WHOSE JOB IS IT TO PRESCRIBE
YOUR AROMATHERAPY TREATMENT?
(AKA ‘The Ingestion Question’)
Includes information on FRANKINCENSE OIL & CANCER
Copyright Aroma Queen 2016
One of the things we’re coming up against on a daily basis is the question of whether our essential oils are food grade, and is it safe to ingest them? It’s not something we used to hear very often, but there’s a few reasons why it’s become such a big issue recently.
One is the prevalence of information sharing - anyone who uses Pinterest or other similar social media will no doubt have seen hundreds of posts advising that if you sip / swallow / cook with or ingest a drop or more of xx essential oil, it will instantly cure xyz – and we’ll go into that a bit more in a moment. The second is even more worrisome, that people read an article on a well-being website that advises in no uncertain terms that there is now absolute proof that various essential oils can heal or cure illnesses such as cancer, which we’ll look at a bit later on.
I’d actually written a lengthy blog (several times!) addressing both of these issues, before I eventually realised that It’s Not My Place to be giving advice on how to treat (or not treat) medical conditions. We are aromatherapy retailers - we sell essential oils and accessories (among other things). We believe in the products we sell, which is why we started selling them in the first place, and we also UNDERSTAND the products that we sell, so we can tell the difference between high quality items and inferior ones. We’ve been involved in the aromatherapy industry for many years and have completed various courses as well as extensive research into the topic - personally I wouldn’t feel comfortable selling essential oils if I didn’t understand them, as any half-clever aromatherapy user knows that they are potentially dangerous if misused. And so part of what we consider our job, is to make information available to educate our customers on how to use their oils, as well as to help understand the safety aspects of aromatherapy: essential oils are very strong liquids and most are toxic in varying degrees, and so they obviously need to be treated with respect.
But whose job is it to advise, or prescribe, how to administer essential oils for therapeutic use?
TO INGEST OR NOT TO INGEST
Quite simply, the aromatherapy industry is changing. Up until the fairly recent past it tended to be made up of a group of devotees who spent their careers researching and studying the effects of oils on the body and the mind – the potential danger was understood and so typically a ‘less is more’ approach was taken. However a number of MLM (multi-level-marketing), party-plan or ‘pyramid’ scheme Aromatherapy companies have now joined the market. Some have sales reps (called 'consultants'), who sign up to sell aromatherapy products with no prior understanding or training on the subject: all training is provided by the company they sell for in the form of marketing materials, which include very specific information about each oil and what to use it for – and this often includes detailed instructions regarding specific dosages, ingesting oils, and applying them neat (undiluted) to the skin.
Now, if you’ve used aromatherapy for a while I’m sure you’re already familiar with the most basic safety instructions:
- Always dilute essential oils before using them on the skin (with the exception of neat lavender or tea tree directly on a cut or wound, or a drop of clove bud on your gums for a toothache) as they can cause skin sensitisation or irritation; and
- Never swallow essential oils.
The International Federation of Aromatherapists Code of Ethics states:
“No aromatherapist shall use essential oils for internal ingestion or internal application nor shall any aromatherapist advocate or promote such use of essential oils unless the practicing aromatherapist has medical, naturopathic, herbalist, or similar qualifications and holds an insurance policy which specifically covers the internal application of essential oils.”
(IFA code of ethics. Simply Essential, No. 11 December 1993).
This is a guideline that most responsible Australian aromatherapists adhere to: that you should NOT ingest ANY essential oil unless specifically prescribed for YOUR condition by a qualified medical professional (ie not the person trying to sell you oils).
In the past, these two rules - no ingesting (swallowing), and no applying oils neat (undiluted) - were the absolute minimum that people were taught, or which appeared in an aromatherapy book – as well as additional safety notes such as avoiding certain oils before going out in the sun, taking care using oils on children or infants, or keeping away from oils in general during pregnancy. And there’s a reason why these rules were repeated over and over: essential oils are REALLY concentrated. Lemon oil is NOT lemon juice. A single drop of an essential oil may be the chemical equivalent of 25 – 75 cups of herbal tea made from the same herb. It’s definitely food for thought.
At the moment we are seeing the constant espousing of the benefits of ingesting a few drops of oil daily in a beverage, or popping a drop under the tongue to treat a complaint etc, and so these guidelines are becoming increasingly blurred. This is only being compounded by the fact that it’s often the oil companies that are doing the blurring, because it’s in their interest to encourage people to use more and more essential oils.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS FOOD GRADE, OR THERAPEUTIC GRADE ESSENTIAL OIL?
