There is much energetic, and often angry, debate about whether or not essential oils are safe to ingest. Part of the concern is that the recommendation of ingesting essential oils is an unregulated area where multi-level distributors of oils are often unqualified and even sometimes irresponsible when it comes to the ‘advice’ they give. This leaves the industry wide open to, often quite justified, criticism.
But this doesn’t mean that essential oils aren’t safe to ingest. What it does mean is that, if you do decide to ingest essential oils, you should know what you’re doing.
Unfortunately, there is no hard research to categorically prove that ingesting essential oils is safe – but neither is there any research to prove that it’s not. The French, pioneers of the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes, have been advocating the ingestion of essential oils since the 1970s. Jean Valnet, a French physician and surgeon, is accredited for setting out in the 1940s to prove the therapeutic properties of essential oils in scientific terms. According to the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy, it was French chemist, Henri Viaud, who, as far back as 1983, published the purity and quality criteria that essential oils should meet in order to be suitable for medical purposes1. The fact that most essential oils on the market today aren’t pure enough or are not of a high enough quality is the main reason for not ingesting them and not because ingesting essential oils is harmful.
Three main concerns directed at ingesting essential oils are:
- That it may cause liver/organ damage if used long term.
- That it may burn the oesophagus when swallowed.
- That the antibacterial properties of essential oils can harm good gut bacteria as well as the bad.
Firstly, as mentioned, there is no clinical evidence either way regarding the potential damage essential oils can cause to your liver if ingested. Although there have been cases recorded where ingesting large doses over prolonged periods of time have caused liver inflammation or other intestinal side-effects, to the gall bladder for example, most often symptoms disappear once the oil is no longer taken. However, it should be noted that taking large doses of anything for a prolonged period is unusual, whether a mainstream or natural remedy, and often mainstream medications can have adverse side effects when taken over time. Essential oils should always be taken in small doses and never for a prolonged period unless under the supervision of a qualified professional.
The second point is the concern that ingesting oils can irritate or even burn when swallowed. This is certainly the case, particularly with some oils like oregano. But it doesn’t mean they can’t be ingested at all, it’s how you take them that’s important. Different people react in different ways to swallowing oils. Many people drink a few drops of oregano every morning to maintain gut health and for its anti-parasitic properties, and they do so without any issues. However, this oil can also be applied neat to burn off warts, so there can be a risk of discomfort. Drinking essential oils in water, lime oil for example, may taste lovely, but you are still ingesting a pure, undiluted oil as oil and water don’t mix. One way to make ingesting oils safer is to mix it with a teaspoon of honey first before dissolving it in warm water and then drinking it. If you want to avoid drinking oils altogether, you can mix it with a few drops of carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil, and drop it into a veggie cap first before ingesting it. Enteric-coated capsules are also a safer way of ingesting essential oils as they don’t release the essential oil until they are in the small intestine.
With regards the concern that essential oils can harm good gut bacteria in the stomach, one interesting clinical study which tested the treatment of e-coli in pigs using ingested essential oils, discovered that the oils were successful in treating the e-coli without adversely affecting the good bacteria in the pigs.2 It’s encouraging to know that essential oils can tell the difference.
Essential oils are extremely powerful substances and research into their use for the treatment of cancer is currently being undertaken all over the world. However, they should be treated with respect and caution - “Everything in moderation” should be remembered. What it boils down to at the end of the day is common sense. The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy advises diffusing oils and using them topically on a daily basis, but does suggest ingesting oils for remedial purposes when necessary.3 So, there is certainly a place for ingesting essential oils. Ingesting oils is generally considered the most potent method of application as they are absorbed into systemic circulation via the digestive tract. If you do choose to ingest, make sure the brand is a food-grade oil and preferably a therapeutic grade also. If ingesting is not for you, then the daily use of ultrasonic aromatherapy diffusers or diluting the oil and applying directly to the skin are also effective methods of use.