Is ingesting essential oils safe?
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, essential oils have taken the natural health world by storm. As someone who uses essential oils for my own wellness and in my nutritional therapy practice, I understand the amazing properties of these natural remedies.
The fervent marketing of two popular brands of essential oils has introduced many people to these powerful tools for health. On the flip side, I’m left deeply concerned about the lack of proper safety precautions, particularly when it comes to ingesting essential oils. As shown in many studies such as this one, where essential oils measured up to the headache-relieving properties of Tylenol, essential oils are as powerful as pharmaceuticals.
Just as you would (or should) exercise caution and research when using pharmaceuticals, you should practice the same careful research when using essential oils. Essential oils are profoundly powerful, which makes them capable of both great good and great harm.
Therapeutic Grade, Schmerapeutic Grade
Many infographics and blog posts go something like this:
Allergies? Put lavender, peppermint and lemon oil in a capsule and take it daily!
Indigestion? Swallow a couple of drops of peppermint oil in your water!
Want quick weight loss? Shed pounds by adding grapefruit oil to your water!
Chronic pain? Take frankincense, copaiba and basalm oil in a capsule and feel relief!
The only safety disclaimer added to these recipes usually warns, Only therapeutic grade essential oils are safe for internal use. Brand XXX are the only therapeutic grade essential oils.
Let’s get one thing straight: the term therapeutic grade provides marketing weight rather than signifying that the oils meet a regulated quality standard. A helpful Facebook page called Essential Oil University, unaffiliated with any oil company, is dedicated to busting essential oil myths like this one. The author of the page, Dr. Robert Pappas, explains:
“There seems to be a misconception that there is some kind of independent body that certifies oils as therapeutic grade, but to this date there is no such body, at least not one that is widely recognized. Does this mean there is no such thing as therapeutic grade? No, but just realize that any therapeutic grade standard out there right now is an internally derived company standard. Now this standard may be an overall great standard and perfectly acceptable to me or any other analyst or aromatherapist out there but it just needs to be noted that its not an independent standard.” (Source and read more)
Now that we’ve covered the unregulated use of therapeutic grade, let’s move on to the real question: even if your essential oils are of extremely high quality – whether they are labeled “therapeutic grade” or not – is ingesting essential oils safe? These are three reasons why I’m not comfortable ingesting essential oils without professional guidance.
1. We need more research on essential oils and gut flora
Practitioners, aromatherapists and multi-level-markers agree: ingesting essential oils does affect gut flora, which is the 4 pounds of bacteria lining your digestive tract. The disagreement lies in whether or not it supports a healthy or harmful balance of flora.
The widely perpetuated myth that ingesting essential oils kills only harmful – not beneficial – bacteria lacks any scientific support. Then again, the idea that ingesting essential oils kills beneficial bacteria is not supported by any studies. While we need significantly more research into this area to conclusively answer the question of how essential oils affect flora, we do have some clues into the situation.
In recent years, numerous studies have documented the antibacterial activity of essential oils against infectious bacterial strains (1, 2, 3). Unless future studies show otherwise, I think it is reasonable to theorize that the essential oils studied may demonstrate antibacterial properties against other less stubborn strains of bacteria. This hypothesis is a conservative approach, but I think it is best to err on the side of caution when dealing with antibacterial agents and the vulnerable terrain of our microbiome.
Robert Tisserand, author of Essential Oil Safety, wrote a post in which he states,
It would be useful to know more about particular oils, doses, routes of administration and their effect on the body’s microbiome. But in the meantime, it is rash to assume that essential oils negatively affect the balance of bowel flora, because there is no clinical evidence that this happens.
We do know that enterically-coated capsules of peppermint oil are beneficial in cases of inflammatory bowel disease and that these capsules result in a (substantial) peak serum concentration of 1,492 ng/mL for menthol. We also know from this report that peppermint essential oil had a beneficial effect on the balance of gut bacteria in a case of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth).
Interestingly, these studies likely point to the fact that the oil acts like an antibiotic. SIBO is bacterial OVERgrowth in parts of the small intestine. A drug is considered to have “beneficial effect” on SIBO if it kills/reduces the excessive bacterial growth, which is why antibiotics – either conventional or herbal – is used to treat SIBO.
We should also ask, why did the peppermint have a beneficial effect for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)? Here’s my theory: because it works as an antibiotic! As someone who has IBD, I can tell you that one of the conventional treatments for it is antibiotics. Just like probiotic therapy, antibiotic therapy helps IBD in many cases, since IBD results from imbalanced gut flora.
I find the results of these studies exciting, because I think peppermint oil is better than a conventional antibiotic for SIBO or IBD. In the case of these diseases, however, as well as other illnesses that are treated with “quick fix” essential oils, we also need to look at long-term results and also alternatives that do not risk destroying beneficial flora. In the case of SIBO/IBD, a dietary renovation is often enough to eliminate symptoms and rebalance gut flora (I recommend the GAPS Diet).
2. Probiotics aren’t an adequate safety net
We don’t have a clear picture of how ingesting essential oils affects gut flora, but some believe that a probiotic supplement is an adequate safety net. I’ve read a quote from the founder of a popular brand of EOs in which he encourages the supplementation of a probiotic – his brand, of course – to ameliorate any of the potential gut-flora-disruption that may occur by taking ingesting a certain blend of essential oils. As a holistic practitioner who believes our gut flora is the most vulnerable and significant factors governing our health, that callous advice makes me cringe.
Probiotics can offer gut flora support, but popping a single probiotic supplement will not repair a widespread flora imbalance. It requires high-potency probiotics along probiotic foods to make a significant difference in healthy gut flora. Since we have trillions of bacterial strains in our gut, it far easier to kill beneficial bacteria than it is to replace it.
3. Aromatherapists don’t suggest internal use unless guided by a professional
Where do you see advice to ingest essential oils? Is it from a licensed practitioner or someone selling oils who obtains their information directly from the oil company?
An individual selling essential oils in a multi-level marketing scheme does better research on the safety of the oils than a licensed aromatherapist not affiliated with an essential oil company. Said no one ever.
The advice discrepancy between those selling the popular brands of essential oils and practitioners should raise a red flag. The Alliance of International Aromatherapists gives this statement on the internal use of essential oils:
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. (Read more)
Please seek a practitioner’s guidance if ingesting essential oils
When it comes to conventional medicine and natural remedies alike, first, do no harm. That’s why ingesting essential oils should be at the end of your natural remedies list. Start with options that have no potential for harm! When it comes to issues commonly addressed with ingesting essential oils – allergies, heartburn, immune support, weight loss, and detox – dietary and lifestyle changes should be renovated first. That usually solves the majority of the problems!
After diet and lifestyle are addressed, I suggest moving to food-based supplements and herbal preparations, along with topical application of essential oils.
If you wish to ingest essential oils after making the above changes, please do so under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist, herbalist or other practitioner who has vast experience with essential oils.
Let’s keep spreading the message that essential oils offer immense potential as agents for wellness. But let’s also spread the message that they need to be approached with due caution and respect for their powerful and yet-to-be-adequately-studied properties. If this post resonates with you, I urge you to share it with your family and friends who may be ingesting essential oils without that due caution. In the words of aromatherapist Amy Kreydin in her very wise post, friends don’t let friends drink essential oils.
Do you use essential oils? What role do they have in your life?