Whether or not you should ingest essential oils seems to be a very controversial topic at the moment. A quick search of how to use particular oils will often tell you that they can be ingested for certain health reasons while another page tells you they must never be consumed.
There are youtube channels by well-known essential oil company representatives showing you how to mix them and how drink them and just as many ‘expert’ websites telling you to only ever use them externally.
Where does the truth lie and why should we be so careful in how we use essential oils?
Essential oils are very potent
This is a fact that should be respected however you choose to use them. These oils are not like vegetable base oils that you can simply add to your salads. They are the very highly concentrated extracts of certain plants packed with high levels of natural compounds.
The reason that they have so many beneficial effects often as strong as pharmaceuticals is that they are effectively medications. Consider that you often need as many as 50 to 100 pounds of the plant to make extract around half an ounce of its essential oil. Another comparison is that just an individual drop of your essential oil is the equivalent of drinking up to 6 gallons of a tea made brewed from that very same plant.
This extreme concentration of chemical constituents is why in nearly all cases you should dilute your oils before applying them to your skin and while they are natural; it does not mean they can be used in any way you like. There is after all plenty of danger in nature. Our garden has stuff growing in it that my wife tells me I must avoid. She also seems to be able to tolerate a delicious looking mushroom that makes me throw up almost instantaneously.
Mixing oil with water
You very often see blog entries and videos telling you to add a drop of oil into your glass of water. For example, a drop of grapefruit oil to help you lose weight. How about a drop of peppermint oil with your water to help your nausea or indigestion? The citrus essential oils are also often recommended in your glass of water to help with allergies among other complaints.
One of the main issues here is that water and oil do not mix very well together. Instead of mixing into your water they sit atop creating a film. Of course this means that the as you drink the oil down, it is undiluted, making contact with your mouth, esophagus and stomach neat.
There is the very real possibility that this procedure cause serious burns to the areas that it touches right down from the mouth to the lining of your stomach. Some of these oils like lemon oil have such good solvency abilities that they are used commercially and in the home for cleaning wood surfaces and stripping paint.
Several studies have demonstrated that patients have experiences adverse effects from oral administration including stomach irritation, inflammation, nausea, burning sensations and burp back. Larger doses of essential oil obviously come with a greater risk of irritation. Some studies have showed that taking smaller doses of oil protect the gastrointestinal system while larger doses of the same oil can irritate it.
Most research into the internal use of essential oils has used capsules ensuring that the oil does not come into contact with the body until it has been absorbed. According to Dr. Jane Buckle there are certain safe methods of taking essential oils internally.
- Diluted in a 00 sized gelatin capsule. The essential oil should be diluted with a vegetable oil to a 20% ratio.
- Diluted in an enteric coated capsule that does not dissolve until it reaches the small intestine.
- A drop or 2 of essential oil diluted in a hot water with honey.
Dr. Scott Johnson agrees with the methods recommended and adds a few more:
- As an alternative to honey, you could dilute the essential oil in almond or rice milk.
- Placing a drop or 2 of essential oil in the mouth and swishing it around with your saliva which is beneficial to oral health.
- He goes on to say that the risks of irritation to the stomach could be reduced by not taking the capsules on an empty stomach and making sure you always take them with food.
Dr. Johnson also recommends putting oils in capsules and swallowing that way. The reason it to avoid the oils getting caught in the cavities of the mouth.
The Effect of Ingestion on Intestinal Microflora
There is plenty of emerging research into the importance and diversity of gut bacteria and while we know that many of these bacteria are good for us, experts do not fully understand their role. It is however an important area of study and the increasing popularity and range of probiotics offers some real future potential in the treatment and prevention of diseases.
There has also been plenty of research confirming the antibacterial qualities of many essential oils and it is true that they may help kill harmful bacteria but we don’t know what effect they have on the good bacteria living in the gut. Just as antibiotics can save lives and are necessary to take sometimes, they also need to be taken with caution and for now; the same caution should be applied to essential oils.
According to Dr. Scott Johnson in his book ‘Evidence Based Essential Oils’ oral administration of essential oils might increase the risk of stomach irritation and adverse drug interactions for those already taking prescribed medications. Because of this, internal use of essential oils should only be carried out under the guidance of a medical professional and all possible contraindications need to be considered.
Some documented effects of ingestion
Many people swear by the internal use of essential oils-they often remind me of smokers that come up with well-known phrases like ‘I’ve been smoking for years and I’m still fine’…and in truth the number of documented cases regarding the adverse effects of taking essential oils internally are relatively rare. That does not mean they should be ignored as some of these effects have been extremely severe.
The essential oil injury report published in 2014 included the following side effects of ingestion:
- Using undiluted essential oil to treat canker sores caused feelings of panic, elevated heartbeat, fever, sickness and dangerously high blood pressure. This resulted in a visit to the hospital with the patient thinking they would die.
- Taking a combination of 4 drops copaiba, frankincense and balsam fir undiluted as directed by the company resulted in a heart attack within 3 hours of ingesting the blend. Thankfully the patient recovered following a catheterization.
- Ingesting multiple drops of grapefruit and lemon essential oil in water daily led to chronic digestive problems.
- A woman was advised by her consultant to insert a tampon soaked with tea tree oil into her vagina to treat a yeast infection. This resulted in severe adverse effects including chemical burns and long term scarring.
Fortunately, these extreme examples are rare and there may be a place in aromatherapy for the internal consumption of essential oils. The FDA has a list of essential oils generally regarded as safe or GRAS which can be accessed here.
But if you are considering the internal use of the essential oil, you should only do this under the advice of a certified professional. For the time being, ingestion should probably be considered a last resort and not done for minor complaints and cosmetic reasons.