There are a lot of articles floating around and a lot of questions flooding essential oil forums about using essential oils internally. I am getting many questions about whether the brands of essential oils I am carrying are “safe” for internal use or not. And the amount of questions I am getting about the internal use of essential oils is a little alarming to me, honestly. So I wanted to just take a moment and talk about using essential oils internally and what “safe for internal use” practically means when dealing with essential oils.
First, I want to note that historically the use of essential oils has been almost exclusively external application or inhalation. Of course there are some exceptions, but usually these were for treatments of diseases, not every day use. Also, a lot of the work citing the use of essential oils in ancient cultures or mentions of essential oils in the Bible are inaccurate, as they did not have the ability to distill what we know today as “essential oils.” They actually used aromatic oils, or infused oils, which more closely resemble tinctures made from whole plants than they do the “essential oils” we know today. Essential oils did come along later in history, but not in ancient cultures. And this makes a big difference, as the whole plant extracts used for thousands of years are much safer with many fewer risks involved than the highly concentrated essential oils we use today. Using the whole plant, in many cases, may eliminate risks associated with using just certain components from the plant, such as essential oils.
In my opinion as a certified aromatherapist, as well as from years of using and studying essential oils and herbs, including how and why they work, in over 90% of cases there is never a need to use essential oils internally. The push to use oils internally is a relatively new idea that has come largely from a couple of companies in the US pushing internal use, as well as a couple of French doctors who advocate using essential oils internally to treat ailments and diseases. We need to keep in mind that a Medical Doctor who is highly trained using essential oils for treatments is FAR different from the average person who knows relatively little about essential oil, and often nothing about their chemistry, ingesting them at home for a self-diagnosed illness. It should also be worth a bit of extra caution and consideration that most literature promoting the use of all types of essential oils internally comes from these few companies or from people who are selling or promoting products from these select few companies. Most experienced aromatherapists still strongly disagree with this “new” concept of ingesting oils of all varieties for a host of ailments, or even every day health. And this should be a caution sign. Not saying it is the end all, but it should warrant a bit more digging. I am very passionate about encouraging everyone I discuss essential oils with to get their information on using essential oils, what is safe and what is not, from unbiased sources, herbalists, and experienced aromatherapists rather that from any essential oil company–no matter how reputable. While these companies may provide some good information, a filter that comes from a foundational knowledge of herbs, traditional and historical uses, and chemical compositions of oils is often needed and vital for safety. It is even more important if you wish to share your love of essential oils with others. I could write whole blog posts citing instance after instance (if you are curious of specifics feel free to ask me about it) where large “reputable” companies post and publish misinformation that shows a basic lack of knowledge of chemistry, biology, and the herbs the oils come from themselves. And when these companies are claiming to be the “best in the world” and the “leaders in research,” yet lack the basic knowledge that is the foundation of their whole business, this makes me very cautious. While I have studied and researched these herbs and oils for many years, I am not in any way claiming to be a “foremost expert” or any such title. So if even I can see the gross inconsistencies and misinformation that is being put out, that should be reason for a warning flag to go up. Like I said, companies want to make money, even if that means putting out sub par, or unproven information about the products they are selling. And if you lack the basics which everything else rests on, your conclusions and future studies and findings have a high probability of being false. Even testimonials claiming wonderful benefits and lack of side effects from internal use of an essential oil must be taken with a grain of salt. There are testimonials for most everything you can imagine claiming no ill effects. And lots of people will claim “I do it all the time” as if that is enough reason to throw out caution, ignore the lack of unbiased research, or disregard science. With that line of thinking my Great Aunt, who smoked several packs a day since she was 12 and lived to the age of 98, could write a testimonial about how cigarettes improved her life, had no side effects, and actually helped her live a longer and happier life than many non-smokers. But, of course, we can all see the breakdown of logic in that example. Just because people have have no apparent prominent side effects does not mean it is good for you, or healthy, and it is also quite possible they WERE experiencing side effects but didn’t have the knowledge to recognize them, or attributed these side effects to other products in their life. Also, there are not well-funded, unbiased studies going on to determine how these oils change the body’s chemistry or internal functions with long-term internal use.
