Aromatherapy has been practiced for thousands of years in places like ancient Egypt, India and China. Historically, it was typically used in religious ceremonies and as a natural treatment for certain diseases[1].

Nowadays, aromatherapy is widely available and well recognized for its therapeutic effects on physical, psychological and emotional issues or disorders. It is often employed in complementary and alternative medicine to improve a person’s overall sense of wellbeing.

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is an alternative healing practice that utilizes the aromatic and medicinal properties of essential oils to alleviate symptoms; these can range anywhere from boosting your mood or soothing a headache, to helping anxiety and depression.

Essential oils are extracted from various parts of plants including the roots, seeds, bark, and flowers. The unique aromatic compounds or ‘essence’ of a particular plant is extracted by cold pressing, steam or water distillation before being prepared for use.

The natural oils can be inhaled with various methods or applied topically, for example in massage. This article focuses solely on the inhalation aspect of aromatherapy.

When purchasing an essential oil, do your research and make sure to get a high-grade brand. Opting for a cheaper essential oil can lead you to poor quality and subsequently jeopardize the potential benefits. You’ll be able to tell as soon as you open the bottle; if the scent doesn’t linger for long and has a shallow quality to it, hold out for a better product.

Summary: Aromatherapy uses essential oils extracted from plants which are inhaled to receive the benefits.

How does Aromatherapy Work?

Aromatherapy can take effect via several bodily systems. It all starts with the olfactory system; i.e the organs and cells related to our sense of smell.

As you inhale essential oils, odor molecules are drawn into the nasal cavity and begin to activate smell receptors in the nose. These receptors then spring into action and send messages through the nervous system to the brain, resulting in physiological and psychological changes[2].

Respiratory System

As scent molecules are carried from the nasal passages right down to the lungs, they interact with the respiratory system. This explains why essential oils with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties like peppermint and eucalyptus can help with coughs, colds, bronchitis and respiratory tract infections[3].

Balance Autonomic Nervous Activity

Some research has shown that aromatherapy may balance autonomic nervous activity[4]. The autonomic nervous system incorporates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic side of the nervous system prepares us for action in the face of a perceived threat, while the parasympathetic side functions to help us restore the body to a state of calm. Following this theory, aromatherapy can help us to both energize and relax – balancing our energetic or emotional states.

A regular yoga practice, breathwork and massage complement aromatherapy well, as these also work to rejuvenate and calm the nervous system.

Work with the Limbic System

The limbic system is a small part of the brain comprised of different sections that deal with memories, emotions and hormone production; it is often referred to as our “emotional brain”. The limbic system can affect many aspects of daily life including sleep cycles, body temperature, stress levels and emotional behaviours linked to past memories or experiences.

Aromatherapy can be used to generate a certain therapeutic response in the limbic system depending on the scent and root issue. For example, inhaling lavender essential oil is thought to help those struggling with restless sleep or sleep disorders due to its relaxing effects[5].

Summary: Aromatherapy works through various bodily systems, with scent molecules entering the body as we inhale. The physical, emotional and psychological benefits can result from the interaction of essential oils with the respiratory, nervous and limbic systems.

How to Use Aromatherapy Scents

Aroma oil diffuser and plants on table, close-up view

There are a number of ways to release and inhale aromatherapy scents. The inhalation of essential oils can be incorporated into daily rituals, as a moment of respite during a busy day or in spiritual practices like yoga and meditation to enhance the experience.

Diffusion

Diffusers are a popular method to spread the therapeutic oils through a space by dispersing small amounts into the air. This is a great way to scent a room at home or in the workplace.

Heat

Another technique is to use heat to spread essential oils through the air. A simple way to do this is with an oil burner; typically a small dish shape is filled with a few drops of essential oil and a small amount of water. A candle is placed beneath to heat the mix and gradually release the scent into the surrounding air.

You can also burn a candle for several minutes, blow out the flame and pour an oil of your choice into the wax. The scent will be released and spread when you next light the candle.

Steam

Steam is a lovely way to disperse aromatic oils; the combination of the aroma and warmth of the steam is very relaxing. Try shaking a few drops of essential oils on the shower walls before stepping in or sprinkling drops into a hot bath. The steam from the hot water will cloud the scent all around you as you bathe – take some deep breaths!

