Understanding the Ingestion of Essential Oils

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In this article I want to focus on answering one of the most common questions I am asked about on almost a daily basis:

"Can I take essential oils internally?” or "Can I ingest essential oils?"

As a naturopath and qualified aromatherapist promoting the use of essential oils, I feel it is my responsibility to share my professional stance on the matter.

This is a long and detailed article, and I would encourage you to read all of it, but if I were to recommend at least one section it would be "Absolute No No's of Ingestion".

Using Essential Oils

Essential Oils are also known as plant-based volatile oils that are extracted from an odorous plant of a single botanical form or species. Every essential oil contains a variety of chemical compounds that have various medicinal properties and benefits. They are commonly used in aromatherapy and skincare to aid mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

The art of aromatherapy is the practice of utilising the aromatic molecules of a single oil for health and wellbeing, or alternatively, carefully blending various essential oils together to create a desired aroma or response.

Traditionally, there are three methods of using essential oils:

  1. Inhalation
  2. Topical application
  3. Internal

Inhalation is considered the safest of the three options. While you still have to be conscious of individual sensitivities and allergies when diffusing essential oils, it is the most common method of use for the casual home user.

Topical application is also very common, particularly as part of massage therapy and skin care, although maintaining safe practices is still very important. We always recommend that essential oils are safely diluted before applying to the skin, as everyone's skin is unique and has varying levels of tolerance and sensitivity to the constituents embedded in different essential oils. 

These first two methods offer rapid absorption of the aromatic particles into the body. They are both effective ways of using essential oils for their aromatic and therapeutic benefits.

The practice of ingesting essential oils comes with it a lot greater risk than the two methods mentioned above. It can be dangerous and it is not encouraged for the casual home user. Ingestion should only be considered if under the strict supervision of a qualified practitioner.

The use of essential oils in the food and beverage industry is also a hot topic that we intend to write about in a future article. Keep an eye out for that one - as it is a topic of similar concern.

Health Risks of Ingestion

When taken orally, essential oils are rapidly absorbed by the body. This is why it is important to use them with care and keep essential oils out of reach of children. The severity of toxicity is dependant on the oil, and the chemical compounds within the oil ingested, but strict care should be ensured in all cases.

There are several potential health risks associated with ingesting essential oils. Some of the most severe symptoms of toxicity include:

  • Stomach irritations
  • Drowsiness
  • Slow/shallow breathing, wheezing
  • Ulceration in mouth/throat
  • Seizures
  • Persistent cough, gagging/choking
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea

    I am not trying to scare you, but I think it is important for all of us to understand how potent essential oils really are and the damage they can cause if not used safely. 

    In recent years, hospitals and poisons centres have recorded an increase in poisonings as a result of essential oil ingestions; particularly in children. Here are three recent quotes from poison's centres here in Australia.

    WA Poisons Information Centre:

    “There have been claims made by companies producing essential oil products and their distributors that essential oils are ‘natural’ and therefore safe to consume. Essential oils are not safe to consume and can cause significant poisoning even if small amounts are ingested. The Western Australia Poisons Information Centre has recorded an increase in poisonings as a result of essential oil ingestions in children. It is therefore important that essential oils are stored securely in a child-resistant container and kept out of reach of children. The use of undiluted essential oils on sensitive skin or in the nostrils can irritate or burn. Susceptible people may also develop an allergic reaction and a skin rash"

    NSW Poisons Information Centre:

    “NSW Poisons Information Centre does not recommend consuming essential oils or even using them on your skin without a carrier oil(which dilutes essential oils before they are applied to the skin). Eucalyptus oil, Clove oil and Peppermint oil are particularly nasty - ingesting as little as 2-3ml can cause sedation or drowsiness and 5ml can cause coma” 

    Victorian Poisons Information Centre:

    "Aromatic plant oils are very potent and should never be swallowed or applied undiluted to the skin...Aromatic plant oils (essential oils) can be poisonous if taken in by mouth. Consumption of essential oils is an increasing cause of poisoning in children. All aromatic plant oils should be secured and kept out of reach of children"

    Some essential oils when ingested can also lead to glutathione (GSH) depletion. GSH is a very important antioxidant that assists the liver in detoxification of reactive molecules and free radicals before they damage DNA. It is therefore potentially very harmful and may lead to liver toxicity and compromised health and immunity.

    Aromatherapy Industry Perspective

    The stance on the internal use of essential oils is also unanimous among most professional aromatherapy associations and experts throughout the world. Here are a few notable examples:

    International Aromatherapy & Aromatic Medicine Association (IAAMA):

    “Essential oils should not be taken internally unless receiving a detailed consultation and prescription from a trained and qualified aromatic medicine practitioner.”

