Are all essential oils edible?
The dose makes the poison - even herbal fragrances are not always harmless
Federal Institute for Consumer Health Protection and Veterinary Medicine, March 1, 2002
Nature has a large selection of volatile plant fragrances, the so-called essential oils, which are characterized by a particularly intense and strong smell. In a pine forest, for example, the smallest amount of turpentine essential oil per cubic meter of air is sufficient to spread the characteristic, spicy scent. So it's no wonder that people associate these aromatic substances with a healthy and healing effect, but only rarely with a risk. Because although the essential oils are perceived as beneficial and symptom-relieving, e.g. for colds and flu-like infections, the dose makes the poison with them too. This is shown by severe cases of poisoning in children, which are repeatedly caused by - mostly incorrectly used - essential oils. The BgVV therefore urgently appeals to parents to use herbal fragrances in children with great caution and only according to their intended purpose.
Essential oils are particularly characterized by their toxic effects on the central nervous system, the kidneys and the respiratory tract. There are considerable differences in their potency in humans. Camphor, eucalyptus (cineole) and peppermint oil (menthol), for example, are very toxic. Turpentine oil, orange / lemon peel, tea tree and clove oil are slightly less toxic. Cosmetic products such as perfumes, creams, soaps, etc., are relatively harmless as the proportion of essential oils is usually low and can be neglected with regard to poisoning.
On the other hand, caution is advised with products that contain high proportions of highly toxic essential oils. These are, for example, Chinese oils, warming rubs or balms, blood circulation-enhancing sports ointments, special bath oils or cold baths, scented oils to improve the air in the room or for aromatherapy and also various citrus-based thinners, e.g. for organic paints. Serious poisoning can occur if these products are accidentally ingested. In babies and small children, even a few drops of the essential oils accidentally get into the nasopharynx can cause spasms in the larynx and lead to breathing disorders. The experiences from the medical reports on poisoning and the German poison information centers happily show that this serious poisoning is very rare.
In the vast majority of cases, the unintentional ingestion of essential oils "only" leads to reddening of the skin and mouth, abdominal pain, and possibly nausea and vomiting. Very rarely there are short-term symptoms such as tiredness, restlessness, tremors and movement disorders. Whether the poisoning is mild or severe, all warning signs should be taken seriously and a poison control center should be consulted.
A current list of the centers (PDF file) and a picture of essential oils (JPG format) can be found at http://www.bgvv.de/presse/2002/pr_02_07.htm
Star article (No. 8/2002): Natural remedies
"The infant coughed and sniffed for the mercy of God. Gitte Federer * watched worriedly for half a day as her four-week-old daughter Silke tormented herself, then she took the brown bottle with peppermint oil from the bathroom. A drop of the natural home remedy on the pillow , she had read in one of her health guides, make it easier for sick children to breathe.
The mother carefully tilted the bottle over the cot, but no oil would show on the white plastic spout. She tipped the jar lower and shook it. A drop came off and fell on the baby's upper lip. Almost immediately, the sniffling turned into an ugly gasp and gagging. The child was rowing arms and legs - it was obvious that he could no longer breathe.
Since the next Berlin clinic was not far, Gitte Federsen packed her daughter, who was starting to turn blue, into the car and sped off. When she drove up to the hospital gate, little Silke took her first breath, which was almost normal again. In the emergency room it was slowly turning rosy again.
"That was by a margin of error," says doctor Gabriele Lübke from the Berlin poison emergency call, the largest German poison control center, which gave medical advice every year in around 50,000 acute poisoning cases and also assisted in the initial care of the infant. "The pH value in the child's blood was only 6.9. That is a value at which we doctors put our ears open because it is actually no longer compatible with life" - total acidification due to shortness of breath.
