The Science of Smell in Aromatherapy – How Smelling Essential Oils Works

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There are a lot of people out there that think that Aromatherapy is literally just about good smelling perfumes, massages, and maybe even some kind of magick. While there is some truth to that, it goes much deeper than that. If you are new to aromatherapy, you are likely wondering just how smelling something like lavender essential oil can help calm a cough or help kill an infection of the chest. You might be wondering just how smelling an essential oil can reduce stress or help you sleep better at night. You're not the only one! This is a common question and the answer starts with how essential oils enter your body. 

There are three different ways that essential oils enter your body

Aromatherapy has a very wide scope description to it that doesn't necessarily cover what essential oils are capable of, in its name alone. While it sounds as if it's just about pretty aromas, it goes far deeper than that. Essential oils are able to work in many different ways to help the body, but there are three main ways that they can enter your body:

  • Through the skin – Topical application is a very common method of use for essential oils. This method can include both external skin and internal skin (lining of orifices, i.e. mouth, vagina, anus). For many years, the skin was thought to be a barrier that couldn't be penetrated by topical applications of medicine, but these days you can be prescribed topical creams that give you a certain dose of medicine through your skin. Topical application is commonly used to treat the skin itself, using salves/creams such as my calendula owie cream, to heal cuts, scrapes, burns, eczema, acne, and more! Topical application can also be used for acute problems such as cough & congestionmuscle pains, growing pains, and even period pains. While topical application is great for skin conditions or acute issues, it is the slowest and most diluted way to get them into your bloodstream. How fast they enter the bloodstream is dependent on the thickness of the skin they are being applied to and how diluted they are with a carrier.
  • Through ingestion – There is a long history of essential oil use and internal ingestion in the medical community. Several essential oils including, cinnamon, clove, peppermint, sandalwood, and eucalyptus are even listed in the 1930's 8th edition of the medical text, Useful Drugs (published by the American Medical Association). This method of use can be effective for digestive issues, sleep problems, and even UTI's, but ONLY when done by a qualified medical professional who knows how to prescribe medications AND essential oils. Essential oils taken internally can be damaging to the body if they are not taken with the proper care. Some even contain toxic constituents and should never be taken internally. This method is not as commonly used because it's not allowed in the aromatherapy world without a medical degree. When this route is used by medical professionals, it is most commonly used to treat infectious diseases that require really heavy doses.
  • Through the nose – The fastest method of getting essential oils into the body, inhalation is one of the most effective and popular ways to use essential oils. Made up of a combination of chemical constituents (just like everything in life is), when inhaled these constituents travel to either your brain, your lungs or both! Though this is one of the oldest methods of drug use, inhalation has only recently been rediscovered in the pharmaceutical industry, where one of the latest drugs to be used via olfaction is insulin (Heinemann 2011). Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, through inhalation. Inhalation is commonly used for respiratory tract infections, allergies, headaches, asthma, prevention of illness, depression, fatigue, nausea, insomnia, nicotine withdrawal, ADHD, and even PTSD.

The lungs are intimately connected to your blood stream

Your nose has two functions; to filter and warm the air that you breathe in, as well as to act as the first part of the olfactory system (your sense of smell). Your lungs have a HUGE surface area that is intimately connected to your blood system, and when directly inhaled, substances can enter straight into your blood stream, including essential oils! This makes essential oils great at treating bronchial issues such as a cough or chest infections.

This is your brain on essential oils…

Olfaction is one of the most primal senses in the human brain. Smell is a chemical reaction that happens when receptors in your brain interact with the chemicals that make up what you just smelled. As early as 1923, it was noted that odors produced an immediate effect on respiration, pulse, and blood pressure, leading Doctor's Gatti and Cajola to conclude that odor has a huge effect on the central nervous system. Studies have shown that smells have instant psychological and physiological effects. Smells can even control who you are attracted to and who you would like to stay far away from you. Essential oils also work in this same way. It's widely known by realtors that the smell of vanilla can give a potential buyer the feeling of home, and even possibly help them in their decision to pick that house. Lavender has a long reputation for helping calm and relax the mind for a better night's sleep, and in studies has even shown to be effective in helping ADHD patients focus better. Even peppermint has long been used to help with nausea and digestive issues.

The many ways to “smell” an essential oil

There are many different ways that you can sniff an essential oil. You don't have to have a $100+ diffusers to use their benefits in your everyday life. These are some of my favorite ways to smell essential oils:

  • Aromasticks –  Aromatherapy Inhalers are perfect to keep on hand in your back pocket or purse, for whenever the need to take a whiff arises! The best part is you’re the only one who smells your personal inhaler, so the essential oils used will not offend anyone around you! To use, place 25-30 drops of the essential oil blend into a small glass bowl. Add the cotton pad to the bowl and roll it around (using tweezers, not bare fingers) until it’s soaked up all the essential oils. Using tweezers, remove pad and place in inhaler tube. After closing the inhaler tube, be sure to label it so that you don’t forget which blend it is!
  • Room Diffusers – Diffusion is a great way to fill an entire space with essential oils, whether to cleanse the air or to change a mood, diffusion is one of my favorite methods to use because it can easily help my whole family at once! Diffusers are great because they can be used to help with freshening the air, calming anxiety, inducing sleepiness, and even help open up the airways when congestion has taken over.
  • Jewelry Diffusers – You can't go wrong with cute jewelry that also diffuses essential oils into the air around you. I also love to make solid perfume and put it in cute lockets or even clay diffuser necklaces that you can put essential oils drops on.
  • Aromatherapy Roll-ons – Roll-ons are a great way to both slowly ingest the oil through your skin as well as apply the essential oils to diffuse off of your body. When applied to pressure points on your body, aromas diffuse the best!
  • Directly from the bottle – This isn't suggested for young children but a very easy way to use your essential oils. Just waft the bottle underneath your nose!
  • “Smelling Salts” –  This is just another way to keep a sniffer around with you on-the-go. In a 10 ml (1/3 oz.) glass bottle, add 30 drops of essential oil blend and fill the remainder of the bottle with either fine or coarse sea salt. Waft the bottle under your nose while taking deep inhalations.
  • Steams & baths – Steams and baths have been used for aromatherapy since the Ancient Greek & Roman times. They were all about steam baths bath then, adding all sorts of herbs and perfumes to the baths. I love a good aromatherapy shower steamer for all of my needs!
  • Room Fresheners – It's SUPER easy to refresh your room using aromatherapy sprays! I love to mix it up depending on the season I have my Fall/Winter scents as well as my favorite Spring/Summer scents! Spritz around your room, on your pillows, couches, and more!
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