That being said, I do think the use of essential oils internally can be a good thing but used wisely, with only certain oils that are known and well recognized to be safe to ingest both as raw herbs, dried herbs, extracts and tinctures and as an essential oil. (Two examples would be peppermint and oregano, both an herb and a spice that you can consume in their natural forms.) But these oils should still be used with wisdom, very rarely, and only as a remedy for a temporary condition–not as an ongoing supplement–and they should be taken in enteric-coated capsules. The truth is our digestive system often renders essential oils virtually ineffective for many conditions. Intestinal infections are one exception to the rule where internal use might be helpful (again only in an enteric-coated capsule.) In my opinion, anyone considering using essential oils internally should first have a base knowledge of herbs and their properties and be aware of associated cautions. Also, he/she should know the chemical composition of the essential oil being considered for internal use and learn what the possible cautions of the chemical components could be. For instance, ketones are found in large quantities in oils such as peppermint and spearmint (30% in peppermint and 55% in spearmint.) Ketones generally stimulate the formation of tissue, dissolve fats, and are potentially neurotoxic. Ketones are one of the most common toxic substances in essential oils, and this does not change based on higher “grades” of oils, it is simply a naturally occurring substance. According to Dr. Penoel, ketone molecules can penetrate the blood-brain barrier more easily that other molecules. Some of the oils high in ketones can cause liver damage. After absorption from almost all regions of the gastrointestinal tract, most substances pass directly to the liver, where the great majority will be deactivated, but some may be made more toxic. Not all ketones are equally problematic, but this is the reason why many oils that are high in ketones carry the caution: do not use in pregnancy. Also, significant medication interactions can occur, especially with iron-based drugs, blood thinners, and anti-depressants.
Even in Europe, where essential oil use is much more widely accepted and even prescribed by many medical doctors and where standards of extraction exceed any in America, one will still be hard pressed to buy essential oils off the shelf marked “for internal use,” because it is still recognized that experience is required when and if oils are used internally.
Now are there some essential oils that can be used very safely and effectively internally? Of course! However, it is imperative that their formulation in products for internal consumption is undertaken by those who really understand what they are working with. Just because someone else tells you that she takes a drop or two of an essential oil for a specific health benefit daily does not mean it is safe to do so–or that it will be safe for you to do so. Keep in mind that each person’s system is quite unique; not everyone’s system can deal as easily with what are relatively large doses of active ingredients. So please be cautious. Please educate yourself on historical uses of the oils and the herbs and spices they are distilled from. Or at the very minimum, ask someone who is well versed in the use of herbs and essential oils what the cautions might be for ingesting a particular oil. Many companies and writers spend a lot of time on the benefits, but much less time is spent on the potential hazards. Also, essential oils are far more concentrated than most people give them credit for being. I’ve received the comment over and over “I just can’t see how one drop could possibly be THAT harmful. I don’t see why people are so worked up about safety!” It is hard to imagine how one drop could potentially be that harmful, but consider this example. If one of your friends told you that all you had to do to help your heartburn was drink 60 cups of peppermint tea 2-4 times a day, would that raise a few red flags in your mind? Really? 60 cups of herb tea several times a day, EVERY day?? That is the equivalent of one drop of peppermint oil in your water 2-3 times a day, which is an extremely common recommendation on the internet today. Also, whole herbs are FAR FAR safer than essential oils. Many herbs contain significant amounts of water-based compounds that help balance out the potentially dangerous oil-based chemicals. When the oil- and water-based components are together, they are quite balanced and pretty harmless. But when the water-based compounds are removed, the toxic or dangerous compounds are left unaccompanied. For example, basil as an herb is quite safe and harmless. However, basil essential oil is quite toxic and should be used with great caution.
So, to conclude, do I use oils internally? Yes, I do. Do I think they are wonderful both internally and externally? Yes, I do! However, I do not use them internally every day or even every month, and when I do, it is with a lot of knowledge and research to back it up. So the question “are these oils safe for internal use?” should not be at the forefront of your mind when looking for what essential oil brands are the best. Just because a company claims their oils are all safe for internal use does not mean they are higher quality than other oils on the market that take a traditionally approved, more cautious approach of labeling their oils for “external use only.” External use is by far the most common, most studied, and most widely accepted use of essential oils and often the most effective as well. So start using essential oils externally, start learning and educating yourself on them, don’t rush into internal use. And remember, topical or diffusing applications are, as a rule, much more effective than internal use anyway, so you aren’t missing out on all kinds of health benefits by refraining from internal use.
This does NOT mean the purity of oils is less important if you are not taking it internally, though. Rather, it is just as important, if not more so, when using these oils only externally. Oils applied to your skin are absorbed directly into your blood stream and are not filtered by the liver like oils that are ingested. This means the purity of your oils in still extremely vital even when not ingesting them.
So again, please be wise, please be informed, and please educate yourself from sources that will not profit off of recommending overuse. Also, be wary of all the blogs, websites, and podcasts that are put out by well-meaning people who are just parroting what they have heard from their company. While well meaning, many of these individuals know little, other than what they have been told from one essential oil company. Or, if they are more educated, they are often only educated from the books, classes, or aromatherapy courses put out by these companies or the authors that are affiliated with the companies. Educate yourself from sources such as aromatherapy schools that have been around for years and years and are approved by the NAHA. See what they recommend, what they caution against, and why. Brush up your knowledge on using herbs in their whole forms. All of these things will expand and broaden your knowledge and give you wisdom which you can then apply to using essential oils, both internally and externally.
Ashley Glassman is a certified aromatherapist and has over ten years of personal and professional experience with herbs and essential oils.
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