Typically, essential oils are used externally for their benefits, but is it even more effective to take essential oils internally? Individuals who are skeptical that essential oils will work when applied externally may be more likely to recommend the ingestion of essential oils. But is it safe? And is it really more effective?
Three schools of thought on essential oil ingestion
Typically, you will find three schools of thought on whether it is safe to ingest essential oils:
- It is never safe.
- It is safe sometimes.
- Or, it is safe always.
As few studies have examined the potential effects of essential oils when taken internally, we are left with simple case studies and anecdotal stories from essential oils users.
The “never safe” group
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) has taken the stance that essential oils should not be taken internally. According to the NAHA, essential oils contain highly concentrated compounds that can be up to 90 percent greater than what you would find in a tea made from an herb or even from a powder used in cooking.
Some essential oil experts have suggested that a single drop of essential oil may contain as much of the natural oils as 20 to 30 cups of tea made from that plant. This is a highly concentrated dose that can have side effects and could be hard on the digestive system. Because of these risks and the lack of scientific studies, most large aromatherapy organizations have taken the stance that ingesting essential oils is not wise or advisable.
The “safe sometimes” group
Individuals who believe ingesting essential oils is sometimes safe examine the issue on a case-by-case basis. The first parameter is to determine if the oil is typically eaten as a natural plant. Lemon, peppermint, grapefruit, vanilla, fennel, basil, oregano and other spice compounds are consumed in their natural plant shape. However, eucalyptus, frankincense, pepper, and lavender are not.
If the essential is eaten as a natural plant, it may be considered for internal use. However, the conditions do not stop there. Next, the oil is examined for potential side effects. What are the side effects for consuming that compound in large amounts? Vitamin C, for example, can be toxic at high doses and can even cause miscarriages. Essential oils high in vitamin C may not be safe for internal ingestion.
Typically, oils that have mild side effects and beneficial effects when eaten in their natural state are approved for internal consumption by this group in moderation.
The “always safe” group
Individuals who believe consuming essential oils is always safe are typically misinformed. These essential oil users may claim that essential oils are used internally, often in Europe and other countries around the world. However, essential oils are much closer to drug compounds than other natural substances. They should never be taken without consideration for potential side effects.
In general, it is best to consult with a certified aromatherapist to determine which oils are safe for internal use. If you do decide to use oils internally, make sure the oil is therapeutic grade and not just cosmetic grade, which could have added oils that are unsafe to eat. Only ingest oils that are used in cooking. Never add more than one drop at a time. One single drop of an essential oil should be enough to ingest per day. More than that could have serious side effects.
Benefits of ingesting essential oils
If you decide that consuming essential oils is right for you, it may provide some of the following benefits:
- Faster absorption of beneficial properties
- Greater absorption of beneficial compounds (up to 90 percent versus up to 10 percent with topical use)
- Greater speed in killing bacteria and viruses
Risks from ingesting essential oils
All essential oils carry some risk. Common risks of ingesting essential oils include:
- Upset stomach
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Seizures (with some oils)
- Imbalance of gut bacteria (essential oils may kill good bacteria, just like antibiotics)
- Pregnancy complications or miscarriage
- Hospitalization or death
According to the book “Essential Oil Safety” written by expert Robert Tisserand, ingesting large doses of essential oils can be dangerous or deadly. In 1976, a case report stated that a woman drinking camphor oil instead of caster oil caused the miscarriage of her fetus. In 1980, a woman taking large doses of pennyroyal mint oil in hopes of inducing abortion was killed. These women took over 200 times the recommended topical dose of the oil.
More recently, a woman in 2012 ingested large doses of peppermint oil in a suicide attempt that nearly resulted in fatal injuries. The exact amount of oil that this woman ingested was unknown.
Using essential oils to treat medical conditions
Essential oils can be used to treat some minor medical conditions, such as upset stomach or everyday colds and flu. Essential oils should never be used in place of prescription medication or doctor-recommended treatments for serious health conditions.
In most cases, ingesting essential oils is unnecessary for common health ailments. However, a single drop of a food-based oil, such as lemon, may be beneficial in temporarily giving the immune system a boost to help fight off infections and viral invaders. Essential oils should never be taken internally to treat chronic health conditions. The side effects of long-term ingestion of essential oils are unknown and may be harmful.
Using essential oils in cooking
Essential oils can be used successfully in cooking. Essential oils are safer in cooking than taken for medical uses because you will not be eating the entire dish yourself in one sitting. Just like you would never eat a teaspoon of cinnamon at once, you will not be ingesting the entire dose of essential oils when you add it to a recipe.
The following essential oils will improve the taste and health benefits of your dishes:
- Lemon myrtle
As with any other internal use of essential oils, never add more than a drop to any recipe. You can use essential oils in place of other flavorings you would use while cooking. For example, use peppermint oil to flavor peppermint candies or lemon oil to flavor a salad dressing.
In addition to only using a drop at a time, use these tips to stay safe while using essential oils:
- Never apply the oils directly to the skin. They can burn and cause pain.
- Do not use essential oils near or on the eyes. This will cause burning, pain and may cause temporary blindness.
- Do not use any oils if you have an allergy to that plant. For example, if you are allergic to oranges, do not use orange essential oil either internally or externally.
- Dilute essential oils used in the kitchen with vegetable or coconut oil. Water will not be an effective diluent.
- Make sure your essential oils are of the best quality by choosing therapeutic grade oils. Do not use any oils sold only for cosmetic use.
- Replace your kitchen oils yearly. Oxidized oils not only taste bad, they will negate any beneficial effects they had originally by causing unwanted cell oxidation in the body.
Essential oils can be taken internally, but they must be consumed with extreme caution. Always research an oil for any potential side effects and the toxic dosage of that substance before consuming it in its oil form. Make sure you only eat essential oils of plants you would eat in their natural form. Remember: essential oil doses contain about 100 times as much of a compound as the natural plant. By using these safety tips, you should be able to find essential oils that are safe for consumption.
— Susan Patterson