The little girl's fate is apparently not an isolated incident. The poison emergency number in the federal capital alone has to do with around 1000 poisoning of small children through essential oils every year - old and supposedly harmless home remedies such as Japanese medicinal plant, tea tree or peppermint oil. Last week the medical journal "Ärztliche Praxis" warned against the careless use of herbal medicinal oils. And rightly so: Applied neat, mixed in skin ointments and creams or mixed in balm preparations from the Far East, they can put children in mortal danger.
And adults are by no means immune to the hard drugs from the plant kingdom. According to a study by the Geneva University Hospital, essential oils applied or ingested for therapeutic purposes triggered epileptic seizures in two healthy adults and one child. The study describes the oils of eucalyptus, fennel, hyssop, pennyroyal, rosemary, sage, safflower, tansy, thuja, terebinth (turpentine tree) and wormwood as particularly risky because they are potentially convulsive.
It is questionable whether and in which cases essential oils - which have become particularly popular in recent years due to the wave of aromatherapy - are even to be recommended. British scientists, for example, have reviewed its use as a massage agent for children with eczema. For eight weeks, one group received the massage with oil, the other without. There was a comparable improvement in both groups. "It has been proven that the physical contact between mother and child improves the symptoms of the exem," judge the doctors, "but there is no evidence that essential oils improve the treatment outcome." After two further eight-week treatment intervals, however, the oiled kids felt worse than their dry-massaged peers. The researchers assume that contact allergies were caused by the oils.
"Just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe," says pediatrician and toxicologist Matthias Brockstedt, who has been the medical director of the Berlin emergency call center for eleven years. Anyone who believes that they can replace "tough" drugs with "gentle" oils is making a serious mistake. "Many essential oils are tough themselves, and natural substances like camphor and menthol are potent medicines." In infants, a drop of oil on the nose or lips is often enough to trigger a so-called laryngospasm, a glottic spasm in which the larynx reflexively closes and prevents breathing.
Most of the poisoning cases are the result of well-intentioned relief efforts by parents who believe that "natural" or "purely vegetable" means harmless. Often people are "stupid" by "advertising and dubious media reports". This is the only way to explain that, after shampoos and perfumes, essential oils are now ranked third among the household products that cause the most poisoning in small children. Brockstedt: "In 1990 we did not have a single poisoning from essential oils." In the case of the oils, which one of the countless pertinent advice books promotes as "paradisiacal helpers", natural purity is rare and not necessarily beneficial in terms of health. According to Brockstedt, the alleged treasures of nature are often "opaque mixtures of fully synthetic, semi-synthetic and hardly natural oils". Even if they are fairly natural, the essences are often not or only insufficiently examined toxicologically. It is true that information about the acute toxicity is being collected; "Resorptive poisoning", however, such as liver and kidney damage caused by essential oils absorbed through the mucous membrane in the long term, were "completely ignored".
According to Peter Vecker, managing director of the Hamburg-based natural cosmetics retailer Secret Emotions, what is sold as essential oil may contain "up to 20 percent rubbish", such as foreign fats or other oils. Vecker, who sells around 150 "100 percent natural oils", strongly advises against using these essences undiluted.
The import statistics of the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden show that natural flower oils that are toxicologically "defused" - and thus much more tolerable - are on the market, but are largely ignored by German bulk buyers: In 2000, a total of 253.5 tons of peppermint oil, containing all terpenes, was imported - contained toxic and mostly allergenic compounds such as camphor, menthol or pinene. In contrast, only 8.7 tons of terpene-free peppermint oil came into the country.
Mint and clary sage, thyme and tea tree oil and the poisoning they cause are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Millions of people consider natural substances to be harmless, as if they had never heard of foxglove, cap mushroom, deadly nightshade or autumn crocus. Professor Edzard Ernst, Europe's leading researcher in alternative medicine, warns of the natural-equals-harmless illusion: "General statements about herbal medicines are nonsense, each medicine must be individually checked for its usability." Ernst has been doing this for several years with his working group in Exeter, England, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that herbal medicines can be highly effective and therapeutically useful. But they have effects and side effects like all drugs and must be judged just as strictly as any synthetic drug. A look at the specialist literature shows how necessary this is:
- St. John's wort extract is now scientifically accepted as a psychotropic drug. It works against depression, but medical control is required. This is because risky interactions with numerous other drugs are possible and usually cannot be assessed by the patient. Among the most noticeable of them are unwanted pregnancies, because the medicinal herb can cancel the effects of the pill. Swedish doctors have just identified two new cases of this type. At times, like other antidepressants, St. John's wort can trigger mania.
