The most controversial topic in aromatherapy by far is whether ingesting essential oils is safe or not. You may be surprised to learn what the research says.
I’m not sure how it exactly happened, but somehow misguided people started to instill fear into essential oils users that these precious compounds are unsafe for internal use. I say “misguided” in the deepest respect, as I understand that we all have differing opinions, and I know that I’m going to get a lot of “love mail” for this post – hate mail sounds too ugly, doesn’t it? 😉
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What Aromatherapists Really Say
The more I learn about them, ingesting essential oils as medicine is not a common practice for me and my family. I still enjoy a drop of peppermint and cinnamon in my morning latte, or a drop of lemon in sparkling water with some liquid stevia as my special soda pop, but that’s about it unless I’m battling some specific health condition. It has taken me a year of research & study and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hours to get to this “revelation.”
The key is dosage. One or two drops of lime essential oil in your guacamole that will be shared with 4 or 5 other people is not your concern. This is referred to as “culinary dose.” The concern is when people are taking consuming 4, 5, or 6+ drops at a time. This is known as a “therapeutic dose.” More on this below…
I regularly get questions from people asking me about ingesting essential oils and I now understand why there’s so much confusion. One myth breeds more myths. Innocent uncertainty breeds more uncertainty. And the vicious cycle continues.
The fact remains that there are no scientific, evidence-based, anatomical, physiological or logical reasons to say that all essentials oils are unsafe for human consumption. Paradoxically, aromatherapists are still at odds with each other on this point, which confuses the casual essential oil user all the more. With that said, rest assured that large professional organizations like National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) support safe, internal use.
In the words of NAHA, “Essential oils may be applied on the skin (dermal application), inhaled, diffused or taken internally. Each of these methods have safety issues which need to be considered.” (1) And this makes complete sense to me. Like anything we can easily overdo it, and we must remember a little goes a long way with regard to essential oils – especially internal use! We can also find several local and online schools that will certify you as an aromatherapist and learn how to practice safe, internal use.
The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy is one organization in particular that I have strongly aligned myself with as it is the oldest aromatherapy school continually run by a practicing aromatherapist. Their founder, Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, has over 40 years of client-based experience, and has been teaching classes in aromatherapy since 1985. The bottom line is that when an organization like this includes ingesting essential oils guidelines in their curriculum – with hundreds of case studies to support their recommendations – people should stop for a second a listen, don’t you agree?
And let’s not forget what the universally acclaimed text, Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, repeatedly refers to “maximum oral dose” in relation to ingesting essential oils safely and effectively.
The thing that really throws me through a loop regarding people who speak out against ingesting essential oils is that they are in direct opposition of the dozens of human studies in the scientific literature and completely disregard the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, you read that correctly! According to the FDA, ingesting essential oils is safe for human consumption as flavor ingredients. For the exhaustive FDA-approved list of Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) oils see below.
Note: not all oils that are safe for ingestion are included in the FDA-approved GRAS list. I recommend that we use this list as a base point to start the conversation about what is and what is not safe because it all boils down to dosage.
Do’s & Don’ts of Ingesting Essential Oils
Before I dive into some of the ways that ingesting essential oils can be done safely, there some “housekeeping” items we need to discuss. Here are some do’s and don’ts.
- Inhale essential oils in an essential oil diffuser, inhaler, spritzer and other fun ways.
- Add essential oils in your daily body care regimen.
- Be careful – and learn the basics. My Aromatherapy 101 article will help.
- Enjoy the good things in life! There’s nothing like one drop of lemon or orange oil mixed with Solubol in a 32 ounce glass liter of sparkling water with some liquid stevia as a special soda pop treat.
- Have fun & be empowered! Using essential oils and other natural therapies is a life-changing experience for most people and remember to enjoy the journey as you learn all about them!
Daily Do Not’s:
- Ingesting essential oils for “prevention.” This is wasteful and dangerous, and I was a victim of the take-a-drop-of-essential-oil under your tongue (or in your water) everyday myth until I irritated my esophagus and developed acid reflux! The more I learn about EOs, the less I consume them – only for specific health conditions, or my special soda. And, no, it doesn’t matter how “pure” or “therapeutic” they are. Daily consumption is NOT the most effective (and medicinal) way to use them, and it has taken me 3 years of trial & error (lots of error) and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of research hours to get to this “revelation.” So, please learn from my mistakes!
- Think that each health condition within a specific body system should be approached the same way. Meaning this: even though peppermint is great for IBS and nausea, it should not be used for GERD. The University of Maryland Medical Center specifically warns that peppermint tea and essential oil can relax the esophageal sphincter and pose risks for those with reflux.
- Believe that “there is an oil for that.” Essential oils have changed my life so much that I have devoted much of my personal and professional lives to sharing the message that they are truly God’s Medicine. Seriously, I’m the “oil” guy and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be featured on countless health summits, conferences and documentaries. Yet, let’s be real. Like anything, essential oils are limited by what they can and we should not fall into the trap that they are the end-all cure because misguided hope will disappoint.