    National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA):

    “Do not take essential oils internally without appropriate advanced aromatherapy education and understanding of the safety issues involved in doing so. Essential oils are commonly used internally throughout the world. Some individuals are so without the appropriate knowledge or understanding of safety concerns. NAHA does not support the indiscriminate or uneducated internal use of essential oils. If essential oils are used internally, we recommend doing so under the guidance of a knowledgeable health professional”

    Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA):

    “AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal). Please refer to the AIA safety guidelines for essential oil use.”

    Tisserand & Young (2014):

    “Since there is little information concerning the safety of oral dosing over a period of several days or weeks, individual cases should be carefully monitored by the supervising primary care practitioner.”

    My Professional Viewpoint

    As a qualified aromatherapist, it was never encouraged during my years of tuition to promote the ingestion of essential oils. Instead, it was always taught and encouraged to inhale the oils as the limbic system in the brain was thought to be the most powerful way of utilising these powerful components.

    Unless under careful supervision, I still to this day do not encourage ingesting essential oils, as it can cause illness and significant poisonings. Even under the best guidance, we can still encounter allergic reactions and problems due to our individuality and sensitivities.

    From a personal point of view, I would encourage people to research their oils and purchase from a reputable supplier, preferably one that specialises in aromatherapy and holds reasonable qualifications in the field. My reasoning for this is that the ingestion of oils may be toxic and dangerous and I have known those who have reacted with severe irritation and burning of the gastrointestinal mucosa.

    Why Ingest Essential Oils Anyway?

    When I get asked about ingestion, I often respond by asking them why they want to ingest essential oils. This question seems to stump most people, and I often get answers such as, "I read online that it cures...XYZ" or "a friend recommended X to me". I am sorry, but these are just not suitable reasons for ingesting a natural medicine as potent as a pure essential oil without guidance from a health professional.

    I also get some people who respond by saying they are after "a more concentrated and quicker response". While it is true in some circumstances that oral administration is quicker than dermal application, it is also true that the dosage is almost ten times greater. This significantly increases the likelihood of overdosing and taking too much, too quickly without realising.

    In fact, world-renowned aromatherapist Salvatore Battaglia said that the ingestion of essential oils "may actually deactivate the pharmacological efficacy of the essential oils and may become more toxic (2018)"

    So, my recommendation would be to primarily use essential oils as they were intended - inhalation or topical application (diluted).

    Inhaling Essential Oils and the Limbic System

    The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with emotions, memories and stimulation - our olfactory system is directly linked to our limbic system.

    Have you ever been angry or sad? Of course, these are normal emotions that we all experience in our everyday life.

    These emotions play a role in how we behave, both individually and socially. It is believed that the limbic system is thought to control emotion and other brain functions related to our memories.

    Popping a couple of drops of essential oil in an aroma diffuser is a safe and effective way to gain their therapeutic benefit.

    Here are some examples of essential oils and the known benefits of inhaling them:

    1. Bergamot may help ease sadness, depression and grief
    2. Lavender may help ease anxiety and aid insomnia
    3. Kunzea may help ease congestion of coughs and colds
    4. Peppermint may help alleviate headaches

      Topical Application of Essential Oils

      I also use essential oils as part of massage therapy and reflexology, as this is another way to safely obtain the benefit from these powerful plant oils.

      Normally I would add 5-15% essential oil to a chosen carrier oil. The essential oil and carrier oil I choose would vary depending on my client's skin type, and also where on the body it would be applied.

      Typically you would use a milder dilution on the face and sensitive areas of the body. My favourite carrier oils include jojoba, grapeseed, rosehip, sweet almond and coconut oil.

      To read more on this topic, check out my blog post: Reflexology and Kunzea Oil for Balance of Mind and Body.

      So, Ingest? Inhale? Infuse?

      Well, the choice is ultimately in that of the individual, although first and for most, I would recommend inhalation and topical application (diluted). Essential oils have been used in these ways for centuries, and they are still considered effective modes of application for most everyday ailments.

      Although, if you do choose to ingest essential oils, please ensure you are well informed and understand the potential consequences. Ideally, you should be seeking guidance from a qualified health care practitioner or clinical aromatherapist who has knowledge of essential oil toxicology and an understanding of how essential oils interact with the body.

      Absolute No No's of Ingestion

      While I may have made it quite clear above that I do not advocate the ingestion of essential oils without qualified guidance, I know some of you are still going to go ahead and do it.

      So, here are four absolute No No's when it comes to essential oils and ingestion:

      1) DO NOT take directly under the tongue

      When essential oils are swallowed directly, they come into contact with vital organs in our body - such as our mouth, tongue, throat and stomach - and can cause severe irritation and possible damage. Essential oils are highly concentrated and act as, and should be treated as, a form of medicine.

