Minimise toxins: Salicylate sensitivity or intolerance and essential oils

Someone close to me came to me with a problem, and a request to find a solution or at least a suggestion. She has a salicylate sensitivity, which makes simply using “normal” things like food and medicine and beauty products a bit of a challenge. With winter approaching, she wants to support her immune system but is unsure of how to go about this. Some of the more conventional natural treatments, such as certain foods, that are normally pushed to be immune boosting, are out of bounds for her. Their levels of salicylates are too high. So the question was: which essential oils can she use, safely, that will still be effective in helping to keep her and her family healthy during the winter months.

Before I share my findings, after doing my own bit of digging, let us first look at what she is experiencing.

What are salicylates?

Salicylate is the term that is used for all chemicals that have salicylic acid as their base, a naturally occurring organic acid that is found in a variety of plants. A phenolic chemical, plants use the compound as part of their first line of defence against diseases, insects, bacteria and other kinds of environmental stresses.

Salicylates, which include tannins, are found in certain beans, nuts, berries and other fruits, broccoli and other vegetables, herbs, spices, coffee, tea, and other foods. Artificial salicylates are used as a preservative in some fruit juices, chocolate, processed meats, beer, and wine. Aspirin, the pain medication, is made by combining synthetic salicylic acid and acetic anhydride. Other products that you must be careful to use if you have a sensitivity, are cough syrups, throat lozenges, herbal remedies, and products containing certain types of essential oils.

Salicylate sensitivity and tannin intolerance are not allergies, because they rarely involve the immune system. They probably result from the ability of salicylates and tannins to inhibit enzymes.
— Leo Galland, MD, author of The Allergy Solution

What is salicylate intolerance?

Also referred to as salicylate sensitivity, this is when a person experiences adverse effects or reactions after ingesting the specific substance. In the case of salicylates, the percentage of people who suffers from an intolerance is undocumented, but it does seem to affect more adults than children, and the product that causes the most problems appears to be aspirin or medication that contains aspirin. The type of salicylate found in these medications is acetyl salicylate. The amount of salicylates that are ingested determines whether or not symptoms will occur, and if so the severity of the symptoms. Most people who do have a salicylate intolerance or sensitivity can tolerate the substance in small amounts.

Signs and symptoms of salicylate intolerance:

Typical signs and symptoms include:

• Inflammation and infection of the sinuses

• Polyps in the nasal and sinus passages

• Asthma

• Hives and other skin conditions

• Fever

• Swollen tissue

• Abdominal pain and discomfort caused by inflammation in the large intestine

• Diarrhoea

Most, if not all, of these symptoms, are similar to ones people with allergies experience. This makes salicylate sensitivity or intolerance difficult to diagnose, and because some people are only sensitive to salicylates when they are experiencing allergies it is even more difficult to separate the two. The main differentiation between the two? Salicylate intolerance doesn’t seem to involve the immune system.

Food sources of salicylates:

There are many foods that naturally contain salicylic acid, with levels fluctuating depending on growing conditions, plant variety and season. In general, the highest amounts are found in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, with cereals, meat, fish and dairy containing very little of any. If you compare by weight, herbs and spices have the highest concentrations.

Other sources of salicylates

Unfortunately, salicylates are widely used in the health, beauty and cleaning industry. They are used for a wide-range of applications, from fragrances and preservatives, exfoliants and conditioners, to anti-dandruff and anti-acne agents.

Treatments for salicylate intolerance

The first treatment is the most obvious one – avoid aspirin and other salicylate-containing medications. Change your beauty and hygiene products to brands that do not use salicylates in their products, or start making your own safe products. Same goes for your cleaning products, substitute where possible, and make your own for the rest.

Support your salicylate metabolism through upping your intake of vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B6, omega 3 fats, zinc and magnesium. These are the vitamins that your body need to produce the sulphate that your liver enzymes need to flush out the excess salicylates. Another extremely effective treatment is to repair your leaky gut, thus stopping the salicylate particles from leaking into your bloodstream. Following the GAPS diet protocol will help heal and seal your gut lining.