You can also fill a bowl with boiling water and add a few drops of essential oil. Allow the water to cool a little and taking care not to get too close, lean your face, neck and collarbone over the bowl while covering your head with a towel. This creates a personal steam room where you can breathe in the aromatherapy scents through your nose and mouth while enjoying the cleansing sensation of the steam.

Direct Droplets

Perhaps the simplest way to use aromatherapy scents is to open the bottle and take a few deep inhalations – be careful not to touch your nose with the bottle as this may cause irritation to the skin. As an alternative, you could apply a few droplets to the palms of the hands, rub them together and hover just in front of the nose before taking a few deep inhalations.

You may also like to get creative and create your own essential oil blends to wear as a perfume on the wrists and behind the ears. Get yourself a small, glass, roll-on bottle and fill it with a scentless carrier oil like jojoba or grapeseed, plus your favourite essential oil or blend of oils. You can play around and see which scents work well together, or make a blend based on the therapeutic effects you seek.

Dry Evaporation

To use this method, take a dry material and add a couple of drops of your chosen essential oil. You can hold the material directly to your nose to inhale, for example in a hankerchief or in true pandemic style, with a drop in your facemask. The oil can also be left to disperse naturally in the case of drops on your pillowcase or even on clothing.

Summary: Release and inhale aromatherapy scents with diffusion, heat, steam, direct droplets or dry evaporation.

Which Scent to Choose

Essential oils 4 different bottles

Your choice of aromatherapy scent or blend depends on the therapeutic effects that may benefit your mental, emotional or physical state.

Productivity, Focus, Concentration

A few oil scents to enhance productivity include lemon, thought to increase memory stimulation and mental alertness; basil to promote mental clarity and focus; and rosemary to stimulate alertness and memory retention. Try them individually or in a mixed blend.

Relax, Rest, Sleep

Lavender oil is known to relax the muscles and decrease the heart rate; as such it is conducive in helping you drift off to sleep. Valerian oil is believed to have sedative effects that help to encourage deep and restorative sleep. Sweet marjoram oil makes a gorgeous blend with lavender and calms the mind, aiding with relaxation.

Energy, Revitalise, Uplift

Grapefruit oil has a bitter citrus scent that’s refreshing, invigorating and bright – perfect to revitalise. Bergamot also has citrus notes and lifts both mood and energy levels. The fresh forest scent of pine oil boosts metabolism and mood, while clary sage oil is said to reduce the levels of stress hormone cortisol and acts as a natural antidepressant.

Calm, Soothe, Anxiety

Jasmine oil fosters a sense of well being that works against feelings of anxiety and is thought to calm the nervous system without causing tiredness. Chamomile oil is a favourite for treating nerves and anxiety due to its sedative effects. Ylang ylang can help to lower blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol making it a key player to manage stress and anxiety.

Physical Ailments

peppermint oil

The fiery scent of ginger oil is helpful for managing symptoms of nausea that can often accompany digestive issues. Peppermint oil contains menthol, a great helper that helps to relax muscles and ease the sometimes debilitating pain of headaches and migraines. Eucalyptus oil has a strong and clean scent; its properties may help with the symptoms of sinusitis, nasal congestion and general stuffiness.

It’s worth considering that physical ailments can be a manifestation of feelings and thought patterns or a reaction to external stimuli. While aromatherapy can help to alleviate the physical symptoms, it’s important to also identify and manage the root cause to avoid repetition.

Conclusion

The wonderful and naturally aromatic properties of essential oils can help with an assortment of physical, emotional and psychological issues.

The benefits of aromatherapy scents take effect through several bodily systems including the respiratory, nervous and limbic systems.

Aromatherapy scents are a pleasure to incorporate into daily rituals and can be inhaled in a range of ways from diffusion to steam to dry evaporation.

Essential oils have differing therapeutic effects from helping with physical ailments like headaches, to boosting your mood or regulating sleep disorders.

You can choose to inhale individual aromatherapy scents or blends depending on your taste and the health or emotional issues you wish to treat.