Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils, or plant-based extracts, for therapeutic benefit. The power of aromatherapy has been used for at least 6,000 years and was highly valued in many ancient civilizations. Throughout this aromatherapy guide, we will teach you how you can benefit from the healing qualities of aromatherapy by explaining how aromatherapy works, the benefits of aromatherapy, the uses of aromatherapy and the types of aromatherapy.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

By stimulating the smell receptors in your nose, scents send signals through the nervous system to the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that rules your emotions and processes memory. When smell receptors are stimulated with a relaxing scent, it can calm the mind, body and spirit. Historically, aromatherapy has been used to:

  • Manage pain
  • Improve sleep
  • Boost immunity
  • Treat headaches and migraines
  • Fight fungus, bacteria and viruses
  • Soothe sore joints
  • Ease stress, anxiety and irritation
  • Improve digestion
  • Aid the discomforts of labor
  • Calm mood swings
  • Improve memory
  • Help with burnout

Types of Aromatherapy

As Western society has started to understand the healing properties of aromatherapy, the all-natural practice has been embraced by pop culture and adopted into the practices of many industries. You can now even meet with a certified aromatherapist through many health provides in the United States.

As studies of the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy continue, hospitals, spas, yoga studios and cosmetic companies have integrated essential oils into their therapies and services. Since most essential oils sold in-store are not regulated by the FDA, diluting them with carrier oil or water can be important, it also prevents the oil from evaporating quickly, providing a scent that lasts longer. Discover the most common ways you can get the best use out of essential oils.

Cosmetic Aromatherapy

The benefits of essentials oils have been used by cosmetic companies to add scent to skin, body and hair products. Today, many organic beauty products contain nutritious and vitamin-rich essential oils. Essentials oils can promote healthy skin and hair when used for cleansing, moisturizing, drying and toning.

Massage Aromatherapy

To open up the pores in your skin and calm your nervous system, essential oils have been used for massaging. Because of their ability to improve mood and reduce pain, essential oils can enhance the effects of massages and cause a short-term decrease in muscle aches and pains.

Olfactory Aromatherapy (Essential Oils)

To calm, relax and rejuvenate the body, olfactory aromatherapy consists of simple inhalation. This method can release stress, unlock odor memories and enhance emotional wellness. The olfactory method is common and effective: Simply add a few drops of the essential oil on a washcloth or diffuse it into the air to enjoy its benefits.

What is an essential oil (EO)?

Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts that can be found in aromatic plants — petals, bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts, stems, seeds and/or roots.

Where does an EO come from?

Most commonly, EOs are steam distilled. The two products that are produced from this process are the EO and the hydrosol (the water portion).

What does the research say?

The Penny George Institute for Health and Healing has conducted research to determine that the EOs used within the Allina Health System can reduce pain, anxiety and nausea by 30-50%.

Is there a difference between EOs and fragrances or perfumes?

Yes, EOs cannot be made in a laboratory. Tainting, impairing or weakening an EO product will alter its therapeutic effect. Perfumes use EOs but also add other ingredients so that the final product is not a pure EO. Note that there is no standard when it comes to labeling EOs as “therapeutic grade” or “100% pure”.

How do we know if we have a pure EO?

EOs can be tested using GC (gas chromatography)/MS (mass spectrometry) analysis. This will show all of the chemical components and each of their percentages. Each batch of EO can be tested for purity to be sure that it is not diluted by other products. Always look for the Latin name on the bottle and always buy from a reputable source. Bottles should be dark (brown/blue) to protect the oil from light. EOs are usually purchased in small quantities.

How do EOs work?

As we breathe in, the aromatic chemicals get absorbed into our bloodstream. These chemicals interact with our body and produce changes, like calming or energizing sensations. The most effective way to absorb essential oils into the body is through inhalation.

Another way that essential oils can get into the body is through absorption, although the absorption rate is very low. Our skin barrier is very effective in keeping things out of our body so we usually use a lotion or oil to help get the essential oils through the layers of skin.

How do we use or apply EOs?

