Aromatherapy for Anxiety: What Does Science Say?
It's no secret that inhaling ~certain substances~ can alter your mood. And that inhaling them through the nose is particularly effective. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
I'm talking of course about aromatherapy, the practice of inhaling essential oils derived from plants to promote physical and mental health - a custom that has been around for thousands of years. More recently there's been a major trend toward using aromatherapy to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. But as we all know, plenty of wellness products and trends are more than a bit bogus.
So does aromatherapy really work?
To get to the bottom of this, it's time for some science. If this triggers some not-so-swell memories of high school bio (you know, before your awkward phase ended), you may want to grab some oils now, just in case.
First a refresher on your sense of smell. Turns out those odor clouds radiating from trash piles in cartoons aren't far off. What we actually smell are little particles suspended in the air that rush into our noses and bind to specific odorant receptors. These receptors in turn stimulate a nerve, called the olfactory nerve, that encodes and directs this information to three parts of the brain responsible for processing scent.
Scent information is sent to the frontal cortex, an area of the brain that is in charge of the conscious perception and experience of the smell. This is the area that tells you what you are smelling. It's how your nose can actually compare apples to oranges. Or warn you when your milk has turned.
The scent is also processed by the hippocampus, an area that processes memory. This area subconsciously triggers a memory encoded with the same smell that you are currently experiencing. This tells you what to think of in response to the smell. If you've ever had a bad time with tequila and now even the smell turns your stomach, that's why. Or on a more positive note, that's why a whiff of your grandma's perfume will trigger childhood memories with her. Your sense of smell is no joke.
This information also makes its way to the limbic system, an area responsible for our emotional response to smell. In processing the scent, the brain alters chemical signals that influence our emotional reaction. This area tells you what to feel in response to the smell. Pleasant smells change our brain’s signaling to make us feel happy or calm.
The limbic system also influences our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. Our mind often takes clues from our bodily functions about what emotion to feel. For example, when your heart is pounding and you're breathing fast, you’re more likely than not to feel stressed, pressured, angry, or nervous. When your heart is taking its time and your breathing is slowed, a sense of peace and tranquility is likely to wash over you.
Aromatherapy takes advantage of all three of these scent processing areas of the brain. When inhaling lavender oils, your frontal cortex tells you that you smell lavender, your limbic system alters chemical and electrical signaling in your brain to calm you down, and your hippocampus triggers a memory of a picnic in a park full of lavender plants. And all of a sudden after one whiff of lavender, you're a bit more relaxed.
TL;DR: aromatherapy works, but these nifty brain benefits only kick in if you're breathing the oils in through your nose. The goodness of essential oils comes from its activity in the nasal passages, not in your lungs. Don't get it twisted, smokers! Mouth breathing isn't going to cut it for aromatherapy.
And top tip: try practicing aromatherapy with HALE to enhance your experience! If your sense of smell isn't up to snuff, or you just can't get enough air through your nose, your nasal breathing may be obstructed by a deviated septum or another structural problem. But that doesn't mean you should miss out on this science-backed stress reliever! If you want to get the most out of aromatherapy, try opening your nose with HALE.
Need more nose-centric news in your life? Wait, for real? Uh, ok, well then get yourself over to Schnozmopolitan posthaste!