Can Aromatherapy Improve Your Health?

Obtained through the process of distillation or cold pressing, essential oils are concentrated pure plant extracts. Although it’s common today to receive medicine in the form of pills, injections, or patches adhered to the skin, humans have been using plants medicinally for much, much longer. Regardless, many of the ingredients found in commercial and pharmaceutical drugs do actually still come from plants. The benefits vary as much as the plants themselves, but a growing body of research suggests that essential oils can be used to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions.

There are a million and one ways to use essential oils. The claims vary from curing viral infections, Parkinson’s disease, autism, diabetes, hypertension, to cancer, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, and multiple sclerosis. With all of these claims being made about essential oils, it’s time to cut through the noise and find out what science actually says about essential oils. What are they, how do they work, and can they effectively promote good health?

What is Aromatherapy?

Coined by the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé in the 1930s, aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit, both physical and mental. The first discovery came when Gattefossé accidentally burned his hand in his lab while conducting research, and applied Lavender Essential Oil to his wound—which had previously only been used in the field of perfumery. He was amazed at how quickly and effectively his burn healed, and since then many studies have been published to confirm the effectiveness of essential oils in alleviating various health conditions.  

How is Aromatherapy Used?

The benefits of essential oils vary as much as the plants they come from, and so do the application methods. Oils can be diffused, applied directly to the skin, and even ingested (always make sure oils are labeled as safe for consumption prior to ingestion). Breathing in the molecules is the most common way to use essential oils, since the scent particles travel quickly and effectively through the limbic system via the lungs, and can be done via diffuser or skin application (like this DIY chest rub for colds). For treating skin ailments, and skin application in general, essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil first to reduce their concentration and prevent irritation.

Physiological Effects vs. Classical Conditioning

The research is in, and the effects of essential oils are twofold. The first response is a direct effect of the properties found in the plant compounds that essential oils contain.  Lavender, for example, is known to have a direct calming effect on the limbic system. Aromatic molecules travel up through the nasal passages, to the olfactory bulb, and then are processed by the limbic system—which regulates hormones, memories, the heart rate, and more. This means that on its own, Lavender Essential Oil is going to be an effective tool to relax the natural fight-or-flight response.

The consistent use of oils to alleviate stress and anxiety, or to enhance focus and energy, reinforces and even strengthens the efficacy of the oils as your brain routinely sends similar signals throughout your body. This process is a trained physical response known as conditioning, which occurs when a stimulus (in this case, essential oils), becomes increasingly effective in triggering a response in a specific and consistent environment. 

In essence, the brain actually becomes the sidekick of the essential oils. By diffusing lavender oil every night before bed, in addition to the physiological effects at play, long-term psychological effects also kick in. Because the limbic system is involved in the formation of memory, the aroma of lavender becomes associated with the behavior of winding down and getting ready to sleep, hence making it even easier for the brain to enter that relaxed state. Indeed, studies have shown that prior exposure to certain aromas can make all the difference in their effectiveness in mood regulation. This is great news for anybody who loves a ritual, and wants to leverage the power of essential oils to achieve consistent calm and focus throughout the day. 

Promoting Health in the Winter Season

Humans don’t hibernate, even if it sometimes feels like we should. Technically speaking, hibernation happens when the body temperature drops to reduce calorie needs over long stretches of time. Animals do it to survive long winters with little food, and to avoid periods of high-predator risk (research has shown that some animals even hibernate in the summer months!). Humans’ cardinal spot in the food chain and equatorial ancestry are why we never inherited this particular ability, but that doesn’t mean winters can’t still take a brutal toll on our mental and physical health. Like all animals, exposure to light affects our circadian rhythms and can wreak havoc on biological systems in the winter months.

Although the circadian rhythm is often associated with sleep cycles, this important internal clock also controls hormone release, digestion and eating habits, as well as body temperature. It is no wonder then that when the days get shorter, less light is available, and circadian rhythms start going haywire that many people feel “off.” Sometimes this is as minor as needing a couple of extra hours of sleep each night, other times it can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and require treatment from a mental health professional. Unfortunately for Pacific Northwesterners, these winter symptoms become even more common the further from the equator one lives. 

