Are Essential Oils an Effective Mood Booster?

The further into the brain we go, the older our processing centers become, and it’s thanks to these ancient structures that our sense of smell is so deeply tied to memory and emotion. Humans are capable of recognizing over one trillion distinct scents, and this ability isn’t just great for wine tasting. Aromas can tell us when something is fresh, when it’s rotting, and even when a potential partner is a good genetic match. Our brains can also tell us whether an odor is associated with joyful memories or fearful ones, and it’s this same mechanism that makes essential oils so effective at regulating our moods and emotions. 

When we inhale essential oils, the scent travels through our noses, into our olfactory bulb, and is transformed into chemical signals. From there, this information is carried into the limbic system for processing, and ultimately stored in the cerebral cortex. Through this process, essential oils are able to produce both physiological and psychological effects on the person being exposed to their scents, and can relax us when we’re stressed, or take us straight back to a happy childhood memory. 

What is the Limbic System?

In short, the limbic system is a collection of different structures of the brain that are tied to emotions, the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress, and hormone balance. It is the region of the brain that distinguishes mammals from lizards, and it forms a ring around the brain stem (the “lizard brain”) and underneath the cerebral cortex (the “primate brain”). 

Without the limbic system, humans and other mammals would not form such strong emotional memories, familial bonds, or care for young ones after birth. So how does it all work? Without getting too into the weeds, there are two main structures involved in the formation of emotional memories:

  • The Amygdala: an almond-shaped structure that is very important for regulating emotional responses like pleasure, fear, anxiety, and anger. It is often associated with fear-conditioning, but, in fact, it plays a critical role in attaching emotional content to all memories. 
  • The Hippocampus: considered the learning and memory center of the brain, this is where memories are first formed. Then, memories are stored long-term in the cerebral cortex. Scientists believe that this is where connections are made between the senses, emotions, and memories.

A third structure, known as the olfactory bulb, is responsible for delivering information about aromas to both the amygdala and the hippocampus. Smell is one of the oldest sensory systems, which is why it is so closely connected to these structures deep within the brain. 

During inhalation, odor molecules travel through the nose and enter specialized nerve cells, which then send an electrical impulse to the olfactory bulb. From there this information is passed to other parts of the limbic system, regulating emotional responses and memories.

What Does the Research Say?

The abundance of information online regarding essential oils can be both overwhelming and off-putting, especially when the evidence to back big claims is hard to find. As a result, the effectiveness of essential oils can sometimes get a bad rap, when, in actuality, there is a growing body of research confirming what many people know to be anecdotally true. From alleviating fatigue to lowering histamine responses, studies have consistently demonstrated that essential oils can and do produce specific effects on the human body. As the year comes to a close and routines shift to accommodate the changing seasons, here are some tried and true (and research-backed!) ways to leverage essential oils for that much needed pick-me-up.


To increase focus and improve learning, try diffusing Rosemary Essential Oil. A 2012 study confirmed the stimulatory effects of rosemary oil on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and subjects reported feeling “fresher” after exposure. Another study confirmed that rosemary increased focus in school children, and aided their ability to memorize numbers. Finally, an experiment conducted on mice confirmed that rosemary oil had a positive impact on learning and memory, and lowered the oxidation markers often associated with aging. 

Energy & Motivation

To boost athletic performance, or maybe just get through a tough Monday, turn to Peppermint Essential Oil. A study from 2013 tested the effects of peppermint oil on male student athletes, and found that exercise performance was improved after exposure. It is believed that peppermint helps to smooth the bronchial muscles and increase brain oxygen concentration.

Depression & Seasonal Affective Disorder

Feelings of sadness, fatigue, and a loss of interest in normal activities are all common symptoms of depression. SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is a type of depression characterized by recurrent episodes of mood dysregulation in specific months of the year. While both depression and SAD are serious medical conditions that should be treated by a doctor, aromatherapy can provide some mood-boosting relief.

For uplifting benefits, turn to the scents of various citrus fruits. Lemon Essential Oil is known to reliably enhance happy moods when compared to water or other essential oils. Another option is Bergamot Essential Oil, which has been demonstrated to improve positive feelings for mental health patients in a waiting room.


Anxiety is marked by excessive worry or stress, and it can be chronic or episodic. Treating anxiety is often a matter of promoting relaxation, and lavender is just the essential oil for the job. Of all essential oils, lavender is perhaps the most widely studied, and has been consistently shown to reduce stress and calm patients. More recent studies have confirmed that Lavender Essential Oil affects the limbic system on a molecular level to inhibit agitation and depressant activity.

Cultivating Relaxation with Essential Oils

When it comes to aromatherapy, research has also confirmed that emotional responses in the brain can be deeply personal and vary from person to person. This is because the individual experience of an odor is, in part, dependent on the emotional significance already attached to it. For example, if a particular scent is associated with childhood memories of holidays, it may evoke feelings of safety, love, and coziness. However, if the scent is a completely new stimulus, the brain has not had an opportunity to associate emotional memories with that particular aroma. 

This means that there is a wonderful opportunity to cultivate feelings of relaxation or joy with new scents. By associating aromas with specific activities, like pairing lavender with a nighttime wind-down routine, those emotional memories become increasingly reinforced over time. The same principle can be used during meditation, breaks from work, or even romantic evenings with your partner.  

From wine tasting to finding a potential mate, there is no doubt that our sense of smell is more useful than we often give it credit for, and it’s easy to underestimate the very real power aromas can have in our brains. Whether you need a quick fix to help you relax, or you want to evoke fond holiday memories, essential oils can be an important tool to help us manage our moods. 

Categories: Essential Oils

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