Many of my Health & Healing readers swear by the health benefits of aromatherapy and essential oils. Lindsay diffuses lavender oil in her room at night to help her sleep, and Louise dabs it on her temples when she has a headache. Sam uses peppermint and wild orange oils at work to keep him alert and increase productivity. Claudia rubs a drop of grapefruit oil on her palms and inhales deeply whenever a food craving hits her. Josh uses a blend of peppermint, lemon, and lavender to help with congestion and other allergy symptoms. And Erin says the combo of grapefruit, Roman chamomile, and peppermint is great for reducing stress and elevating mood.
As you can see, the health benefits of aromatherapy extend farther than a pleasant scent. Let’s take a closer look.
Smells Tap Directly Into the Emotional Center of the Brain
I’ve always marveled at how smells can take you back in time. One whiff of Ben-Gay transports me back to my high school locker room, suiting up for a football game. As a doctor's son in the '50s, I got more than my share of penicillin shots. One sniff of rubbing alcohol, and to this day my hip starts to ache. Why does this happen?
The area of your brain that processes smell, or olfaction, lies smack in the middle of the limbic system, which is associated with memories and emotions such as pleasure, anger, fear and anxiety. High inside your nose is a small area containing millions of olfactory receptors. Airborne chemicals called odor molecules are drawn into your nose as you breathe. They bind to these receptors and stimulate them to send signals via the olfactory bulb, where they are intensified and then sent to the limbic system, the emotional center of your brain.
Aromatherapy Benefits Overall Well-Being
Aromatherapy benefits have been recognized for millennia, and the creation and utilization of fragrances has a long and colorful history. The ancient Egyptians burned incense as offerings to their gods and embalmed their pharaohs with aromatic herbs. The Romans released perfumed doves to fly around during their bacchanalian banquets. And what did the Magi bring baby Jesus? Fragrances—frankincense and myrrh.
Today, the health benefits of aromatherapy are captured by extracting and distilling the essential oils from aromatic plants. A few drops of these highly concentrated oils in a pot of simmering water or a special diffuser—or sniffed directly out of the bottle—will fill your senses with a delectable scent that, in addition to smelling good, has subtle, yet profound effects on your well-being.
More Uses for Essential Oils
Essential oils can also be applied to the skin. It’s best to dilute them by adding to a carrier such as coconut oil, especially if you have sensitive skin. Begin with a weak concentration—the usual ratio is one drop of essential oil to three or more drops of the carrier—and use sparingly at first to make sure you don’t have a skin reaction.
A few drops of these concentrated oils can also be added to your bath water or your favorite lotion or body oil. They can be mixed with water in a spray bottle and used to freshen carpets and furniture—you can even add them to household cleaning products.
How to Reap the Benefits of Essential Oils
To reap the benefits of aromatherapy and essential oils, choose fragrances that are appealing to you based on scent and purpose. Some of my favorites include citrus varieties such as grapefruit, lemon, orange, neroli, and bergamot, which lift mood and improve sense of well-being. Lavender has calming, relaxing, and even sedative properties. In a handful of studies, lavender has been successfully used in nursing homes as a replacement for sedative medications. As noted above, lavender also alleviates headaches in some people. Ylang-ylang, which has a sweet, tropical scent, improves depression and is a reputed aphrodisiac. Rosemary gently stimulates your mind and makes you more alert. It is also reported to improve memory. Chamomile is soothing and calming. Children especially respond well to chamomile.
Healing essential oils and books on their use are sold in health food stores and from a variety of online sources. Look for pure essential oils. Although they may be more expensive, they are worth it in the long run, as their concentration will carry them far.
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