Everyday detoxification? A few drops of lemon essential oil in your water everyday will have your liver squeaky clean in no time... all without having to eat an actual lemon!
Want to feel the spiritual benefits of frankincense oil extra swiftly? Chuck a few drops of that stuff down the hatch and feel your consciousness expand...
No, no, and dear God, NO.
In short, essential oil ingestion can incredibly be dangerous unless prescribed by a qualified herbalist, naturopath or aromatherapist. Not a distributor for an MLM essential oil giant who has no health qualifications or expertise besides what their team leader has passed on to them.
Mass essential oil ingestion: a phenomenon fuelled by MLMs
But it was when he began preaching about the benefits of ingesting essential oils that my ears pricked up. I'd never heard of such a thing before, but apparently the health benefits were enormous and logically, this was something he did every morning. People have been doing it for thousands of years, he assured us. I mean, if our ancestors did it, it must be healthy, right?!
And then, a man true to his word, he began downing one.. two.. and many more drops of pure frankincense essential oil. Straight from that tiny, eighty-dollar bottle and into his mouth.
Helpers then passed several bottles of the oil around for members of the audience to try ingesting, too. And try it I did. That one drop of pure frankincense essential oil I drank was overwhelming to my senses. The incredibly strong, resin-y taste and very noticeable sensation of it sliding down my throat felt bizarre and not exactly intuitive eating! But being the young, bright-eyed health enthusiast I was, he nearly convinced me that I was doing something healthy. Nearly.
This guy was shaking drops of the stuff from that bottle directly down his gullet. You could say he was guzzling it, at least as fast as you could humanly guzzle something from an essential oil bottle (maybe there's a reason they have those slow-release caps?!).
From what I can gather, mass essential oil ingestion wasn't a thing until the rise of the two big essential oil multilevel marketing companies: DoTerra and Young Living. Before then, it was the domain of qualified health practitioners, albeit in far smaller doses, for far shorter periods of time (certainly not daily, forever!), and for far less vague indications than spiritual advancement - or even candida.
I'm sure you can figure out why that upturn in essential oil ingestion happened.
Although I didn't continue to ingest the essential oils I purchased, I continued my Young Living membership for a couple of months (until I realised I was spending more on essential oils in one month than I would've previously spent in three entire years) before painfully excising myself from the company (which was no small feat, with eager distributors trying to encourage me to "keep at it" and build the passive income stream I "deserved". Argh.)
Essential oils - the "essence" of the plant?
The sentiment that essential oils contain the "essence" of the plant (and therefore negate the need for other herbal preparations) is not only misleading; it's flat out WRONG.
Plants in their whole, natural state contain many different classes of active constituents. Essential oils consist of just one of these constituents: the volatile oil.
As a result, they are very concentrated. Contrary to popular belief, essential oils are not the same as the following plant preparations which generally use the whole plant and contain a variety of active plant constituents:
- concentrated liquid herbal extracts or tinctures: These are made by soaking plant parts in alcohol (or in some cases glycerol) for weeks to extract the active constituents, which may include but are not limited to tannins, flavonoids, saponins, alkaloids, glycosides... and essential oils.
- infused herbal oils: These can be made by soaking dried or fresh plant parts in some kind of fat to extract the active constituents. I personally use these as a very safe external massage oil and for body oiling.
- herbal infusions and decoctions: These are simple ways of extracting the active constituents of herbs into hot water. Infusions are made by pouring freshly boiled water onto light, aerial herbs (e.g. boiling water poured over a chamomile tea bag), and decoctions by simmering denser plant materials (e.g. a home-brewed chai tea made with whole cardamom pods, cinnamon bark and peppercorns).
These extraction methods allow multiple classes of active constituents to end up in the finished product. The multi-constituency of these whole plant preparations often serves to counteract unwanted or dangerous side effects that can occur when just one constituent is used in isolation, as it is with pure essential oils.
So basically, essential oils do NOT contain "all the concentrated goodness of the plant". A few drops of lemon essential oil in your water does not provide your vitamin C requirement for the day (Yes, I have heard this claim from MLM reps).
With essential oils you do NOT get the rest of the good stuff: the vitamins, minerals, resins, flavonoids, tannins and other potentially healthful parts of the plant. That only comes when you use the whole herb or plant, and use it wisely.
That's how holistic medicine rolls.
Can Essential Oil Ingestion be Therapeutic?
Pre-dating the rise of MLM essential oil giants, only naturopaths, herbalists, and aromatherapists were (and still are) qualified to prescribe internal use of a very short list of oils for very short periods of time. These are folks who have a working knowledge of both herbal medicine and pharmacodynamics, which is crucial, because ingestion of certain essential oils at the wrong doses can be incredibly dangerous.
There are three problems I've seen with essential oil ingestion in my practice:
1. Microbiome disruption
The danger is that essential oils, like broad-spectrum antibiotics, are not specific in which bacteria they kill off. They will wipe out good and bad bacteria indiscriminantly. And when taken every day, without therapeutic supervision, people can end up with even worse gut health than they may have had to begin with.
I have seen people do some serious damage to their digestion by taking way too much pure oregano or thyme essential oil, for way too long. Given how crucial the microbiome is to our digestive, immune and even mental health, this kind of damage can be costly, time-consuming and painful to repair.
2. Mucous membrane irritation
When undiluted, essential oils cause skin sensitivity in some people, with eczema and other rashes being a side effect of both topical application and internal ingestion in some people.
Skin is a relatively tough outer membrane. So just imagine what essential oils can do to the far more delicate membranes lining the inside tracts of your body! Ring of fire comes to mind.
Some MLM essential oil representatives recommend that you add 1-2 drops to a glass of water to dilute the oils, and then drink up. But if you go back to the time your school science teacher added oil to water, you'll recall that the two do not mix unless shaken vigorously (a process called homogenisation).
Oil forms a layer on top of water, and this is what you'll cop a mouthful of when you sip from that water bottle throughout the day: pure lemon essential oil making contact with your delicate oral mucous membranes.
3. Liver toxicity
For example, rosemary essential oil can be hepatotoxic.
Whole rosemary plant used for culinary purposes or in herbal extracts, however, is safe (the latter, when prescribed by a qualified herbalist or naturopath).
Whole rosemary herbal extract is actually hepatoprotective (i.e. it protects liver cells against toxic damage) because it contains other compounds - in addition to the essential oil - which counteract the hepatotoxicity of the essential oil constituent. (Plants are smart, and we can be too if we use them wisely!)
Unfortunately I doubt all MLM essential oil representatives (DoTerra and Young Living being the two big brands that come to mind) are aware of this, or all of the stuff a qualified aromatherapist or herbalist spends years learning and practising.
With great power comes great responsibility
I love essential oils as much as the next person and use them on a daily basis for cleaning, aromatherapy, massage, and the odd avocado face mask (this one's a good read if you're after a little more MLM fire than you got here).
If you're going to ingest them, be sure you know exactly what you're doing or have consulted a qualified professional... that goes for any powerful herb, drug, or supplement really! Please be safe.
It's been said 1000 times but it's worth saying again: the safest way to use essential oils is infused in a carrier oil for external use, or in a diffuser. There are many other healthful things you can ingest that don't pose anywhere near as great a risk to your health as ingesting essential oils does.
Have you had an experience ingesting essential oils? I'd love to hear you thoughts in the comments box below!
With externally applied essential oily love,
Holistic Dietitian & Nutritionist, MNutDiet, BVSc, Naturopath in-training