If the low-light season is starting to take its toll, here are some tried and true ways to naturally promote better mental and physical health in the months ahead:

Get Better Sleep

A disrupted circadian rhythm has the biggest impact on a normal sleep cycle, and not getting enough quality rest can poorly affect brain function and overall health outcomes. Seven to nine hours a night is a good benchmark year-round, but this number may go up an hour or two during the winter months. 

To get in that sleepy mood and make sure wind down routines are starting early enough each night, try diffusing lavender or chamomile essential oil. Lavender is perhaps the most widely studied essential oil, and in addition to its known skin-healing and anxiety-reducing benefits, it’s also a fantastic sleep aid. A 2005 study showed that exposure to lavender increased the amount of slow- and deep- wave sleep in participants, who reported waking up feeling refreshed afterward. Likewise, Chamomile Essential Oil has sedative qualities and has been shown to promote better sleep quality.

Reduce Fatigue 

Problems sleeping isn’t the only thing to look out for this season. The winter months can also lead to an increase in fatigue and lower amounts of energy during the day. Proper sleep will go a long way to help with this, but also make sure to support general health as well when preventing fatigue. All of the things that create good health in the summer months—like diet, exercise, limiting alcohol, etc., become especially important in the winter months. Has exercise gone by the wayside with more time indoors? Are indoor air pollutants negatively affecting your respiratory system? Should Vitamin D supplements be added to the shopping list? 

Luckily, essential oils provide an easy way to boost energy and increase focus. Peppermint Essential Oil has been shown to prevent fatigue and improve athletic performance, which is a win-win for anybody looking to boost their winter exercise regimen. Likewise, Rosemary Essential Oil is chock full of 1,8-cineole, which is linked to increased focus and improved learning. Diffusing rosemary or peppermint in the early hours of the day (during a shower or while checking emails), can provide a quick and easy pick-me-up.

Keep Spirits Up

What about times when it’s not energy levels that need a kick-start (or emergency shut-off), but rather the “winter blues” that just won’t go away? Of course, finding joy looks different for everybody, but thanks to the physiological and psychological mechanisms at play with essential oils, it can be a little easier to fast track those good feelings in the brain. For a scientifically-proven method, try turning to Lemon Essential Oil. A 2008 study confirmed that the scent of lemon is a universal mood booster, and many anecdotally attribute this trait to citrus scents in general. 

This approach can work with conditioned aromas as well. Maybe the scent of pine is reminiscent of annual vacations in a mountain cabin, or Clove Essential Oil brings back fond memories of childhood holidays. Either way, don’t be afraid to leverage the powerful effects of aromatherapy to cope with the darker months. 

5 Questions to Ask Before Purchase

Typically absorbed via inhalation or skin absorption, the high concentration of essential oils makes them incredibly powerful, and all the more important to invest in high-quality products. Here are five questions to ask before buying any oils:

  1. Are the oils undiluted? Cheaply made products are sometimes diluted with other ingredients, which can pose known and unknown health risks. Avoid anything labeled a “fragrance oil,”  as these usually contain other additives or chemicals and are not meant for aromatherapy.
  2. How was the oil extracted? Cold pressing, steam distillation, or water distillation are ideal. Extraction through chemical means can negatively alter the plant compounds, and does not produce a true essential oil. Likewise, any extraction process involving heat can damage the quality of oils and should be avoided.
  3. Does the label contain all relevant information? Any high-quality essential oil should list the latin name of the plant, information on purity and additives, and what country the plant was grown. If this information is hidden, it may be an indication there’s something to hide.
  4. How is the oil packaged? The potency of essential oils can damage plastic over time. Likewise, oxidation will shorten the lifespan of essential oils and render them ineffective. Dark glass bottles are the gold standard, and anything else should be avoided. 
  5. How does it smell? Essential oils are concentrated and because of that, should smell quite potent right out of the bottle. Some essential oils have a strong smell, and some are more subtle, but there should never be an alcohol or unnatural scent. 

Build New Habits with Aromatherapy

Whether you want to get some better rest this season, you need something besides (or maybe in addition to) your morning coffee to pick-me-up, or you need to leverage a quick mood-booster to cope with a tough winter, aromatherapy can be a powerful tool to influence your mood. The benefits are plenty, the use cases abundant, and the research readily available. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works for you —there is no better time of year to start building new habits and rituals to bring you peace, calm, and happiness.

Categories: Essential Oils

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