About once a month or every three weeks I have a client complaining of right-sided abdominal pain, lethargy, joint pain, and indigestion. At some point they mention they’ve been adding essential oils in their drinking water because their neighbor said it would make water taste better or help them lose weight (or cure ebola). I try to restrain my initial alarm and calmly explain that essential oils and water don’t mix, literally, and that they’re really good at being mucus membrane irritants.

In some cases my client gets a liver panel and yeah, the liver isn’t happy with this intense routine and the doctor advises him or her to discontinue use immediately. Sometimes the damage is permanent – vocal chords aren’t what they used to be, or there’s damage to the esophagus or stomach. The liver is usually pretty capable of self-healing and once the poison is removed from the daily routine the liver enzymes balance back out again and the abdominal pain disappears and energy levels perk back up again. The mystery joint pain and other weird symptoms ease and disappear too.

For reasons I can only deduce as marketing gimmicks, a couple of companies have been putting nutrition fact labels on their essential oils. As if, a product roughly 100 times concentrate would casually be used as a nutrition supplement. A product that has no vitamin or mineral content, a product that has zero nutrition content, a product that would be a drug when used orally. The FDA sent strongly worded letters to two such companies, here and here, that were marketing essential oils as dietary supplements while using drug claims.

The French use essential oils in enteric-coated pills to treat mild to moderate depression, and irritable bowel syndrome. If you lived in France your psychiatrist or doctor could prescribe an aromatic medicine for you and you’d fill the prescription down at the pharmacy. An M.D. I refer clients to prescribes oral essential oils for parasitical infections such as amoebas, and Lyme, or for other infections such as antibiotic-resistant staph (MRSA). So yes, sometimes essential oils are used orally as medications, but under close observation since they can easily turn into a poison with the wrong route of absorption, the wrong dosage, and insufficient information of how the body metabolizes them.

Can you overdose on an essential oil? Absolutely. And sometimes that dose is very small, less than a teaspoon for some.

Why then does the same product that your mechanic uses to remove oil spills in the garage have Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status for food flavoring? Great question! Regulatory limitations give the food and beverage industry guidelines to stay within safe intake levels for the average, healthy adult. Essential oils and some constituents (linalool and cinnamaldehyde for example) are added to products using recipe structures that measure in parts per million. What does that look like? Well, if we’re measuring a million drops of liquid we’re looking at just shy of 13 and quarter gallons. So 1 drop of essential oil in 13+ gallons of pasta sauce or cola concentrate would be 1 part per million (PPM). That same 1 drop in an 8 ounce glass of water is roughly 211 times more concentrated than the drop that went into the pasta sauce or cola drink.

If you’re simply tired of drinking boring water you can add fruit, herbs, and fruit juices to jazz it up and help you reach your daily water intake goals! Want specific benefits from your water? Choose fruits and vegetables for their vitamin and mineral contents, like the juicy strawberry – high in vitamin C, manganese, and potassium, makes it a good fit for an after workout water addition. Or tart cherries, packed with melatonin might help you get a deeper, most restful night’s sleep. Or fresh basil for its vitamin K and magnesium.  Jamie Oliver has a good recipe template to make a pitcher of flavored water without artificial sugars and flavorings. Got a favorite flavored water recipe to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Lemon Essential Oil Pharmacokinetics & Pharmacodynamics:

Limonene is a monoterpene and volatile hydrocarbon which occurs naturally in some trees and bushes. It is the predominant monoterpene in citrus oil and widely used as a flavor and fragrance additive for food and household cleaning products and solvents. PHARMACOKINETICS: Limonene via oral routes is completely absorbed, and up to 70% can be absorbed by inhalation. It can also be absorbed dermally. It is distributed throughout the body and fat tissue. It undergoes hepatic metabolism and cleared by renal excretion. WITH POISONING/EXPOSURE: MILD TO MODERATE TOXICITY: Mild to moderate toxicity typically consists of mild dermal irritation and skin sensitization. Ingestion of limonene may produce burning pain in the throat, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. SEVERE TOXICITY: Severe toxicity is typically due to large ingestion or aspiration. Severe toxicity is usually due to other ingredients in the products containing limonene. Aspiration can lead to pneumonitis and pulmonary edema. Large ingestions may produce hematuria, albuminuria, fever, dyspnea, tachycardia, and central nervous system effects including excitement, delirium, ataxia, and stupor.

– NIH Toxicology Network Database, Lemon Oil record CASRN: 8008-56-8