Some companies warn that only ‘food grade’ oils are ‘safe’ for ingesting, and that only their brand of oils are ‘food grade’, or ‘therapeutic grade’. As such we are often asked if our AQ oils are safe for ingestion, or if they are Therapeutic Grade, as the customer has been led to believe that only those oils are safe for ingestion or for therapeutic use. The funny thing is, there’s actually no ‘Therapeutic Grade’ – it’s just a marketing term that’s been TRADEMARKED by a company (‘Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade’ is the exact trademarked phrase used by one company) – it’s not actually regulated or approved by any external body, it’s not ‘certified’ by anyone, it’s just an internal standard which isn’t measured against any other company or oil at all. And as the phrase has been trademarked, nobody else can use it. So if it’s suggested that only oils that quote that ‘Certification’ phrase are safe to use, however only a certain company’s oils can actually make that claim as they’ve trademarked the term, then consumers are discouraged from using any other brand. Clever, isn’t it.
But it’s not the BRAND of oils that makes them work: essential oils come from plants. And while there can be wild differences between oil quality from one company to the next (depending on things such as plant type, plant part, country of origin, distillation method, seasonal weather conditions, age of the oil etc), a good quality oil from one brand should be every bit as good as from another. Assuming it’s been distilled correctly, any oil created from the same plant matter should be of the same quality no matter what brand’s label it has on the bottle. It’s the quality of the plant that makes an oil beneficial, not a company name. No aromatherapy company has managed to patent mother nature yet – though I’m sure they’ve tried! Despite this, many consumers are being led to believe that they can only trust a certain brand’s oils, AND that those oils can fix anything – ‘especially if you ingest them’.
As we at AQ have always strived to be ethical and honest, and take a responsible approach, we adhere to the Australian guidelines and specifically request that no Aroma Queen essential oil should be used for ingestion – unless prescribed for you by somebody medically qualified. Not somebody selling you oils; not a Pinterest post from a person who does it and says it works; but somebody who has studied the long term effects of that particular oil and taken into account your personal situation. Ultimately yes - people have swallowed the odd essential oil and been perfectly fine. But plenty have not. Here’s a few things to consider before taking the whole ingestion question lightly:
- Oils can cause stomach & other upsets by reacting with the mucous membranes in your mouth / throat / stomach etc. Taking oils in a glass of water only means the oil will sit as an oily slick on top of the water and will still hit your stomach as a neat (undiluted) oil.
- Oils can accumulate in your system, leading to systemic toxicity: what may feel fine now may not feel good at all once the oils have accumulated in your body over long term ingestion. Toxins can build up to cause potential organ failure, or in the most extreme, death.
- The acids in your stomach and digestive system can actually destroy the therapeutic qualities of the oil so you might actually be wasting your time anyway - at much personal risk.
Or there’s the potential instant effects. But don’t take our word for it, here’s an actual word-for-word testimonial from someone who followed an ingestion recipe for a ‘Morphine Bomb’, which they’d been told would help treat pain:
"Protocol was to use 4 drops each of frankincense, copaiba, and balsam fir. They advertised it could be used via inhalation, on skin or ingested. I trusted this combination would [alleviate] my pain due to their claims. Within a few hours of ingesting the oils, I began having racing heart, shortness of breath, pressure in my chest that radiated to my back, up my left jaw, and down my left arm. The symptoms continued and I eventually experienced cold sweats and nausea. The symptoms did not go away. I went to Hospital, they gave me an EKG, blood work and a CAT Scan. They determined I was having a heart attack. I remained hospitalized for 3 days and underwent a heart catheterization."
(Atlantic Institute Injury Reports 2014)
Well respected aromatherapist Robert Tisserand says this, regarding taking essential oils internally:
“If you absolutely and totally know what you are doing, then go ahead. But if you don’t, then don’t. This has nothing to do with quality or brand of essential oil, it’s about safety, and dosage. With ingestion various risks increase, including gastric irritation, interactions with conventional medications, and fetal damage in pregnancy.”
Personally I’d trust Robert Tisserand over Pinterest any day. Even a common oil like Eucalyptus has been documented to have killed grown adults who took small doses over a period of time, assuming it would stop them getting a common cold. Small children who have accidentally ingested the oil have suffered from vomiting, lethargy, coma, seizures and death. Doses as small as 4ml have been fatal. We’re not just panic-mongering: it has happened. There’s a reason why essential oils need to be in glass, not plastic bottles – they can dissolve glue, strip varnish and eat through plastic – I can vouch for that myself, with even minor spillages of a drop or two corroding through a solid substance. We’ve personally had a spillage of only 1 or 2ml of Myrrh oil actually spontaneously combust when sopped up with a tissue and tossed in a bin – I kid you not. And you really want to swallow these liquids?
So let’s come back to the question: Who should be prescribing your aromatherapy treatment?
Let me just sidestep again (I promise we’ll get to it by the time I’m finished).
