By Lucas Anderson, RA®, EOT®
In the aromatherapy industry, there are a few rather heated topics. Depending on the audience, you can get some who think essential oils are completely harmless and only helpful, and you can get those who come across as fear mongering. You can even get those who believe that their brand of oil is the only one safe enough because it's the only pure essential oil on the market. I’ve also seen professionals get caught up in less than sound logic, using examples for why one shouldn’t use essential oils internally because of some property they possess that can be perceived as harmful to an unrelated object.
Last year, a fellow member of a Facebook group posted the ingestion question as she had been approached by several people asking about ingestion of essential oils. And she knew from her training that we aren’t supposed to do that or recommend it, but she wasn’t sure how to explain it to these individuals. I shared my rationale behind not recommending internal use of oils, and why it is far beyond our scope of practice as aromatherapists. I believe when you understand what you’re dealing with, it’s easier to understand why. When you understand what essential oils really are, when you understand the body and the systems within to protect, build and support the whole, it becomes clear why ingestion of essential oils is not something to take lightly, nor should it be undertaken without a greater understanding of what’s happening within the body. The following is my explanation to anyone, but particularly fellow aromatherapists who are trying to explain the hot topic to clients or other members of the general public, including sellers of essential oils.
I will point out here that I am not a medical doctor or pharmacist, nor do I have a bachelor of science degree. In my aromatic journey, I have simply picked up things from various professionals and have come to this understanding on my own.
A relatively brief reasoning for not ingesting essential oils
So that everyone can understand why this application of essential oils is so far beyond our scope of practice as qualified aromatherapists, I am going to give a relatively brief explanation of some of the considerations involved.
Internal usage of essential oils constitutes medicine. Period. And practising medicine without a licence is illegal. Essential oils comprise chemical constituents just like all drugs. Each oil can contain upwards of about 200 diﬀerent chemical compounds. As such, there is far more involved than just purity of the oils, or even the state of the liver! A pure essential oil can be equally as dangerous as an adulterated one when you truly understand what you're using.
The body is a very complex organism and needs to be treated with the respect its due. When you take in a "drug" (which I will include essential oils in this category for the rest of the post), that drug will be metabolized by the liver, at some point. However, the liver is not the only organ that has to handle the drug, its subsequent waste material and metabolites. Once the body has made use of the drug, it must excrete the ensuing waste product. So you have other organs involved in the process including kidneys, sweat glands and lungs.
Now to go back to that ". . . at some point." Depending on the route chosen by the properly trained professional, e.g. oral, sublingual, rectal, intravenous, etc., the essential oils/drugs will reach first pass metabolism (FPM) at diﬀerent points, if at all. FPM is the point at which the liver has to deal with whatever you're putting into the body and metabolizes, or breaks down, a substance into something usable, or excretable. Not all roads lead directly tothe liver, they take diﬀerent routes. Anything taken in orally will be the first to reach FPM. This means that what an oil does on the outside, may not be what it'll do internally. Those same oils/drugs taken rectally will pass through the system diﬀerently before reaching the liver.
For a purely illustrative purpose, the following are the travel paths through the body for diﬀerent routes of administration:
Sublingual/Buccal: Sublingual vein → internal jugular → superior vena cava → heart →lungs → heart → systemic circulation → liver
Vaginal: Vaginal vein → internal iliac vein → inferior vena cava → heart → lungs → heart →
systemic circulation → liver
Rectal: 1/3 superior rectal vein → liver (FPM)
Rectal: 1/3 middle rectal vein → internal iliac vein → inferior vena cava → heart → lungs →heart → systemic circulation → liver
Rectal: 1/3 inferior rectal vein → inferior pudendal vein → internal iliac vein → inferior vena cava → heart → lung → heart → systemic circulation → liver
Inhalation: Lungs → heart → systemic circulation → liver
Intranasal: Brain → heart → lungs → heart → systemic circulation → liver
Oral: Hepatic portal system → liver (FPM)
Essentially, FPM will happen to all oral routes, and only about 30%–50% of rectal. Drugs taken in through inhalation will pass through the system diﬀerently and not go directly to the liver. So again, knowing the chemical composition of the oils (and what chemicals will get metabolized as what in the body), and knowing what compounds will get metabolized as toxic substances (our liver can break down some compounds into more toxic compounds, which will drain the liver of glutathione and potentially damage the liver by depleting it of this substance quickly), and knowing how those compounds will aﬀect the diﬀerent organs they'll pass by, and . . . Are you beginning to understand the breadth of the scope of medical aromatherapy yet and why this is outside of our scope, that of all MLM companies suggesting taking them internally and, for that matter, even some medical professionals?
Then once they've been "used" by the body, there is the matter of waste. Diﬀerent compounds will compete for the same exit strategy. Meaning that if you take two drugs that exit the body in the same manner, e.g. kidneys etc., you can cause a strain on the exit pathway, or you can cause an excess of waste materials to build up. Neither are good.
Whenever anyone is recommending internal use of essential oils without knowing pharmacokinetics/dynamics, the diﬀerent systems of the body completely, how the body excretes the various waste products that are created or how the body will metabolize those compounds, they have no right, licence or legal permissibility to give any such recommendations. This area is a very broad and large scope and cannot be simplified down to a generality of "oh if you have (insert random complaint), just take a capsule with this oil, this oil, and this oil." It's not that simple. And there is a reason that those of us who realize this, shutter, cringe and get very vocal about it!
As well, don't get caught up in the marketing game either! I’ll include this in this discussion because I’ve heard people say that it is okay to take essential oils internally because they are natural and therefore harmless. “Natural” is a term that is used in marketing because when people hear the word, they assume it must be better for you and less harmful, if at all. Well, remember this: gasoline is natural, it comes from petroleum, which comes from the ground, naturally. Lye is natural, it's found in the ash of burned wood, among other things. Pure lye will most certainly kill you! Aconite, a beautiful flower also known as monkshood, is extremely poisonous and will kill you if consumed in small quantities, but is completely natural! Poison ivy is natural. Don't get caught up in the natural = harmless movement, especially in the discussion of internal use of essential oils. Yes, they are natural; however, they can cause harm. They can trigger allergies, interfere and interact with other medications, and they can definitely exacerbate various medical conditions (such as epilepsy). The body metabolizes essential oils just like any other drug. Wintergreen’s primary constituent, methylsalycylate, is metabolized into salicylic acid, just like acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin).
I hope that this is helpful in explaining why this topic is such a hot one, and why it is such a big one! I haven't even scratched the surface of the things that need to be considered. My answer is not complete or exhaustive, and I may have incorrectly described some of the functions of diﬀerent parts of the body, but the point is that there is a lot to understand before making a suggestion of internal use of essential oils.
Webb, Mark. Aromatic Therapies: A world viewpoint. Mark Webb lecture, Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists. Toronto, 2017.
Miller, Timothy. AromaPharmacokinetics Full Course. Timothy Miller Online Course, Naturopathic CE, www.naturopathicce.com
About the author: Lucas Anderson, RA®, EOT®, with seven years' experience as an aromatherapist, has been focussing on men's health and helping them achieve freedom. He has a passion for health as close to nature as possible and currently works with more than 130 essential oils. Located in Edmonton, Lucas is past president of the CFA and is currently serving on the CAOA board of directors. You can learn more about Lucas at www.brotherhoodaromatics.com.