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One of the most often talked about topics in aromatherapy is ingestion. Without naming brands, there is a plethora of unsafe advice floating around the internet and at meetings for some of the MLM brands of essential oils. Today we're going to talk about the safety of essential oil ingestion and some of the reasons why safety in aromatherapy is just as important as safety when working with any chemical, natural or synthetic.
Just because it's “natural” doesn't make it automatically safe
If you were out in the wild, would you eat those red little berries that all the birds seem to be avoiding? How about the pretty belladonna flowers that have long been used in poison, dating back to the ancient Romans and even found on arrows, dating further before that. There are plenty of natural sources of poison, that aren't safe for haphazard use simply because they are natural. According to chemistry, everything on this planet is made up of chemicals, it's the toxic and synthetics ones that I try to avoid. It is important to note, that no matter the brand of essential oil, ALL 100% pure essential oils are an extremely concentrated combination of multiple chemical constituents. While these chemical constituents can do great things to help us with all sorts of issues, they can also have adverse effects if not used with the proper safety and caution in mind.
Ingestion is best done with the guidance of a certified aromatherapist
There is a difference between an essential oil distributor and a certified aromatherapist. A certified aromatherapist will have taken, at minimum, a 200+ hr. class that involves the chemistry of essential oils, anatomy and physiology, and even medical contraindications with medications and medical conditions you might have. They even have to study more of A&P than massage therapists do, because more of the body's systems are involved when using them. There is certainly a place in aromatherapy for ingestion, but just like any powerful synthetic pharmaceuticals, essential oils should be ingested with caution and for only very short periods of time, under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist. Continuously taking multiple essential oils internally on a daily basis, can be very damaging to the liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines. Long-term use of any powerful drug does, though. Our organs can not process copious amounts of these chemical constituents and they can build up in our system and cause failure over time. Tisserand & Young (Essential Oil Safety, 2013) write:
“Medical practitioners who favor the oral route are frequently treating infectious diseases that require heavy dosing…therefore only practitioners who are qualified to diagnose, trained to weigh risks against benefits, and have knowledge of essential oil pharmacology should prescribe essential oils for oral administration.”
Oil and water do not mix
Though there are MANY blogs and essential oil distributors purporting the magical healing effects of adding a couple drops of essential oils straight to your water, to drink, this practice is actually VERY UNSAFE. Being that essential oils are in fact an oil, as their name states, they do not mix into water, rather they sit on top. When you drink this water, the essential oil is then going into your mouth, down your esophagus, and into stomach all while undiluted. This practice can cause severe burns, blisters, and lesions in your mouth, esophagus, stomach lining, and more. Take lemon essential oil, for example, one of the most commonly ingested essential oils in water; lemon oil by itself has such great solvency capabilities that it's used commercially in many wood cleaners and paint strippers. I have removed paint from plastic bottles using neat lemon essential oil on a cotton ball, and it worked marvelously. Due to the solvent nature of lemon essential oil, when not prepared properly, the number of potential risks associated with digestive tract irritation increases. In addition to the list of associated side effects from internal ingestion of lemon oil, ingestion may also produce burning pain in the throat, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. One study even showed that oral administration of lemon oil to 32 patients with tumors produced nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, with no observable effect on the patients' preexisting tumors.
No matter the method of use, all essential oils need to be diluted properly
Not only does dilution help for a slower entry into the blood stream, it also helps prevent irritation (such as blisters, boils, rashes, and chemical burns), as well as sensitization (when you develop an allergic reaction to a specific essential oil from multiple applications of it undiluted to the body in any way. After sensitization to one oil, you are much more likely to develop sensitization to several oils, especially the ones with the same chemical constituents). According to Jane Buckle, PhD, RN (Clinical Aromatherapy – Essential Oils in Healthcare, 2015), the safest methods that are used clinically for oral ingestion are:
Gelatin Capsules – Size 00 capsules are filled with 20% essential oil(s) diluted in vegetable oil and poured into the capsules. Each capsule holds approximately 0.75 mL.
Honey – Essential oils can be blended with honey water. Mix 1-2 drops essential oil into 1 tsp. honey, add warm water, and drink.
Enteric-Coated Gelatin Capsules – Enteric-coated gelatin capsules do not release the essential oil until they are in the small intestine.