CAN FRANKINCENSE CURE CANCER?
Another topic we’re being asked about almost daily is the question of whether ‘Frankincense Can Cure Cancer’. It’s something that thousands of people looking for answers are finding much discussion on – mostly on the internet. I’ve seen the articles myself - they’re very easy to find. Some are so matter of fact about how well some treatments work that you really do feel embarrassed to doubt them. But the information superhighway is full of varying qualities of traffic, and knowing how to find the sports cars over the bombs is something that is incredibly important.
Let’s have a quick look at one example that popped up: an article I read recently, very clear cut, stating that the ‘oil of Frankincense’ has been used for thousands of years for various medicinal purposes, however many people remain unaware of the added cancer-fighting potential of this precious serum – and now researchers from the University of Leicester have confirmed this through “rigorous scientific testing.” The article concludes with a paragraph advising that Frankincense oil can be consumed orally, in a beverage.
I then went to the actual press release from the University, which was cited as the only actual reference for the article. While the release did indicate some very positive results that a PhD student had found (in using Frankincense to combat cancer cells in late-stage ovarian cancer), it was actually talking about the use of the anti-tumoral compound AKBA (Boswellic Acid) which is extracted from Frankincense RESIN. AKBA is not actually present in Frankincense essential oil at all (see Tisserand ‘Cancer’ article link below for further information).
When the article had stated very matter of factly that the ‘oil of Frankincense’ has been used for thousands of years, it actually wasn’t quite right – it’s mainly the resin (pieces of gum, straight from the tree) that’s been traditionally used until fairly recent times. It might sound like I’m being really picky here but they’re two very different substances: using the oil to try to replicate the result of a certain research that used resin as its basis really won’t bring you any success as the oil doesn’t have the same chemical makeup as the compound that’s extracted from the resin.
The University of Leicester press release regarding the study actually concluded with this disclaimer:
“This study is at an early stage and has been presented at international conferences. Upon completion, in due course, it will be presented for peer review research publication. None of the results of the study are applicable for treatments in people - the study simply points to potential future applications.”
There’s no question that there were very positive results in the study – and truly hopeful ones, at that. But the original article, which advised the reader in no uncertain terms that it’s perfectly safe to swallow Frankincense oil, was entirely based on a study that pointed out that ‘None of the results of the study are applicable for treatments in people’. So I have to ask myself, should I be trusting this article, when it advises me to swallow natural essential oils? Even though the writer doesn’t actually appear to be able to tell the difference between a resin (small pellets of dried gum) and an essential oil (an extremely concentrated distillation)? It’s just one article of many – there are dozens of studies being worked on as we speak, and there are many more to be discovered discussing whether Frankincense (oil, resin or extract) may be of use in treating cancer or any other illnesses. But they all need to be read with an objective mind and common sense, as well as additional research and cross-referencing, before you jump on the band wagon and order a bottle of Frankincense to swallow – which is what we are seeing a LOT of right now.
Let me just pause for a moment to share something. I’ve been accused of not being able to understand what it’s like to be desperate and willing to try anything for a cure to an incurable illness. But in truth I do – very much. My own partner has cancer, and has been so close to death on a number of occasions that resuscitation was required, however thankfully we live to fight another day. This isn’t something you really need to know, but when I say that I DO get it, I really do. However I also place a high value on research and trials to prove both the efficacy and the safety of using these products for this purpose, as well as seeing the need for their proper, respectful use in general.
You might ask, if you’re suffering from terminal cancer, what is there to lose? Why follow the guidelines or recommendations at all? – as I was asked only a few days ago after requesting a customer NOT ingest our essential oils. Sadly, we’ve heard first-hand stories of people who have fed their dying partner oils in the hope that they may help; unfortunately they did not - but they did make the patient more uncomfortable and unwell. It can make a loved one's final weeks or months just that bit more awful. And if the theory behind why you’re trying this approach is flawed – because somebody has given you the wrong impression or hope, or you just haven’t understood it - then perhaps asking some more questions before taking a recommendation at face value might help avoid that extra heartache.
I’m not saying that all claims should be dismissed, not at all. I’m suggesting you give careful consideration to them rather than just taking things as presented. There’s a whole extra kettle of fish to be opened when it comes to using alternative therapies when treating cancer and other serious conditions, which may not be obvious if you haven’t gone through it before or don’t have a medical background. For example something as simple as it being potentially dangerous to give an aromatherapy massage to somebody with cancer, as encouraging the circulation may in some cases also encourage the cancer to travel to other parts of the body. It makes sense when you think about it, but it may not have occurred to you when all you wanted to do was help them relax or show that you love them. Or the fact that certain essential oils can actually impede chemotherapy, or that an antioxidant oil might protect cancerous cells just as they would a healthy cell.
