Article Revised August 24th, 2022
It is, no doubt, a very stressful and anxious time on a global level as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and all its variants continue to persist. There are still many unknowns, and as we adjust to this new normal, finding healthy, sustainable ways to cope will become increasingly important. The evidence-based use of essential oils in aromatherapeutic formulas is one way to manage some of the symptoms that are the result of this collective anxiety, including stress and insomnia, as well as boost energy and focus during this very difficult period. Self-care will become paramount if it hasn’t already, and for frontline caregivers in particular.
There is nothing magical about clinical aromatherapy, just as there is nothing magical about essential oils. They work because our sense of smell is our most powerful sense, and because our olfactory system is so closely tied to many other important systems in the human body. We know aromatherapy works in this way because of scientific research.
How does aromatherapy work?
The simple answer is this: When we are exposed to different scents, like essential oils, a series of events begins to unfold that starts in the nose and is carried out by the brain, the body’s control center. These events include biochemical reactions, such as the release of hormones, that can trigger positive physiological changes including relaxation, better sleep, enhanced concentration, increased energy, and the relief of both pain and nausea.
The less-simple explanation of how aromatherapy works requires a more detailed physiological explanation. Embedded in the nose is a highly-sensitive membrane filled with sensory neurons. Sensory neurons are responsible for collecting sensory data, and, in this case, that data comes in the form of scent molecules. Olfactory receptors process the molecules (scents) received from the sensory neurons and then send that information to the olfactory bulb filter via electric signals. That filter collects the signals (scent information) from the olfactory receptors, processes the information, then activates the single olfactory receptor that is most appropriate.
Next, the scent signals travel from the olfactory bulb to the limbic system, the amygdala more specifically, which processes emotional memory and emotional response. Finally, these signals move to the thalamus, which is responsible for relaying the scent information to the parts of the brain involved in cognitive processing and decision making. This is the point at which we feel the physiological effects of the scent. So if the nose has collected scent molecules from the nasal inhalation of lavender essential oils, studies have shown that those molecules then activate areas of the brain associated with stress reduction, calm, and physical relaxation. Ginger oil works similarly to decrease nausea, while orange oil can positively impact energy levels. Peppermint increases concentration and focus.
Why do essential oils work as it pertains to aromatherapy?
This explanation requires yet more understanding of different areas of science, including chemistry, but it’s not as complicated as one might think. Essential oils are comprised of many different compounds. So it’s not so much the essential oils as a whole that are necessarily effective, but instead, some of the individual compounds. It’s similar to how medications work. It’s not the pill that stops the pain; it’s the individual compounds within the pill, and often the combination of compounds when combined, that relieve the pain.
Take lavender, for example. Lavender is one of the most researched and well-understood essential oils. As it turns out, quality lavender oil contains consistently high levels of two different compounds, linalool and linalyl acetate, that together produce an anxiolytic (calming) effect. Investigators believe this occurs due to these compounds’ inhibition of voltage-gated calcium channels resulting in a reduction in 5HT1A receptor activity.
So, again, this is not magic. It’s science. The reason essential oils work is that they contain various chemical compounds that affect different brain receptors in a host of different ways, which combine to produce a wide range of physiological effects. In this case, it means lavender can reduce stress and aid in relaxation because it contains compounds that affect 5HT1A receptor activity. These receptors trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and tell it to slow down. Since this system controls heart and respiratory rates, it decreases the physical stress reaction, ultimately leading to greater feelings of calm as well.
The same can be said of peppermint oil, but in this case, menthol and menthone are the specific compounds in the oil that have been found to help enhance concentration. This is because these compounds, at least in high-quality oils, exhibit in vitro cholinergic inhibitory, calcium regulatory, and GABAA/nicotinic receptor binding properties, which result in an increased ability to focus and decreased mental fatigue.
The list of compounds goes on, of course, but the short answer is that essential oils contain chemicals that affect specific brain receptors which in turn cause changes in physiology, whether it’s a reduction in heart rate (stress) or an increase in concentration.
Aromatherapy and Our New Normal During COVID-19
The evidence says quite clearly that essential oils and aromatherapy, when used responsibly, can be part of a safe and effective strategy to help manage symptoms like stress, anxiety, and insomnia, symptoms that are especially problematic when they occur frequently over weeks, months, and even years, and can interfere with work, school, and life in general.
While they offer no miracles, essential oils do provide another set of safe and effective tools for our emotional toolboxes, ones that can help us to cope in healthy ways during this unprecedented time.
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