Ok, now that we’ve cleaned house, let’s get to work…
Tips for Ingesting Essential Oils Safely
I have written about ingesting essential oils extensively, and if you’re looking for a thorough video on how to use them safely and effectively, you can check a free screening of my Essential Oils for Abundant Living Masterclass. In the meantime, suffice it to say that essential oils are extremely potent plant-based compounds and should be used with care.
Also known as “volatile organic compounds,” essential oils are chemical compounds found in the bark, leaves, flowers, roots and rinds of plants, fruit, and trees. Interestingly, there are no vitamins or minerals in essential oils as they are made up of compounds that we learn about in organic chemistry class like terpene hydrocarbons (e.g. sesquiterpenes, which have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier) and oxygenated compounds (e.g aldehydes, ketones and esters, which all have unique effects on the human body).
The key to ingesting essential oils, and why we should consider them in our natural health regimens, is that they combat pathogens (harmful microorganisms), are a source of antioxidants (needed to prevent and cure disease), and have been shown to contain advanced healing properties in addition to cancer cell cytotoxicity amongst other things.
Culinary Doses (1-3 drops per dish)
The safest way to ingest essential oils is in culinary use. Cooking with essential oils is an extremely safe way to enjoy the health benefits as well as enhance the flavor of your food. Here are some ideas of how to get started.
- Use 1-2 drops of cilantro or coriander with 1-2 drops of lime, for example, goes wonderfully with your homemade guacamole.
- Try 1 drop of cumin in your curry next time. Or, 2 drops of black pepper in virtually anything savory!
- You could use cinnamon essential oil in a cake batter, for example, but you’d only need one drop for the whole batch vs. a tsp or more of the bark powder.
- Mix 1 drop in your morning latte. I particularly enjoy a drop of peppermint and cinnamon in my fat-burning matcha green tea latte.
Do remember, however, that oil and water do not mix, so simply adding a drop to your coffee will leave that drop undiluted. This is why you need to add an edible carrier oil like coconut oil first before and then mix into your latte!
Therapeutic Doses (Up to 5-6 drops per application)
When ingesting essential oils is necessitated for therapeutic purposes, much more than a culinary dose needed. “Therapeutic” amounts require up to 5-6 drops of essential oil per dose. To do this safely, taking them in a gel capsule is the preferred method. Alternatively, you can add 3-4 drops of essential oil with one tablespoon of an edible carrier oil like olive or grape seed or coconut oil and consume that way. This is what we do for our immune-boosting “flu” shots.
How to Make Gel Capsules
The safest (and most effective) way to ingest essential oils for therapeutic purposes is to take them in capsules. Taken from my book, The Healing Power of Essential Oils, simply follow these instructions.
(Makes 1 dose)
- Using a pipette, drop the essential oils into the narrower bottom half of the capsule.
- Use the pipette to fill the remaining space in the capsule with coconut or olive oil.
- Fit the wider top half of the capsule over the bottom half and secure snugly.
- Swallow a capsule immediately with water on an empty stomach. Take twice daily.
- Use up to 2 weeks at a time.
FDA Approved GRAS Essential Oils
It is important to realize that millions of people are ingesting essential oils all day without even realizing it. Where do you think your processed food get their flavor from! Virtually anything that is naturally flavored most likely contains essential oils. This is what the FDA says in the official document Code of Regulations, Title 21, Volume 6, Animal Food Labeling: Specific Animal Food Labeling Requirements.
Foods Containing “Artificial Flavors” and “Spices” do not Contain Oils
“(a)(1) The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof. (2) The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.
- Allspice, Anise, Basil, Bay leaves, Caraway seed, Cardamon, Celery seed, Chervil, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin seed, Dill seed, Fennel seed, Fenugreek, Ginger, Horseradish, Mace, Marjoram, Mustard flour, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Pepper, black; Pepper, white; Pepper, red; Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Savory, Star aniseed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric.
- Paprika, turmeric, and saffron or other spices which are also colors, shall be declared as spice and coloring unless declared by their common or usual name.
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Foods Containing “Natural Flavors” do Contain Oils
The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.” By letting common sense be our guide, I propose some tried and true tips on how to take essential oils internally.
- Start off by using oils that are GRAS (see below for the FDA-approved list of oils that are Generally Recognized As Safe for internal use).
- Be safe (more on that below).
- Don’t overdo it – limit to 2-3 drops at a time, and be sure to wait at least 4 hours before taking consecutive doses.
- Listen to your body, and…
- Discontinue use IMMEDIATELY if adverse reactions occur.
Trust me, people don’t break out in hives in a “detox” reaction when ingesting essential oils like I’ve read out there in cyberspace. Pain, irritation, swelling, inflammation, bloating, burning, reflux, and anything else that isn’t pleasant is NOT a good sign. This is your body’s way of warning you that something harmful is attacking it.
PART 182 — SUBSTANCES GENERALLY RECOGNIZED AS SAFE Subpart A–General Provisions
|Sec. 182.20 Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates).|
|Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates) that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use, within the meaning of section 409 of the Act, are as follows:|
[42 FR 14640, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 44 FR 3963, Jan. 19, 1979; 47 FR 29953, July 9, 1982; 48 FR 51613, Nov. 10, 1983; 50 FR 21043 and 21044, May 22, 1985]