KAILUA-KONA — When the vog gets heavy, the headaches and irritation can make going outside nearly unbearable, leading some to reach for something — anything — that can help ease their symptoms.
But while health experts say they don’t have evidence to support the use of products like essential oils and supplements to help symptoms, people are still turning to them in hope of relief.
At Island Naturals Market and Deli in Kailua-Kona, customers are clearing the shelves of supplements that might offer relief.
“We can’t even keep them in; they’re just flying out the door,” said Jake Crowell, assistant general manager of the store.
Randall Marshall, a buyer for supplements for the store, said earlier this month that orders for vog relief supplements had quadrupled at the store, often selling out within a week. In two weeks, he said, the store sold 69 bottles of Vog Drops.
Another popular seller is Vog Defense, formulated by Dr. Justin Groode, a nutrition consultant in Honokaa. Originally from Maui, Groode said when he came to Hawaii Island after several years on the mainland, he was shocked at how much vog affects certain people.
“I couldn’t help but want to try to figure out what’s different about people,” he said. “You could have two people in the same room or in the same environment and one person could be practically dying of the vog and someone else hardly feels it.”
Prior to medical school and completing his residency in family medicine, Groode’s focus was homeopathic medicine, in which he holds a master’s degree. He also has a specialization in functional medicine.
His research into the effects of vog put his focus on sulfur metabolism — the ability of various enzymes in the body to break down compounds containing sulfur and either convert them into other compounds important to the body or detoxify unhealthy forms of sulfur.
Vog Defense, he said, is designed to help those enzymes function better.
But it’s not just supplements people are turning to: on Thursday, about a dozen people came to The Wellness Center for a workshop on how doTerra-brand essential oils and supplements can be used by those experiencing symptoms of vog exposure.
“For us, we really see that a little bit of prevention does so much more than waiting until you’re having to go to the emergency room,” said doTerra distributor Joy Wu, “so we really are passionate about educating all the Big Island households.”
The workshops promote a three-step plan that uses essential oils and supplements, in addition promoting the use of a smartphone application to monitor air quality and an air purifier or air cleaner. Wu also promotes the use of specific plants, such as those identified by NASA in a 1989 clean air study.
“In my opinion, that’s step one,” Wu said. “If you’re not doing that, everything else you try to do — no matter how many gallons of tea you drink — you’re still breathing this stuff in all the time.”
Throughout Thursday’s workshop, Wu and doTerra wellness advocate Cassie Sokach spoke about various essential oils such as peppermint oil, which Sokach said promotes healthy respiratory function and clear breathing.
The oils, Sokach told the group, “affect you on a cellular level and work with your body to get to the actual root cause of what’s going on.”
Yen Nguyen came out of concern about the recent vog activity and what it could mean for her health. She’s aware of the advice to stay indoors when possible and said agencies have been helpful in providing information, but said she was curious about what other steps she can take to combat vog’s effects.
“I still go to work and I still go shopping and I do gardening,” she said, “so I can’t really close myself off from the world.”
While Nguyen said she believes conventional medicine helps, she’s also open to other options, including essential oils and particularly any preventative measures that promote good health.
“I definitely think this is an option,” she said.
A state health official though said the best option continues to be minimize exposure entirely, saying he hasn’t seen evidence to support the use of supplements.
“I’d be skeptical. I’d be very skeptical,” said Dr. Alvin Bronstein, Hawaii Department of Health Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention Systems Branch chief. “I’m not aware of anything like that — but I don’t know everything either — but I’m not aware anything like that would actually be beneficial.”
A fact sheet from the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network also advises reducing exposure to vog, saying staying indoors can help reduce vog exposure over a short time span and also that air cleaners can be effective in reducing levels of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter associated with vog.
While other actions might have some effect, said director Claire Horwell in an email, “there is no scientific evidence for it.”
“Sometimes this might be simply because no research has been done,” she said, “but we cannot recommend interventions for which there is no evidence.”
As for congestion and irritation, the fact sheet said over-the-counter nasal sprays or eye drops can help some people.
Bronstein cautioned that over-the-counter medicines treat the symptoms, but don’t stop or treat the exposure.
“If you don’t terminate the exposure, you’re always behind the eight ball. That’s the problem,” he said. “So even if you treat the symptoms, you don’t want to keep going out there and being exposed if you don’t have to.”
Groode said he was “very familiar with the mainstream medical perspective,” but said it wasn’t enough to tell people there was no better answer.
“To me that’s not enough,” he said. “because when people are suffering we need to do everything we can to safely help them.”
People still should do what they can to minimize their exposure, Groode said. Vog Defense, he noted, is designed for people who can’t avoid vog exposure because of their work or where they live, saying he wants people “to be able to live a reasonable life and still be able to be healthy, even in the setting of their environment that is not ideal.”
“Within reason — so I’m not encouraging people to go out and if they have asthma and the vog triggers their asthma, yeah, you actually need to be wise about your exposure and you ought to protect yourself,” he said, also noting people should talk to their doctor about their concerns.
Wu and Sokach both referenced research that lend credence to the effects of essential oils. A bibliography on doTerra’s website lists hundreds of citations.
Sokach also noted her own experience using essential oils as support for their effectiveness.
“I’ll be the biggest skeptic, but when an oil works it actually works,” she said.
When she feels a headache coming on because of vog, she said, she uses an essential oil and the headache goes away within minutes.
Groode also noted the importance of healthy behaviors like hydration and regular bowel movements, which should come before trying supplements or taking other measures.
Dehydration alone, he said, can lead to or amplify things like headache, fatigue and other common vog-related symptoms.
The supplements are, after all, called “supplements” for a reason.
“You’re supplementing your health,” Groode said. “It doesn’t replace the behaviors that help you be healthy.”