We all enjoy good smells, whether it’s the calming tones of lavender or the smell of cookies fresh out of the oven. The popularity of aromatherapy is easy to understand, and it would be easy to write it off as nothing more than a pleasant addition to a spa day. In reality, aromatherapy is so much more! The use of essential oils in healthcare has its roots in Ayurvedic practices that are thousands of years old. Western science has shown that aromatherapy directly impacts both physical and mental health. The respiratory and nervous systems are particularly affected by certain smells. That makes aromatherapy an ideal choice for non-invasive stress relief. The science behind the soothing power of scent is fairly complex, but we can break it down into a few key components.
The Mind-Body Connection
Unlike Western Medicine, Ayurveda sees the mind and body as intimately connected. This is key to understanding how and why aromatherapy has a powerful impact on stress. After all, stress is a state of both mind and body. When researchers measure stress in a lab, a variety of physiological metrics are used including heart rate, respiration, and levels of the hormone cortisol. Studies also use surveys and observation to measure stress in a subject. Both our behavior and our bodies reveal much about our stress levels. Aromatherapy is effective in taming stress because it acts on the mind and body simultaneously.
The Olfactory System (aka your sense of smell)
How does something as simple as a smell have such a broad impact? The answer lies in the brain. We can thank the olfactory system for the direct connection from our nose to the control center of our being. Think of your sense of smell as a superhighway, sending information on a fast track to a place in the brain that stimulate areas that control essential functions like breathing and heart rate, as well as emotional-cognitive functions like memory.
Are there certain smells that bring you back to a specific time in your life? It’s because of this close connection between the olfactory and memory processing parts of the brain!
The Amygdala (aka your emotional hub)
Because of how humans are wired, smells are much more than just nice or nasty. They go straight to the specialized parts of the brain that control the emotional and physical manifestations of stress. While long ago humans experienced frequent physical stresses, i.e. running from predators, in modern life our stresses are typically more emotional. That is why the amygdala is so important when it comes to understanding anxiety.
The amygdala is critical for emotional processing and plays a key role in the experience of fear and the way the body reacts to it.
According to research published by the National Academy of Science, the amygdala is responsible for the emotional processing of smells. Interestingly, no other senses are processed through this area of the brain. Dr. Jordan Gaines Lewis describes the implications of this in Psychology Today, saying that smell, more than any other sense, is “successful at triggering emotions.”
Cortisol (aka the stress hormone)
The end result of the chain from nose to brain is a change in the body and state of mind. If the chemicals we sense through olfaction are therapeutic, that change is towards relaxation. If the smell isn’t pleasant, it can make us more alert and stressed. We can see this clearly in other animals, who have a much keener sense of smell than humans. Dogs, for example, often show signs of distress when they smell another animal coming into their territory. The goal of aromatherapy is exactly the opposite.
By choosing the scents that reduce stress, we promote relaxation and a sense of wellbeing. This is directly measured by the hormone cortisol. This is the primary hormone of stress and is released into the bloodstream when we feel threatened. Both animal and human studies have shown that aromatherapy can decrease cortisol levels in blood and saliva. One study found that aromatherapy with orange essential oil reduced both cortisol levels and heart rate in children visiting the dentist.
Aromatherapy is not just a pleasant experience; it has proven therapeutic effects on the mind and body. Due to the unique connection between the nose and the brain, the calming chemicals in essential oils can directly impact the nervous system. So next time you need some serenity fast, take a shortcut through your sense of smell and try aromatherapy.
WRITTEN BY AMY