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Our sense of smell is a remarkable gift. Aromas affect our emotions, evoke memories, unleash desires, and can help us feel calm, comfortable, and safe. Aromatherapy is a natural way to excite our sense of smell and to improve our psychological well-being. For example, the smell of lavender can be calming to the nerves, and peppermint can stimulate the mind and boost energy levels.
For thousands of years, humankind has utilized herbs for their medicinal and aromatic properties; perfumes being important in ritual life; incense being burned in temples and used for purification, for example, the symbolism of fragrance being a powerful religious tool. On a more everyday level, the use of fragrance, or aromatherapy, can be used daily as an enhancement to our well-being and to help lift moods.
Essential oils (the extracts of aromatic plants) can be used in our regular lives so that we may benefit from the properties of particular plants. Aromatherapy can be used to treat mental health-related symptoms such as anxiety, stress, depression, and insomnia.
Some examples of oils used for stress-related symptoms and depression are bergamot, geranium, lavender, lemon balm, peppermint, rose, sandalwood, and sweet orange. Mixed with a carrier oil such as sweet almond oil, the fragrance can be used on the skin to soothe the senses as a massage oil or as a fragrance on the pressure points. Or drops can be added to a bath for a relaxing soak while the aromas permeate the room.
Essential oils can also be used on tissue or special diffuser lava bracelets which can be worn so the chosen aromas give therapeutic benefit throughout the day. Oils can also be blended to achieve the best results, for example, lemon balm can be blended with sweet orange and geranium with bergamot for an uplifting scent.
Apart from our human reactive, subjective, stimulating responses to the aroma, there is some objective science behind aromatherapy in that it helps to alleviate depressive symptoms.
Dalinda Isabel Sánchez-Vidaña et al writes in a study that:
“Essential oils trigger mechanisms in the brain via the olfactory system. The mechanism of action of essential oils administered by inhalation involves stimulation of the olfactory receptor cells in the nasal epithelium, about 25 million cells, connected to the olfactory bulb. After stimulation, the signal is transmitted to the limbic system and hypothalamus in the brain through the olfactory bulb and olfactory tract. Once the signals reach the olfactory cortex, the release of neurotransmitters, for example, serotonin, takes place which results in the expected effect on emotions related to essential oil use” (Sánchez-Vidaña 2016).
So, inhaling essential oils can help us to produce serotonin and dopamine to help regulate mood.
For anxiety, lavender is a particularly potent relaxant and a study has shown that :
“The efficacy of a 6-week-intake of oral lavender oil preparation (Silexan, 80 mg/day), compared to lorazepam, was investigated in adults with a generalized anxiety disorder. This study indicates that lavender effectively ameliorates generalized anxiety comparable to 0.5 mg/daily lorazepam. Alleviation of anxiety and mood improvement was reported in thirty-six patients admitted to an intensive care unit, who received lavender oil (diluted to 1% concentration) aromatherapy “ (Koulivand et al, 2012).
Although the science behind aromatherapy gives the practice a degree of gravitas, one cannot beat instinct and personal experience with fragrance. What smells delightful to one may repel another, so, testing and experimenting with different oils is the best thing to do. Experimentation develops experience, so, have a go, mix and match and reap the benefits of aromatherapy.
Koulivand et al, Lavender and the Nervous System [online] at https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/681304/ (Accessed 10th June, 2019)
Sánchez-Vidaña et al., The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review, 2016, [online] at https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2017/5869315/ (accessed 8th June, 2019).
A useful quick guide A to Z of aromatherapy essential oils:
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