6 to 8 drops of Camomile or Rosemary in each bath to strengthen the liver. If you want to use Lemon, Peppermint or Thyme in the bath, restrict them to a maximum of 3 drops, as they are all potential skin irritants in larger amounts, making up the rest with Camomile or Rosemary.

The recovery period from jaundice is often very long indeed, with general debility and digestive difficulties lasting for many months, and in some cases even longer. During this time, aromatherapy can be very helpful indeed. Baths and massage to tone and stimulate the entire body, as well as the liver and digestive system are needed, and very often the convalescent may become quite depressed, so inclusion of any of the antide­pressant oils would be welcome. Bergamot is the one which seems to be the most valuable during convalescence.

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