- Valerian, useful and popular as a sleep aid, is so generously dosed by some patients because of its supposed harmlessness that it leads to kidney damage, the dilated pupils typical of poisoning, abdominal pain and tremors in the hands and feet.
- Ginkgo, which can be effectively used in dementia diseases under medical supervision, can lead to spontaneous bleeding and coagulation disorders if used continuously and must therefore only be combined with aspirin and anti-rheumatoid drugs with great care.
- In addition, the Far Eastern herbal remedies, which are often advertised as magical and traded through dubious channels, are sometimes extremely contaminated. Recently, US scientists bought herbs in the US, Vietnam and China for chemical analysis. They found arsenic, lead and mercury - in 49 percent of the samples in toxic concentrations, 74 percent exceeded the permissible US limit values.
The naive belief in the unique and risk-free healing power of "gentle" natural medicine is exploited by an industry that is often more about money than health. Wide-ranging legal loopholes, inscrutable international law and the anonymity of cyberspace are being ruthlessly exploited. The fan of natural medicine can often consider himself lucky if his tea tree oil, which according to the relevant primers from pimples to measles, rheumatism and athlete's foot, is supposed to drive away almost 40 ailments, just doesn't help. Because it can also happen to him that his green tea, his kava kava, kombucha or even the exotic algae make him sicker, if not poisoned.
Cyanobacteria of the species Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, so-called Afa "algae", for example, are one of the big sellers on the American health food market. Allegedly they work against hair loss, obesity, depression, diabetes, neurodermatitis, headaches and the fidgety Philip syndrome in children. The FDA, however, warns of the by no means beneficial side effects of the so-called algae; In over 60 cases there were numbness in the hands and feet, epileptic seizures, heart muscle weakness, pancreatitis and liver and bladder pain. No wonder, because cyanobacteria can produce powerful toxins that can damage the liver and nerves. These so-called microcystins were discovered in 1996 in a study of cyanobacteria from Upper Klamath Lake in the US state of Oregon in 85 of 87 samples. Almost 80 percent of the finds were in the toxic range.
Like all supposedly good greens from America, the miracle algae also came to Germany. Angelika Schmitz * from Paderborn bought 500 "Algae" pills for 170 marks last summer. She wanted to rid her 13-year-old son of his fidgety and himself of a headache. But instead of the longed-for healing effect, thick pus pimples sprouted on their faces. Jitteriness and grimacing remained. According to Roland Ziegler, operator of the online lexicon Paramedicine and author of a book on Afa, there is "not a single serious study that proves that Afa algae provide a therapeutic benefit in hyperactivity".
The natural boom is causing the tills to ring in health food stores, natural food stores, fruit vinegar factories, algae farms, oil mills and all kinds of middlemen. As pharmaceuticals, many manufacturers do not want to bring their products onto the market for legal reasons. The goods are simply declared as food.
The former are subject to the provisions of the Medicines Act. Their effectiveness and tolerability, their risks and side effects must be examined by the manufacturer in studies and documented in the prescribed manner. This does not make them "perfectly safe" or "free of side effects" - but their benefits and the dangers of using them can be weighed against each other. The controlled audit guarantees transparency, and this is necessary in order to be able to protect the consumer. A whole range of researching pharmaceutical companies also do the same: When used with medical expertise, ginkgo or St. John's wort, for example, can be of equal value or superior to synthetic drugs. But the circle of scientifically oriented producers is small.
