Do Essential Oils Really Work Aromatically?
In short, yes Essential Oils really work. Here is the science behind WHY essential oils really work when diffused.
The Science Behind Aromatherapy
Our sense of smell is the very first of our senses we use when we are born. Scent is a critical part of our lives, even more critical than the average person truly understands. Our sense of smell plays an important part in everything; from creating memories to who we fall in love with.
Anything with an aroma has tiny little odor molecules that evaporate into the air. When we smell something, we inhale air AND we inhale scent molecules in to our nose. Our nose and the related parts are called the Olfactory System. Our Olfactory System is the only system in our body that links directly to a specific part of our brain.
Let’s take a look at how this works…
Scent molecules travel from the entrance of our nose to the back of the nose. At the back of the nose we have what is called the Epithelial Olfactory. This is a membrane that holds little Olfactory Receptor Cells. We have over 40 million of these receptor cells. These cells are what receive the scent molecules into our body for us to process.
The olfactory receptor cells are surrounded by a layer of mucous. The scent molecules we breathe in get trapped in this mucous layer. Once they’re trapped, the olfactory receptor cells dissolve the scent molecules and instantly send signals to our Olfactory Bulb.
The Olfactory Bulb is the part of the brain analyzes a scent.
The Olfactory Bulb tells our brain two things:
# 1 What the scent is
#2 How strong the scent is.
The Olfactory Bulb sends these signals directly to a specific part of our brain. The part of the brain that receives this signal tells our body how we should react to the scent.
The specific part of our brain that scent goes to is the Amygdala and the Hippocampus. Usually, our senses send signals to the Thalamus. Then, our Thalamus sends those signals to a different part of our brain. Not with scent, with scent the signals go directly to where it needs to be the limbic system. Amygdala and the Hippocampus are part of our limbic system.
The Hippocampus is the part of our brain responsible for long term memory and motivation. The Amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for emotions and short term memory. It also plays a role in libido, aggression and survival instincts.
In short, scent travels directly to the part of our brain that controls our emotions, memories, behavior patterns and even our instincts.
If you truly think about this, it is extremely powerful!
The chemical compounds can truly ease things like depression, anxiety, anger, fear and more. If you want to learn more about how this works, I encourage you to read “The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple.” Here I discuss how science proves the power of essential oils! I also have a great post on The Science Behind Using Essential Oils Topically. That post teaches us that essential oils actually absorb all the way down to your cells and crosses your blood brain barrier…a medical miracle that even most prescriptions cannot do.
Now that we got the scientific explanation out of the way, lets see how this manifests itself in real life.
For example, we breathe in the smell of coffee. We associate coffee with certain memories. Most scents are linked to some type of long term memory. Studies show that memories triggered by scents are more vivid and intense than other memories.
When I smell coffee, I recall two specific memories. The smell combined with the memory makes me feel an emotion.
I remember making my father coffee when I was a little kid. I can imagine him sitting on the couch as I bring him a big cup of black coffee. He passed away sometime ago now and still I think of that when I smell coffee. This memory makes me feel sad.
When I smell coffee I also think of my husband. He LOVES coffee. I remember how he also asks me to make him a cup of coffee. Just imagining it right now, I am full of love for my husband. This memory makes me feel happy and in love.
This process is called odor-evoked autobiographical memory; You smell something and it brings back a memory and also triggers an emotional response.
This is a subconscious reaction. I have no control over how the smell of coffee effects my emotions or memories. You do not have any control over how aromas effect your moods, emotions or memories either. They just do.
As an adult, your brain can differentiate nearly 10,000 different aromas!
The different chemical make up and rate of molecule vibration is how we recognize each scent and how our brains react to it.
That is why essential oils are so powerful over our emotions and moods. The science of our body cannot be denied and neither can the truth of how essential oils effect our brain!
Word of Warning Diffusing Essential Oils
Did you know that you can become desensitized to aromas you smell too much? It’s true!
This is how people who smoke don’t notice when that they smell like smoke but non smokers think they smell like an ash tray. This is why your house smells different when you come home after being gone for a few days.
This is called sensory adaptation. Sensory Adaptation is when we experience a decreased sensitivity to things we repeatedly smell, hear, touch, taste and feel. Sensory Adaptation applies to of our senses including smell. For example, the clock may be ticking very loudly in the background but after a while you don’t hear it anymore. Our mind and body learns to tune things out.
How does sensory adaptation relate to Essential Oils?
Our Olfactory System changes and adapts to odors we smell regularly. Our Olfactory System is the only system in our body that completely regenerates regularly, approximately every 6-8 weeks.
In order to fully experience the powerful benefits of essential oils when we diffuse them we must change our aromatherapy routine regularly.
That means if we only diffuse lavender at night, then we will become desensitized to it and our bodies will not respond as well.
If you want to experience the full benefits of aromatherapy, change the oils you use in your diffuser once a week at least.
Week 1: Diffuse lavender every night.
Week 2: Diffuse Cedarwood every night.
Week 4: Peace and Calming
Week 5: Lavender again.
Week 6: Cedarwood again.
Week 7: Frankincense
Week 8: Peace and Calming ect.
The rate of desensitization depends on each individual. So, if you notice that your peppermint doesn’t smell as strong as it should, then you need to change your routine for a while to truly reap the benefits.
Is it Safe to Diffuse Essential Oils?
Diffusing essential oils is considered the safest way to reap the benefits of essential oils.
As with any remedy there are safety concerns that you need to be aware of. These warnings are to remind people to use discretion, moderation and common sense with their essential oils.
There are some oils that can cause eye, lung or nose irritation if diffused. Black pepper, cinnamon and peppermint are among the oils that have the potential to be irritants.
Some oils should not be diffused around babies and toddlers such as Peppermint, Rosemary and all strains of Eucalyptus. Be sure check your oils before diffusing them around babies. Keep in mind that essential oils, though it has it’s concerns are STILL better than cancer causing air fresheners, household cleaners and other scented products.
Peppermint, Eucalyptus and Rosemary can cause babies to stop breathing. It also can lower their heart rate. These factors increase the risk of SIDS. These oils contain very high levels of the chemical constituent menthol.
Please understand that no one should ever be scared of essential oils. Although I did put this warning. Peppermint, Eucalyptus and Rosemary are not dangerous when used responsibly. As with everything else, essential oils should be used in moderation especially with immature skin/respiratory systems.
According to The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, it is only dangerous when applied an infant’s chest or diffused directly next to them. Small children have immature respiratory systems and are not able to handle such strong scents where they cannot escape from them such as on their chest or directly by them.
Children should never ever ever consume essential oils due to their high concentration either.
It is when people stop using common sense that we run into issues like this.
I have been using essential oils for a very long time and know a lot about them so for me, yes I will diffuse blends that contain peppermint if needed but I do it for very short periods and make sure there is plenty of fresh air and distance between my baby and the diffuser.
It’s important to know that adults and children with respiratory diseases such as Asthma may not be able to handle essential oils being diffused. This is not true in ALL cases though. Please speak with your physician before diffusing essential oils around people who’s respiratory systems may be easily irritated by essential oils.
Be aware of blends that contain these ingredients before diffusing around a child or people with respiratory sensitivities.
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