The proper way to apply an EO may depend on the type, but here are some safe and common ways to use essential oils:

  • Inhalation– Directly smelling the EO from the bottle or from an inhaler.
  • Diffusion– Placing an EO in water and allowing it to diffuse into a room – usually, 6-8 drops works well. Diffusion should only be for 20 minutes at a time. Turn off your diffuser for an hour or two and then diffuse again for 20 minutes. Do not run a diffuser continuously. Some animals can become seriously injured or die when exposed to diffused oils, see your pet’s veterinarian before using EOs around your pet.
  • Topical– Mix EO with a carrier oil (like jojoba or fractionated coconut oil) in a 2% dilution. A 2% dilution = 10-12 drops of EO to 1 ounce of carrier oil/lotion.
  • Bath– Mix a teaspoon of shampoo with 5-8 drops of EO and run under the faucet. The shampoo acts as a dispersant for the EO. Do not use citrus oils, peppermint or spice oils (like clove and cinnamon) in a bath as they may irritate the skin.

Are there any safety concerns?

There are certain safety concerns surrounding EOs. Because they are highly concentrated, some precautions should be taken when using essential oils.

  • Do not apply directly. Do not use EOs “neat” (or straight) onto the skin.
  • Do not ingest EOs– Do not put them in your water for flavoring or to “remove toxins!” There is no reason to be drinking EOs. If you ingest EOs, you are putting your liver under great stress. EOs can be harmful to our internal tissues and we have no idea how EOs are interacting with any medication you are taking.
  • Do not bathe directly in EOs. When using EOs in a bath, make sure to dilute them with shampoo.

What Are the Benefits of Aromatherapy?

For multiple health conditions, using aromatherapy as an all-natural alternative medicine has proven extremely beneficial. It is especially helpful for individuals who experience anxiety, have hyperactive tendencies or are under significant amounts of stress, but it can be used for anyone, anywhere, anytime — even every day! Discover just some of the essential oils that have been associated with the benefits of aromatherapy.

Improves Focus

In 2016, a study by Northumbria University in the United Kingdom found that adults working in a room with the scent of rosemary essential oil achieved 5% to 7% better results in memory tests. The study found that rosemary activates the neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with memory.

Other essential oils such as peppermint, cypress, sandalwood, sage, basil, lemon and frankincense have been studied and shown to improve concentration, memory, cognitive performance and focus, along with helping patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia and other conditions.

Improves Sleep

Certain essential oils like lavender and chamomile have calming, sedative properties. By inhaling a few drops of calming essential oils on a moistened washcloth, filling a small spray bottle and spraying your pillow or diluting the oil and applying it to your skin, essentials oils can induce a sleepy, relaxed state of mind.

study published in Nursing in Critical Care showed that patients in a coronary intensive care unit who inhaled lavender before bed for 15 nights had better quality sleep compared to
a control group that was not provided the essential oil.

Reduces Stress

Managing stress is an ongoing battle for most people in today’s society and stress tends to affect us in many different ways. Because lavender has sedative properties, it also calms your nervous system and can be used to lower your blood pressure and heart rate. Other herbs and essential oils have been claimed to reduce stress, such as lemongrass, jasmine, geranium and chamomile.

Relieves Anxiety

For centuries, types of aromatherapy have been used as a tool to reduce anxiety and calm feelings of stress. As your smell receptors send messages from the essential oil to your nervous system, your body’s chemical and energy systems begin to change and relax.

With anxiety disorders rising in the United States, using essential oils as a natural remedy for anxiety and stress has increased. Rose, lavender, bergamot and chamomile have all been studied by the American College of Healthcare Sciences and have shown to provide healing qualities when it comes to depression, anxiety and pain management.

Boosts Energy

Essentials oils may be able to put you into a deep slumber, but they also can help with your mid-day slump. By invigorating your senses, essential oils, especially citrus ones, are filled with antioxidant terpenes such as limonene, which naturally energize your nervous system.

Along with the citrus smell of lemon, the minty, fresh scent of peppermint can boost alertness, decrease exhaustion and increase the level of oxygen in your brain, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Strengthens Your Immune System

Another major benefit of herbs and essential oils are their anti-inflammatory effects. Processed foods, long-term stress, infections and even poor air quality can cause inflammation that can be painful and have negative effects on your long-term health.

Many essential oils, such as oregano, ginger, myrrh and eucalyptus have helped fight infection because of their antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Find More Wellness Tips from Change to Chill

Now that you know the ins and outs of aromatherapy along with its uses, benefits and types, consider using it as a method to calm your mind, boost your immune system and manage pain and stress. While essential oils and aromatherapy have a wide range of benefits, they are not meant to replace medical treatment, instead, they should be used as a therapeutic practice to support overall well-being.

If you, a friend or a family member are struggling with mental or emotional health, visit our online resources for free worksheets, practices and advice from mental health professionals. Change to Chill works with teens to reduce the stigma around mental health, manage stress, maintain life balance and practice mindfulness.