On the other hand, users of drugs whose manufacturers are too expensive to approve drugs or who - often rightly - fear that they will not be able to prove their effectiveness, move in a gray area of uncertainty. The oils, tinctures and powders go over the counter as food or cosmetics.
Since it is forbidden to attribute certain medicinal effects to food and thus to advertise it, the herb shopkeepers cleverly use the "book on the product" as an advertising medium and chatty leaflet without a guarantee of authenticity. The author-supplier clique will be delighted when the herb vices start rolling soon.
The bookstore shelves bend under the weight of medicine guides crammed with promises of salvation. There are 17 postillas here that advertise the sales hit tea tree oil as "Australia's green gold", "smallest medicine cabinet" or "jack of all trades". Health, it seems, is the number one hobby for Germans. The advisor turnover is well over half a billion euros.
How the cult of self-healing works becomes clear in the career of the elder, a frugal undergrowth with the botanical name "Sambucus". Leaves, flowers or berries, brewed into tea, simmered compote or squeezed juice, are said to cure many ailments.Allegedly help with acne and asthma, foot swelling and chilblains, flu and shingles, hemorrhoids and strep throat, insomnia and sunburn. At least that's how it is written. In books with titles like "Heilsamer Elunder", or "Healthy and beautiful with elder". The plant is represented as a real wonder herb, which "brightens the mood" with its stored solar energy and frees the body of ballast with the "lightness of its flowers". Do you suffer from tonsillitis? A gargle made from flower extract helps! Are you tormented by heartburn? Elderberry wine provides a remedy. Ulcers? This is also a case for Sambucus.
According to the same method, ginger, honey, marigold or lavender, algae or wheatgrass as well as various teas and oils are praised as omnipotent miracle aids. All-encompassing medical superpower is apparently hidden in everything that grows along the wayside. Medical science, however, hardly leaves a good nap on elderberries and many other heavenly praised fellow plants. "There's a lot of rubbish in there," says Professor Malte Bühring from the Chair of Naturopathy at the Free University of Berlin. In the case of elderberry tea, for example, researchers know that sick people owe the relief of their symptoms primarily to the hot water supplied with the tea in large quantities.
That doesn't bother the believers much. The desire to take is rampant, the main thing is nature. And those who are not sick take precautions and "strengthen their immune system", "purify", "purify their blood" or indulge in similar activism. The authorities who are supposed to protect the consumer have long been overwhelmed. The internet in particular has given the do-it-yourself mania for your own body a gigantic kick. There, forbidden herbs, heavy metal contaminated Chinese roots and all kinds of mischief can be propagated and conveniently driven away.
"Means that in the Federal Republic partially do not meet the provisions of the pharmaceutical law in force are still being offered for sale via virtual pharmacies or drugstores in other European countries. The trade in such preparations is booming and is in fact beyond any control," says naturopath critic Ziegler. With his new book "Ajurveda & Co. Gentle Killer from the Far East" he has presented an exemplary case study: He meticulously dissects the popular Indian medical theory, within which there is not even agreement about how many bones a person has or how many people believe that the body is full of tubes that in pairs carry air, bile, nasal, stomach and lung mucus as well as all kinds of other organic juices.
Ziegler competently dismantles the herbal combination product Liv.52, which has been praised as a miraculous Ayurvedic drug. Conclusion: The mixture of eight different medicinal substances, which is inscrutable for laypeople, is of dubious effectiveness and safety. It can reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics and increase the risk of death in people with liver disease.
Such a fate no longer only affects human health seekers. Four-legged housemates also fall victim to natural healing attempts. Because tea tree oil, the "green gold", is also said to be effective against fleas, nature-conscious cat lovers dab a few drops of the essence on their purring favorites. But the natural product, licked out of the fur while cleaning, messes up the liver metabolism of house tigers. The consequences are staggering, trembling, chronic emaciation, weakness, depression, coma and - if left untreated - death. "
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