Essential Oils and Ingestion
The ingestion of oils is perhaps one of the most controversial topics amongst users of essential oils, aromatherapy enthusiasts and practitioners. It is controversial because it is a complex area of aromatherapy called aromatic medicine, and one that the average enthusiast or practitioner has not studied in great depth. In the past, people were simple taught that no, we do not ingest essential oils; but, we have learned so much since then. And now the answer to the question is more complex.
In short, yes we can ingest essential oils, but, the question really is about whether you should, and whether it is safe to do so. Did you know that you are most likely already ingesting essential oils daily? It’s true. That is because they are used largely by the food and flavouring industry to enhance the flavour in products.
What we are talking about here is using essential oils for health and wellbeing at home. We are talking about whether it is safe, effective, and the reasons behind it all.
One drop of Lemon essential oil is not equivalent to one drop of Lemon juice or Lemon extract. Nor is one drop of Lemon essential oil in water a safe approach. Essentially, oil and water do not mix, so you are no diluting your oils by adding them to water. You would be drinking them neat, which is equivalent to drinking them straight from the bottle. Completely an unsafe thing to do, by the way.
There is a time and place for ingestion. For the home user, the time and place should be making the time to see an appropriately qualified practitioner, and they can prepare a remedy for you based on your individual needs. It may or may not include the ingestion of oils depending on the goals and objectives of the aromatherapy consultation.
What about using essential oils in food preparations? Can this be done? In short, again, yes. We will address this topic later.
Now, let us delve into the subject a little deeper.
There are several key points we need to understand and learn before we consider the safety. Potency, purity and GRAS status will be addressed in this article, but please note that there is much more to know about this subject such as biology, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics to name a few.
Essential Oil Potency
Each drop of essential oil has been created from a large volume of plant matter, by this I mean it takes huge amounts of raw material to create (yes, they are created, by the process of distillation primarily) one bottle of essential oil. It is often quoted, by numerous sources that it takes between 30-50 roses to produce a single drop of Rose Otto Essential Oil. We call this essential oil yield.
The yield of essential oil from each plant can differ vastly, after all not all plants yield up the same amount of essential oil. Growing conditions, time of year of harvesting, skill and knowledge of the distiller, all play a part in how much oil is distilled from each plant. To produce 1kg of Lavender oil it takes approximately 120kgs of material. To produce Melissa oil, it takes 6,000kgs of plant matter to produce 1kg of essential oil.
Why does knowing the yield matter? Well, it highlights to us that a lot of raw material is needed to produce our oils, meaning they are extremely potent; which in turn means that one drop of oil can actually mean that it has several lemons in it, or hundreds of grams of leaves and flowers in it. When was the last time you used two lemons in one glass of water? Or the last time you used several bunches of basil leaves in one dish? Put simply, we do not use this amount of raw material.
Essential Oil Purity
Whether we are diffusing oils, or putting them on our skin, or even ingesting them, we need to be under no doubt about their purity, that is are they exactly what they purport to be. For most people this is not easy to determine as there are so many variables, therefore the best way to determine your oils are what they say they are is to develop a relationship with your supplier/company.
They should be able to provide you with GC or GC/MS reports. Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS) is an analytical method that helps to identify the different substances within a sample. These are not easy reports to read and understand but they help aromatherapists, chemists and educators determine if the oil meets recognised standards. Essentially a GC/MS report is like the fingerprint to that particular batch of distilled oil. Each oil will vary due to the climate it is grown in, the conditions its grown in, as well as other factors; however, the oil should be representative of every other oil produced by the species.
The company you purchase from should be able to verify the plant’s botanical species, that is that the Lavender used is the right one, and not blended with other subspecies of Lavender or Lavender chemical constituents. The average purchaser of essential oils is not trained in this, so it is up to the company you are purchasing from to determine this for you. They will label their bottles accordingly.
In evaluating purity, your preferred supplier will work with their suppliers and distillation experts to verify the correct distillation techniques were employed. Before they purchase oils, they will visually inspect an essential oil sample, looking at colour and viscosity amongst other things. They will also do an odour evaluation, as they have trained their noses to differentiate aroma chemicals. When smelling the oil they will also be evaluating its freshness and its vibrancy.
Purity is much more than most people understand, that is why you need to develop a good relationship with you preferred supplier, as you are placing a lot of trust in them, their abilities, and their processes.
Many essential oils have been designated GRAS status, meaning they are generally regarded as safe, for their intended purpose. The intended purpose component is the part that is generally forgotten by those who throw this term around. Essential oils are mostly used as food additives and flavouring, and they are considered to be generally recognised as safe when used in accordance with good manufacturing practices.
As Kreydin (2015) points out, most people stop digging further and “assume that this designation means that an essential oil is safe in any application that will be going into their mouth”; and this is not the case. GRAS just implies that the oil can be taken internally, but it doesn’t address the how and why component of the conversation.
Effect on the Gut Microbiome
There is some evidence to suggest that essential oils can positively influence the gut microbiome which sounds promising; however, many of the studies were conducted using essential oil constituents, not whole oils and were either conducted in vitro (a petri dish) or on animals.
We do know that there are commercially available preparations that use Peppermint essential oil to help balance bacteria due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The difference between these commercially made products and DIY at home is that they are created in clean conditions (good manufacturing practices are followed and maintained, as well as quality assurance standards followed and adhered to), made to an exact measurement, usually by weight, not by drops.
It is a safer option to use the herb or plant extract rather than the essential oil at this stage whilst the jury is out on it all.
Essential Oils and Food
Most essential oils are produced for the cosmetic and food industries, not the health or healing professions. Essential oils are used to flavour thousands of food products throughout the world. You are already ingesting essential oils each and every day via these products. However, and it is a big however, these products are using the oils in minute amounts. When we work out the ratio, they are being used in parts per million (PPM).
This is the biggest difference between ingestion and food flavouring.
The dosage is completely different.
One drop of essential oil in water or a capsule compared with one drop of essential oil in a cake that will be eaten by several people. If I cut the cake up into 12 pieces, each person may be lucky to get one twelve of a drop of the oil. If heat has been used to prepare the cake, then a lot of it would have evaporated (essential oils are volatile meaning they will evaporate readily), and each slice of cake will have considerably less than that single drop.
In summary, the ingestion of essential oils is not for the home user, but something that only should be done with the assistance of an appropriately trained professional. If you have any questions about this vast topic, please speak with your favourite aromatherapy professional.