Aromatherapy and scientific studies It’s simple really: Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for their curative properties. Essential oils are the aromatic oils distilled from plants —or, to put it in scientific terms, oils containing volatile aromatic molecules. (“Volatile,” in this case, is not as dramatic as it sounds. It simply means the aromatic molecules have a tendency to dissipate quickly once applied.) Those molecules are the essence in essential oils. And while they generally smell quite pleasant, we don’t refer to these oils as “fragrances” because we aren’t using them to perfume ourselves. Well, not strictly speaking.
When Aromatherapy essential oils are inhaled through the nose, aromatic molecules are carried through the lining of the nasal cavity via tiny olfactory nerves, located in the roof of the inner nose, to the part of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system in turn influences the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system.
The endocrine system is a major regulatory force in the body. It consists of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream; these hormones act as chemical mediators to regulate many bodily functions including mood, metabolism, and growth and development.
The autonomic nervous system operates, for the most part, below the level of our awareness. It connects the brain and spinal cord to the limbs and organs and directs, via electrical impulse, basic instinctive bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, and sexual response.
While it may seem counterintuitive, inhalation can be the most direct method of delivery for the healing components in oils. Through the nasal cavity, the chemical messengers have direct access to the brain and can go straight to work on the systems that moderate the body.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are made from flower, herb, and tree parts, like bark, roots, peels, and petals. The cells that give a plant its fragrant smell are its “essence.” When an essence is extracted from a plant, it becomes an essential oil. It takes a lot of plant product to make essential oils. More than 200 pounds of lavender flowers are used to make just 1 pound of lavender essential oil. Not all products made with plant essence are essential oils. True essential oils aren’t blended with other chemicals or fragrances. They’re made using a specific process that doesn’t change the chemistry of the plant.
Lemon, chamomile, lavender, cedarwood, and bergamot are a few of the essential oils used regularly in aromatherapy
How Aromatherapy Works
Experts think aromatherapy activates areas in your nose called smell receptors, which send messages through your nervous system to your brain.
The oils may activate certain areas of your brain, like your limbic system, which plays a role in your emotions. They could also have an impact on your hypothalamus, which may respond to the oil by creating feel-good brainchemicals like serotonin. Some experts think that when you put essential oils on your skin, they cause a response in your skin and other parts of your body, like your joints.
What Is Aromatherapy Used For?
You shouldn’t use aromatherapy instead of your regular medical treatment. But for some conditions, research shows that aromatherapy can have health benefits. It may:
- Ease stress, anxiety, and depression
- Boost feelings of relaxation
- Improve sleep
- Help improve quality of life for people with long-term health problems like dementia
- Ease certain types of pain, including pain from kidney stones and osteoarthritis of the knee
- Fight bacteria when you put them on your skin
- Ease some of the side effects of cancer treatment, like nausea and pain