Who could it really hurt anyway? It can't be that bad…
If you are thinking to yourself, “I have totally ingested my essential oils for awhile now and I have seen no ill effects. What say you?” I can totally understand that. I myself, in my pre-aromatherapy certification education days, found the idea to add essential oils to my water and tried it out myself. Many of the cases in the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy's 2014 Essential Oil Injury Report, came from repeated undiluted use of essential oils. The upside is most of the cases presented healed over time after use was discontinued. Some of AIA's Top Ten Worst Injuries from Essential Oils in 2014, include several cases of ingestion:
Undiluted on mouth sores: “Between 25-35 drops of essential oil on canker sores in mouth on tongue after being told it was safe. This resulted in a trip to ER because of racing heart, panicking, gagging, dry heaving, extremely hot, fever, dizzy and sick and high blood pressure. “I thought I was going to die.”
Undiluted Oral Ingestion: Due to ingesting a “lot of” oils – multiple drops, multiple times a day – of lemon and grapefruit in water, this person now has been diagnosed with stomach problems, chronic digestive upset, and is looking at possible gallbladder removal.
Undiluted Oral Ingestion of “Morphine Bomb”: “protocol was to use 4 drops each of frankincense, copaiba, and balsam fir. They advertised it could be used via inhalation, on skin or ingested. I trusted this combination would [alleviate] my pain due to their claims. Within a few hours of ingesting the oils, I began having racing heart, shortness of breath, pressure in my chest that radiated to my back, up my left jaw, and down my left arm. The symptoms continued and I eventually experienced cold sweats and nausea. The symptoms did not go away. I went to Hospital, they gave me an EKG, blood work and a CAT Scan. They determined I was having a heart attack. I remained hospitalized for 3 days and underwent a heart catheterization.”
When used safely, internal use of essential oils show great efficacy
I don't want to scare you away from essential oils with other people's mistakes because we have a great use for them in the future of medicine and antibiotics. When they are used properly and with safety in mind, just like you would with any other highly concentrated pharmaceutical, essential oils have been showing fabulous results in the medical community and in studies/trials that are being done today. Some of the many effective uses that have been noted in the medical and scientific community are:
- In a US study, pediatric Doctors used enteric-coated capsules containing diluted peppermint oil to treat IBS. 50 children participated in a randomized, double-blind, controlled 2-week study. The peppermint group showed a greater reduction in symptoms compared to the placebo group and no side effects were reported.
- In an Iranian medical study, doctors explored the oral use of peppermint and spearmint for chemo-induced nausea. In this four-arm study (peppermint, spearmint, control, and placebo) there were 50 patients in each group. The essential oil groups received capsules containing either two drops of spearmint or peppermint, oil, and filled with sugar, every four hours. The capsules were given to the patients, 30 minutes before their chemotherapy treatment and then 4 and 8 hours later. For both the peppermint and the spearmint groups, there was a significant reduction in nausea while the control and placebo groups showed no difference.
- A French doctor named Dr. Paul Belaiche, Professor of Phytotherapy at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Paris Nord, published a number of trials using tea-tree oil in 1985. Belaiche conducted a randomized, double-blind study to examine how effective Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea tree essential oil) was for 26 patients with chronic cystitis. The experimental group was given tea tree essential oil diluted in an enteric-coated gelatin capsule, while the control group was given a placebo that contained the odor of tea tree. After 6 months of study, 60% of the experimental group were completely cured while no one in the control group showed any improvement. No side effects were noticed and liver function tests were normal.
To ingest or not to ingest, that is the question
My professional opinion is that without the guidance from a certified medical practitioner who is also trained in aromatherapy or a certified aromatherapist that has been trained in internal ingestion (MANY are not, even in Europe internal ingestion is not covered by insurance companies because it's considered a medical practice), ingestion of essential oils should be avoided. While there are definitely times for internal ingestion in aromatherapy, many of the ailments that we experience do not need such a heavy dose internally and are better suited to be combated through inhalation of essential oils (diffusers, personal inhalers, etc.) or topical application of essential oils (salves, massage oils, baths, etc.). It is best to save the internal use of essential oils for the big guns, when nothing else is working and you have a professional to guide you in your dosage and how to safely use them.
Want to know more about essential oil safety?
I have been working on a safety series for the last year. These are the other posts you might have missed on essential oil safety:
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