The practice of ingesting essential oils is one of the more contentious issues in aromatherapy. Ask a dozen different aromatherapists and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers as to the efficacy and safety of taking essential oils internally.
Many essential oils are distilled from edible plants such as oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, and so forth, a point that some aromatherapists use to advocate ingesting essential oils from these plants.
However, one point we strive to bring home to readers is that essential oils are much much stronger than the whole herbs from which they are distilled. Furthermore, the chemical content of essential oils can differ from the whole plant, either due to the distillation process or because the oil is distilled from a different part of the plant than that used in cooking. In other words, it’s important not to approach the ingestion of essential oils as you would the whole herb. In this article, we will explore a range of important factors to consider when comtemplating an oral essential oil supplement.
Essential Oils are Highly Concentrated
While essential oils are present in whole plant-based foods such as herbs, nuts, and spices, they occur in very small amounts—usually 1% or less of the plant’s total weight . Likewise, the approved amounts of essential oils used in food flavoring tend to be extremely small, the equivalent of ingesting one drop of an essential oil per day . In contrast, when taking an oral supplement of an essential oil, you are introducing your body to much larger amounts of that oil.
We discuss the difference between food-grade and therapeutic essential oils further in the article “Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: What is Therapeutic Grade?” In brief, essential oils approved in food flavoring have been twice distilled (fractionated) to render them safe for consumption . Therapeutic essential oils, on the other hand, are usually more lightly distilled in order to preserve their medicinal constituents; however, this may also mean that these more concentrated essential oils are not safe to ingest.
Natural Does Not Mean Safe:
“But wait,” you might ask, “I thought all your essential oils were completely natural.” Indeed they are! At Essential Oil Exchange, we pride ourselves on providing 100% pure essential oils with no synthetic adulteration. However—natural does not always mean safe to take internally or in large doses. It’s very important to remember that highly concentrated essential oils are powerful medicines, and can have the same physiological effects on the body as some pharmaceuticals. An essential oil represents the full range of constituents in the whole plant, including compounds that may be harmful to the body in high doses, even though your body can cope with them just fine in the amounts typically used in aromatherapy.
The same rule applies to many undoubtedly healthful foods that we eat every day: apple seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, compounds that produce hydrogen cyanide when broken down; castor beans produce the poison ricin; and green potatoes contain teratogenic alkaloids that can disrupt proper embryo development . So why don’t we sicken ourselves every day eating fruits and vegetables? Because the body has natural detoxification systems in the liver and kidneys that can efficiently break down the normal amounts of these compounds in your diet and render them harmless . However, by the same token, you wouldn’t want to eat an entire bowl of apple seeds or green potato chips! When toxins are present in an amount higher than the body can effectively detoxify, this is when symptoms of poisoning can result. The same goes with using more than miniscule doses of certain essential oils.
It’s About Safety, Not Purity
Another common misconception when it comes to ingesting essential oils is that it’s an issue of purity. Obviously, ingesting a product that contains synthetic compounds is probably not good for your body, and is another good reason to find a reliable essential oil supplier. Yet even essential oils that are 100% pure may not be safe to ingest. In some cases the compounds in essential oils that are therapeutic at a low dose can be toxic at a high dose. For instance, wintergreen and birch oils contain methyl salicylate, which is soothing to painful joints and muscles when applied sparingly . However, ingesting as little as 101 mg of methyl salicylate can cause toxicity manifesting as respiratory depression, kidney failure and other serious symptoms [3, 4]. 1,8-cineol, the main therapeutic compound in eucalyptus essential oil, has wonderful anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties, but can cause breathing problems in children, especially at higher doses, and should not be given to them in any form without a physician’s advice .
Furthermore, an essential oil that is safe to use one way may not be as safe when used another way. For instance, citrus oils such as lime, lemon, orange, and bergamot (non-bergaptene-free), as well as angelica oil, can be photosensitizing to the skin when applied topically but can be inhaled without any issues . Cinnamon and cassia oil are also highly irritating to the skin but may be inhaled from a diffuser in aromatherapy treatments . So even though an essential oil may be perfectly safe when inhaled or used on the skin in dilution, this doesn’t mean it is necessarily safe to ingest.
Risk of Drug Interaction
As mentioned above, essential oils can have physiological impacts on the body just like conventional medicines, so the risk of drug interactions is another possibility you should explore before using a particular essential oil. When applied topically, peppermint, ylang ylang, and eucalyptus oil can increase the body’s absorption of 5-fluorouracil, a topical anti-cancer drug . The methyl salicylate previously mentioned in wintergreen oil can have blood thinning effects that may interfere with anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin . You should research potential drug interactions even if you don’t plan on taking the oil internally. However, the risk of potential drug interactions is higher when ingesting an essential oil supplement simply because the amount you are introducing into your body is larger.
Seek Medical Advice
This is really the final word when you’re considering taking any supplement you’re unsure about. Many holistic healthcare practitioners and even conventional physicians are becoming knowledgeable about essential oils and the best ways to use them to achieve the health results you want. Some doctors now prescribe very small oral doses (usually one drop or less) of certain essential oils for some ailments: peppermint oil in enteric coated capsules is sometimes prescribed to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and lemon oil may be administered as a decongestant, antiviral, antibacterial, and treatment for gas .
Consulting a physician or aromatherapist can help you determine what oils to use at what dosages, as well as the best ways to use those essential oils to get the results you want. It’s always important to have medical supervision when using a medicinal substance such as an essential oil as part of a specific treatment plan. Finally, the health benefits of essential oils when inhaled or topically applied are tried and true: essential oils are composed of small molecules that can readily enter the body through the skin and mucus membranes of the nose and throat via inhalation; this is the reason they can work on internal body systems without the need for ingestion. You may surprised by just how potent and effective essential oils can be when applied externally!
1. “Can Essential Oils Be Ingested?” Plant Therapy. Last modified January 14th, 2014. http://essentialoilblogging.com/2014/01/14/can-essential-oils-be-ingested/.
2. Tisserand, Robert and Rodney Young. 2013. Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals. 2nd Edition. Churchill Livingstone.
3. “Methyl salicylate | Safety and Toxicity”. Wikipedia. Last modified August 2nd, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methyl_salicylate#Safety_and_toxicity.
4. “Salicylate Poisoning”. Patient UK. Last modified May 22nd, 2014. http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/salicylate-poisoning.
5. Halcón, Linda PhD. “Are Essential Oils Safe?” Center for Spirituality and Healing: University of Minnesota. Last modified July 16th, 2013. http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/aromatherapy/are-essential-oils-safe.
6. Barice, Joan. “Ingesting Essential Oils.” Accessed August 8th, 2014. Dr Joan Barice Dot Com. http://drjoanbarice.com/ingesting-essential-oils/.