I know some people are of the opinion that Western medicine is evil and that only natural therapies are worth using, but that’s a debate we’re not going to have here. From our own perspective, the way we look at it is to think of aromatherapy as a COMPLEMENTARY therapy. That it should not replace Western medicine, but be better used to complement it – as long as you make the effort to understand how it works. Which is why we suggest for anyone wanting to use natural or alternative therapies to help treat those suffering from cancer or any other illness, to discuss it with their treating GP or doctors to see whether there could be any problems or contra-indications that might arise by using these therapies alongside other treatments. With the right approach, Aromatherapy can still be used to enhance a treatment, to give relief to symptoms or lift the spirits – there are plenty of uses, even if they may not always be the cure-all that some people hope for.
Ultimately, this is an absolutely massive subject to tackle, and not something we can hope to cover in a quick blog – and as I mentioned, it’s not our job to do so. But what we are asking is for anyone who is interested to know more about using natural therapies to treat cancer (or any condition), please take care to research it thoroughly. If you’re new to aromatherapy we’d highly recommend investing in a simple independently written textbook which can outline suggested uses for common essential oils, as well as basic safety information on how to use your oils correctly (at AQ we offer Introduction to Aromatherapy reference cards with most of our starter kits, which cover the safety basics to try to make things as simple as possible when you’re starting out, but there are dozens of good books available, from basic intros to detailed clinical textbooks).
SO: WHO SHOULD PRESCRIBE YOUR AROMATHERAPY TREATMENT?
“One thing that I would like to see is the separation of sales and education … if you sell essential oils then you shouldn’t be making medical claims, you shouldn’t be making any claims for your oils, you’re just selling oils and the education part should be done by somebody different, somebody wearing a different hat” … “because then in a way you get away from this situation where you have one company that’s telling you what their product does, what their essential oil does, and trying to make a greater claim than the next company.”
Robert Tisserand, Dec 2014
Should there be a clear line drawn between whoever is selling a product, and the person who is prescribing it? In Australia, if a doctor is discovered to be receiving kickbacks from a drug company (and so is seen to be benefitting financially from prescribing a certain product) we're very quick to label them as shonky and disreputable. Yet, it seems to be currently acceptable to have aromatherapy companies (or their representatives) advising on treatments and dosages, without us actually questioning motive or credentials. If we're talking about medicinal or therapeutic use, shouldn't our alarm bells be going off if the people advising you on exactly what to take are also benefiting financially from their recommendations?
This is how we see it: as a retailer, it is not our job to tell you either way whether claims are true or not. It is not our job to tell you what to take, how to treat, how much to use - we always pop a bit of background information on each oil but we never prescribe how to use that oil; we’re also happy to provide basic information on how many drops to use in whatever bottle or inhaler, but not to prescribe ‘dosages’ etc. It’s not our job to make a judgement either way on how successful any oil or aromatherapy treatment may be to treat a condition. All we’re doing – and all we SHOULD be doing - is making quality essential oils available to you, as responsibly as possible, and trying to provide enough education to ensure that they will not be used incorrectly.
It is YOUR job to educate yourself: to appreciate that before you take any aromatherapy advice as gospel truth, you need to look into it further.
You need to:
- Understand the context of what you’re reading.
- Consider all sides of the argument.
- Come to an informed conclusion.
- What are the credentials of the person who wrote the information?
- Is the writer affiliated with any commercial companies? Is it in their interest that you believe their point of view?
- Are they trying to sell you something, or even to scare you away from something else?
- Is the information found on a website that draws advertising money from having you click on the page, and so are they being dramatic or controversial just to get your attention?
- Are the cited references valid, peer-reviewed clinical tests that you can look into further to substantiate them?
- Is something being suggested that might be against health guidelines, which might have been put in place to protect you?
- Could it cause more harm than good?
In the end it’s up to you to make your own decisions on how you approach your medical health: After all, when it all boils down, It’s Your Body.
COPYRIGHT AROMA QUEEN 2016
If you'd like to read some other articles on some of the topics we’ve touched on, here’s a few easy-to-read links for a wider point of view:
Robert Tisserand interviewed on ingestion, dilution and other safety issues.
“Essential Oil Safety: Documented Side Effects, Injuries, and Deaths from Essential Oil Ingestion”.
“Frankincense Oil and Cancer in Perspective” (Robert TIsserand).
“Why I don’t add essential oils to my water” (We Got Real website).
“Why I don’t use Multi-Marketing Brands of Essential Oils” (Giselle Baturay – Granola Living website).
“A Closer Look at Essential Oils and Safety” (Herbal Academy website).
Or visit our Aroma Queen LEARN MORE page for a list of recommended reading on Aromatherapy and other natural therapies.