      2) DO NOT add essential oils to a glass of water

      Essential oils are not water-soluble, so if you add them to water without a dispersant, you are basically swallowing them directly and putting stress on your internal organs. Instead of adding a drop of lemon to a glass of water (which is the equivalent to 2-3 full-size lemons), why not chop up a fresh lemon and add 1-2 slices? Much better for you, and a lot tastier as well!

      3) DO NOT ingest these essential oils, ever

      While I don't recommend ingestion, there are several essential oils that should never be ingested, ever. Some examples of these include wintergreen, eucalyptus, cedarwood and birch. Every individual is unique, so please do your research and be very careful when using essential oils.

      4) DO NOT feed young children essential oils

      This is more a personal plea than anything else, but please do not feed your children or your friend's children, essential oils to ingest. Their young bodies are still developing and are more susceptible to health risks. You are also still learning about their allergies and individual sensitives, so please be responsible and look after our young ones. 

      Ingestion: Make an Informed Choice

      As you can see, ingestion of essential oils is not for the casual home user. There is a lot more to it than adding a drop into a glass of water or capsule. Also, the dynamics of the oil change when ingested, compared to topical application or inhalation. This means there is the potential it can interact with other medications. Aromatic medicine requires an extremely in-depth knowledge of both the body and the relevant essential oils.

      It is my professional opinion that inhalation and topical application are safer and more effective ways of using essential oils.

      About the Author - Michelle Brass ND

      With over 25 years of experience in the natural health industry, Michelle has dedicated her life to helping others embrace the therapeutic benefits of nature. Throughout her time as a health practitioner, she has used and recommended countless traditional and conventional treatments to her clients - as she believes an integrative approach to health and wellness is very important. Michelle’s is passionate about using and promoting essential oils and, in particular, Kunzea Oil, as she has seen them help thousands of people over the years. She knows that using essential oils in your daily life can help bring balance to the mind, body and soul. She is constantly trialling and testing new products with her loyal clients.

      References

      1. NAHA. Exploring Aromatherapy. https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/naha-safety-statements/. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      2. Battaglia S. The Complete Guide To Aromatherapy. 3rd ed. Zillmere: Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd; 2018.

      3. IAAMA. http://iaama.org.au/about-aromatherapy.html#essential-oil-safety. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      4. Tisserand R, Young R, Williamson E. Essential Oil Safety. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier; 2014.

      5. The Royal Childen's Hospital Melbourne. Clinical Practice Guidelines: Essential Oil Poisoning. https://www.rch.org.au/clinicalguide/guideline_index/Essential_Oil_Poisoning/. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      6. WAPIC. Essential oils – Health warning. https://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Essential-oils. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      7. Healthline. Are Essential Oils Safe? 13 Things to Know Before Use. https://www.healthline.com/health/are-essential-oils-safe. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      8. Better Health. Aromatherapy. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/aromatherapy. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      9. Clark J. Aromatherapy Safety. https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy-safety. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      10. Smith, R. Is it safe to use essential oils?: CHOICE. https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/medicines-and-supplements/vitamins-and-supplements/articles/is-it-safe-to-use-essential-oils. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      11.Halcon L, Maher K. Are Essential Oils Safe?: The University of Minnesota. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/aromatherapy/are-essential-oils-safe. Accessed July 21, 2019.

      12. Lyth G. Essential Oil Safety: Aromatherapy Trade Council. https://www.a-t-c.org.uk/safety-matters/essential-oil-safety/. Accessed July 21, 2019. 

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      Comments


      • Dear Michelle,
        Thank you for writing this very important article. So interesting to read.
        Good health to all,
        Leigh

        Leigh on
      • Hi Jenna – thank you for the question! There a lot of factors to consider when it comes to recommending ANY product during pregnancy and breastfeeding. There is research out there, although it is also a controversial topic that still needs further research. A good, credible reference point on the topic would be NAHA. Visit https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety and scroll down to the relevant sections. Hope that helps xx

        Zea Relief on
      • Hi Courtney – while beadlets are better than ingesting essential oils directly, we still believe that you need the guidance of a qualified health practitioner before taking them xx

        Zea Relief on
      • Thank you for this informative article! So detailed, but easily understood.

        Cheryl on
      • Good article thanks. I recently saw a midwife (american) and Aromatherapist recommend internal copiaba oil to pregnant and breastfeeding woman. She stated that it increases milk supply too. I asked her to politely to point me in the direction of the research or articles that state it is safe for use in pregnancy, breastfeeding etc. She didn’t answer my question although she went on to reply positively to anyone who said ‘great, i’ll start taking it’ etc. So my question to you having read your article…. Is there any evidence of safe use of essential oils through breastfeeding and pregnancy? If so, where would one likely find such evidence. Thanks!!

        Jenna Shelley on


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