Many of us love the smell of relaxing lavender
, energizing peppermint
and uplifting lemon
. But why does one scent relax us and another give us energy? How exactly does a pleasant smell turn into a pleasant emotional state?
Though it can seem a little magical, the answer is actually rooted in science, specifically in the olfactory receptors in our noses as well as other parts of our bodies.
How does aromatherapy work?
When we smell an essential oil – or anything for that matter– molecules of the substance bind to receptors in our olfactory epithelium, the tissues lining our nasal cavity. These receptors generate information that they relay to clusters of olfactory neurons, which communicate it to the olfactory bulb, the smell center of our brains.
Different smells elicit different patterns of activated neurons, which our brain then interprets as the spicy scent of curry, the sweet aroma of vanilla, or something stinky that has spoiled in the back of the refrigerator. Science is still trying to understand
exactly how our brains can detect subtle differences in scent, such as between a navel orange and a mandarin or between merlot wines made by different vintners.
In the case of aromatherapy
, the practice of using essential oils
therapeutically, the messages different scents send to our brains stimulate our limbic systems, the part of our brain responsible for controlling emotions and learning as well as the physiological responses that affect them, such as heart rate, blood pressure and the release of stress hormones.
Messages sent from our olfactory receptors to the olfactory bulb are relayed to the amygdala, the part of our brain involved with strong emotions, including fear, anger, and pleasure. Both the amygdala and the adjacent hippocampus are involved in memory and learning
, which is why a familiar odor can trigger a memory, for instance the happy feelings evoked by a smell that reminds you of something baking in your grandmother’s kitchen.
have shown that certain scents, such as lavender, activate neurons that trigger a relaxation response in the limbic system, which can help to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality. Other scents, like rosemary, have been shown
to stimulate physiological responses that help us feel focused and may improve learning and memory
Sniffing peppermint is often recommended for alleviating headaches
and is one of several oils being studied for its ability to reduce fatigue
, improve athletic performance
and decrease anxiety
in medical situations.
Not just in your nose
The name aromatherapy makes it sound like it’s all about smell, but people use the term to mean the topical use of essential oils also.
It turns out some of the receptors sensitive to the molecules in essential oils are present throughout the body
, which in part helps to explain aromatherapy’s use on the skin. When used topically, we both smell and absorb these oils, so in addition to acting our brains, they can reduce inflammation
and provide pain relief at the site of application.
Popular oils for alleviating inflammation and pain include frankincense, peppermint, clove
and lavender. You can combine them to make a DIY pain relief cream
or buy a massage oil
that contains oils targeting pain relief.
Putting aromatherapy to work for you
Knowing that certain smells can help you relax, focus, or alleviate pain can help you reap the benefit of aromatherapy’s effects on olfactory receptors.
If you want your home to promote a sense of calm and peace, getting a diffuser
to spread scent through the air is one route to consider. For something more portable, try a terra cotta diffuser
or a diffuser necklace
for aromatherapy benefits on the go.
Adding essential oils to homemade cleaners
is another easy way to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy throughout your home. Breathe in the benefits of uplifting bergamot
or lemon while you scrub and polish!
You can also use diluted essential oils directly on your skin. One easy way to have an aromatherapy fix at the ready is to get pre-diluted massage oils
or roll-on oil blends
. When you need a pick-me-up or you feel a headache coming on, one of these blends may help you feel better.
Here’s an A-Z list of essential oils
and their uses, and here’s more on using essential oils safely
Need an energy boost? Reach for peppermint
, or try this energizing roll-on
Seeking better mental focus? Sniff rosemary
or try this blend with citrus, frankincense, mints, and other oils
Stressed out? Try this stress soothing blend
or soothing balm
Want to sleep more soundly
? Diffuse some lavender or try a roll-on blend of oils
Achy muscles? Try massaging with diluted peppermint oil or a blend of oils for pain relief.
Want to get rid of a nagging headache
? Try a few drops of frankincense
or peppermint or reach for this headache relief balm
You can also make your own headache relief cream
using peppermint, lavender and spearmint oils.
Unwind with a soothing blend of oils and Epsom salts
in a relaxing bath at the end of a long day.
Armed with these tools to soothe, energize and more, try putting the benefits of aromatherapy to work for you!