In extreme cases, steroids are prescribed. Desensitization is another treatment used to help salicylate sufferers. In this case, the patient is given daily doses of acetyl salicylate, slowly increased over time. In about 80% of cases, the patients experience improvement. Following a low-salicylate diet has not scientifically been found to be effective, but following a low-FODMAP diet has been found to help treat food intolerances, including salicylate intolerance. If you do choose to follow a low-salicylate diet, then only avoid foods with the highest levels of salicylates, restrict them for a maximum of 4 weeks, slowly introduce them back into your diet while noting any symptoms or changes and increase your intake of fruits and vegetables that are on the low-salicylate list.

A very small study has suggested that supplementing with 10g of fish oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids appears to be a safe and effective treatment, but as will all of the above, this should only be considered under the supervision of a registered medical professional.

So what does this have to do with essential oils?

Some essential oils are high in salicylates, so people with severe sensitivity or intolerance won’t be able to use these essential oils. The problem is that the info out there can be very confusing, misleading, or just plain wrong. When you really want to look after yourself in the most natural way, and you are already in a place of despair, you do not want to add to that by feeling even more confused and demotivated. So let us fix that – here is a list of the essential oils that are generally considered to be safe (or safer) to use if you are sensitive to salicylates:

  • Basil (test first, might contain menthol)

  • Bergamot (immune boosting)

  • Lemon (immune boosting)

  • Cajeput

  • Marjoram

  • Mandarin

  • Cedarwood

  • Chamomile (test first)

  • Oregano (immune boosting)

  • Cinnamon bark (immune boosting)

  • Neroli

  • Clary sage

  • Palmorosa

  • Orange

  • Sweet orange

  • Cypress

  • Rose

  • Niaouli (immune boosting)

  • Rosemary (contain camphor, test first) (immune boosting)

  • Fennel

  • Frankincense (immune boosting)

  • Geranium

  • Ginger (test first) (immune boosting)

  • Grapefruit

  • Thyme (immune boosting)

  • Lemon verbena

  • Lemongrass (immune boosting)

  • Lime (immune boosting)

  • Hyssop (immune boosting)

  • Sandalwood

  • Jasmine

Carrier oils that are probably safe:

  • Wheat bran oil

  • Soy oil

  • Mango seed butter

  • Cocoa butter

  • Shea butter

Oils not advised to use:

  • Tea tree (test first) (immune boosting)

  • Lavender (test first – contains camphor) (immune boosting)

  • Eucalyptus

  • Spearmint

  • Peppermint

  • Wintergreen

  • Clove (test first) (immune boosting)

  • Birch

  • Ylang-ylang

  • Camphor

  • Vetiver

  • Helichrysum

  • Turmeric

Carrier oils that are possibly not safe:

  • Coconut oil

  • Olive oil

  • Avocado oil

  • Grape seed oil

  • Castor oil

  • Apricot kernel oil (test first)

  • Sweet almond oil (test first)

My immune-boosting winter fight-the-cold essential oil diffuser blends for salicylate sensitive sufferers:

Cold & flu fighting blend:

  • 5 drops of Cedarwood

  • 5 drops Cypress

  • 5 drops Tea Tree (if tolerated, otherwise substitute with Frankincense)

  • 3 drops Lemon

Stuffy nose blend:

  • 4 drops Frankincense

  • 3 drops Oregano

  • 5 drops Lemon

Daytime diffuser blend:

  • 2 drops Cinnamon

  • 1 drop Clove

  • 4 drops Orange

  • 3 drops Rosemary

Relaxing diffuser blend:

  • 4 drops Lavender

  • 3 drops Cedarwood

  • 5 drops Cypress

Blend for disinfecting and cleaning:

  • 2 drops Cinnamon

  • 1 drop Thyme

  • 4 drops Tea Tree (if tolerated, otherwise substitute with clove/oregano)

  • 3 drops Lemon

Anti-headache blend:

  • 2 drops Lavender (if tolerated, otherwise substitute with sweet basil)

  • 1 drop Chamomile

  • 1 drop Clary Sage

  • 3 drops Rosemary

This is still confusing, but you must keep in mind that this is a very “new” intolerance, it is not well-documented nor well-researched, and so it is not well-understood. Plus, it can react with other intolerances, sensitivities and deficiencies. If you suspect you might have this, then please consult with a doctor who specialises in salicylate intolerance – there are a few in South Africa. Test foods and substances before completely eliminating them – you might not have a reaction, or you might be able to tolerate the substance in small amounts. And most importantly, do not take my opinion or advice as medical advice – get that from the actual experts and specialists!