I have a lot of essential oils oozing our from all corners of my house: through stone and electric steam diffusers, a rollerball on my desk, in my lotions and mists and, when I have the time, in my bathwater.
Inhaling certain oils extracted from plants like bergamot and lavender allegedly help reduce stress and increase happiness, so I hoarded a bunch to create a space of perpetual Zen in my home.
The thing is, I wasn’t sure if the essential oils were actually helping. When I sniff my lavender oils, I can acknowledge it smells pleasant, but it stops there. I don’t think it necessarily destresses me or puts a smile on my face.
I don’t feel the same positive feelings as when I’m, say, enveloped by the waft of fresh chocolate-chip cookies. Instant, unadulterated, salivary bliss.
The aromatherapy industry is booming. According to Research and Markets, the global aromatherapy market was valued at about $1,413 million in 2016 and is expected to reach $3,226 million by 2025. Another study, by Grand View Research, Inc., estimates the market size will be worth $2.35 billion by 2025.
People swear by their amber-glass bottles of Young Living or doTERRA essential oils. (Just run a simple Google search.) So there has to be something to it. Perhaps by simply smelling my oils passively, I was just approaching it incorrectly.
What aromatherapy claims to do for stress relief
First, to manage expectations, I wanted to get clear on what aromatherapy is and what it’s supposed to do. According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), the most official governing body in aromatherapy I could find, aromatherapy is “the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit.”
In simpler terms, aromatherapy is using botanical scents to improve your mind and body in some way.
Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, a certified doctor of natural medicine and clinical nutritionist, who runs one of the most popular sites advocating for aromatherapy, writes that essential oils’ benefits run the gamut from treating acne and rashes to reducing muscle and joint pain. This is thanks to essential oils’ myriad properties: they’re widely credited to be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic. This is a bit more straightforward. I can topically apply an oil and it either gets rid of my rash or pain or it doesn’t.
But how can essential oils actually help with the stress and happiness part? Are the millions of doTERRA followers finding joy in the placebo effect? Am I just not woo enough?
From a physiological perspective, the scents of essential oils, like all other scents and odors, do impact the brain. The Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide of the University of Maryland Medical Center site says essential oils work by interacting with the amygdala and hippocampus, the parts of the brain that serve as “storehouses for emotions and memories.”
The Physician Data Query, an online source of cancer information maintained by the National Cancer Institute, explains it similarly: “The effects of aromatherapy are theorized to result from the binding of chemical components in the essential oil to receptors in the olfactory bulb, impacting the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system.”
The most interesting input comes from Saje Natural Wellness (amazing shop), who writes on their blog:
“Your sense of smell taps into one of the most ancient parts of the brain: the amygdala. Before we can even process language, our amygdala can identify thousands of aromas, allowing us to use our sense of smell to understand our world. Located in the limbic system, it’s known as the brain’s emotional centre. It aids in emotional regulation and is largely responsible for the creation of new memories. That’s why smell is linked to memory more than any other sense.
“Here’s what happens when you inhale essential oils: aroma molecules travel through your nose to the olfactory bulb, a structure in the front part of our brain that helps us process smell. Once the molecules reach the olfactory bulb, they are sent to the centre of the brain, the limbic system, via your bloodstream. The limbic system, specifically the amygdala, then processes the aroma and releases neurochemicals that are relaxing or stimulating, depending on the essential oil inhaled. This is efficiently connects your mind and body to the healing power of plants.
When you apply an essential oil blend to your skin, essential oils enter your bloodstream directly through your hair follicles and the tissue in between your cells. Once in the bloodstream, the essential oil molecules move to your body’s specific area of need. To get the most benefit possible, apply essential oils to areas where blood vessels are closest to the skin’s surface, such as wrists, temples, chest, neck and the soles of the feet. This technique allows for quicker absorption, helping essential oils get to work faster.”
This is good news. So essential oils technically can influence our emotions.
For stress relief, lavender is queen
Since lavender is universally credited with its calming effects, and I’m anything but calm, I decided to focus on the perfume of this purple flowering plant. Aromatherapists claim lavender helps lower the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
And although there aren’t no credible or large-enough randomized double-blind placebo controlled studies (the gold standard that makes scientific conclusions considered legitimate), there are smaller, albeit flawed, studies that have shown potential for certain essential oils like lavender and their ability to assuage stress.
In one 2001 study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, two groups of about 15 people were placed in a claustrophobic, soundproof room for 20 minutes—one group with the presence of lavender, the second group without. A third group was placed in a “nonstressful,” presumbably non-claustrophobic, condition. Researchers concluded that lavender was associated with a decrease in mental stress.
In another study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing in 1995, 122 patients in the general intensive care unit were divided into three groups: one received massage, another aromatherapy with lavender and the third was simply given time to rest. The patients who received aromatherapy reported experiencing significantly greater improvement in their mood and perceived levels of anxiety.
How to use properly sniff essential oils
There are different ways you can perform aromatherapy. NAHA’s site lists the following ways to incorporate essential oils into your practice. You can blend them into a body oil, facial cream or a spritzer. You can add them into your bath or inhale them through steam by dropping them in a tub of hot water. You can also diffuse the oils with aerial dispersion via electric diffusor or inhale directly by adding them to a cotton ball of sniffing straight out of the bottle.
I’ve tried all these methods, but I’ve never felt a difference.
If regular methods don’t work, focus on evoking memories
I had an aha moment in the midst of my research. Remember essential oils work by interacting with the parts of the brain that serve to control emotions and memories?
Perhaps I was focusing only on emotions, but not memories.
Could it be I needed to make a happy association with lavender to help with stress? Perhaps if lavender conjures up a pleasant memory, it will finally make me happier and stress less.
I perused Etsy and quickly found an aromatherapy necklace (a porous rock known to hold in the scents of essential oils tied to a chain).
Next, I asked myself, When do you genuinely feel zero stress? I was able to narrow it down to two instances: when I read self-help books every morning or listen to comedy podcasts every night.
Every day for four weeks, I committed to wearing the necklace diffused with lavender every time I engaged in either activity.
At the end of week four, I began incorporating lavender oil when I was feeling bouts of situationally derived acute stress (e.g. creating a baby registry from scratch with back pain and nausea). When stress spiked, I snorted the oil straight from the bottle.
The effect wasn’t as strong as cookie-triggered delight, but it was relatively prominent. I instantly felt my mind calm down, as if a congested four-way street suddenly cleared up and allowed me to release the brakes.
Turns out this method is legitimate—yet not something aromatherapy companies tell their customers to try.