The Power of Aroma: How Essential Oils and Our Sense of Smell Can Support Mental Health
Our sense of smell is deeply connected to our emotions, memories, and overall mental health. When we inhale an aroma, scent molecules travel through the nose and stimulate the olfactory nerve, which communicates directly with the limbic system – the part of the brain that regulates emotions and memory. This makes our sense of smell a powerful pathway for influencing our moods, stress levels, and even depression and anxiety symptoms. Essential oils, in particular, provide concentrated aromatic compounds that can have profound effects on both body and mind. Understanding the science behind how essential oils impact our emotions through aroma, and learning how to harness them can be an important part of an integrative approach to mental health.
The Link Between Smell and the Brain
The limbic system is a collection of brain structures located in the medial temporal lobe that regulates emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. Within the limbic system, the amygdala plays a key role in processing emotions, especially fear and anxiety – stimulating the “fight-or-flight” response to perceived threats.
Due to its extensive connections to other brain regions, the amygdala also helps attach emotional significance to memories and events.
When inhaled, essential oil compounds are detected by receptors in the nasal cavity, which triggers a signaling cascade along the olfactory nerve pathways to the limbic system and other parts of the brain involved in emotion, memory, and autonomic nervous system regulation. Essential oils are believed to exert pharmacological effects via absorption through the skin or mucous membranes as well as binding directly to receptors once in the bloodstream. Individual essential oil constituents interact with various neurotransmitter systems, including the serotonergic, cholinergic, GABAergic, glutamatergic, and opioid systems.
Essential Oils & the Nervous System
According to a 2023 Scoping Review (1) on the Physiological Effects of Essential Oils
The review looked at the evidence for essential oils impacting basic physiological processes related to the nervous system and found essential oils can be beneficial for the following:
- Alertness: Lavender essential oil increased sedation and deep sleep while peppermint and rosemary essential oils improved wakefulness and vigilance, based on EEG recordings and performance on cognitive tests.
- Autonomic regulation: Inhaled bergamot, lavender, lemon, rosemary, and other essential oils affected cardiovascular parameters like heart rate, blood pressure, and heart rate variability, indicating modulation of sympathetic/parasympathetic balance.
- Stress response: Lavender, bergamot, grapefruit, and other essential oils lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increased subjective feelings of relaxation.
- Emotional state: Various essential oils reduced symptoms of anxiety, stress, and negative mood based on psychological questionnaires.
- Cognitive performance: Peppermint and rosemary essential oils improved speed, accuracy, and mental endurance on demanding cognitive tasks, while lavender impaired performance and rosemary enhanced memory.
- Sleep quality: Lavender improved various aspects of sleep based on polysomnography measurements.
The review also looked at evidence related to aromatherapy for various conditions affecting the nervous system:
- Depression and anxiety: Bergamot, lavender, sweet orange, and other essential oils alleviated symptoms of depression and anxiety in clinical studies of patients with breast cancer, dementia, chronic illnesses, etc.
- Insomnia: Lavender essential oil improved sleep quality metrics in patients undergoing dialysis and those with coronary artery disease.
- Agitated behavior: Lavender and lemon balm essential oils reduced agitation related to dementia in one study, but not in another.
- Pain: Lavender and bergamot essential oils displayed pain-relieving properties in rodent models of nociception as well as clinical studies looking at menstrual cramps and other types of acute pain.
- Addictions: Lavender essential oil reduced cravings for inhalant drugs in people undergoing addiction treatment.
- Dementia: Akita cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) essential oil improved cognitive scores and decreased behavioral disturbances in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Stress: Inhalation of essential oil blends containing juniper, rosewood, and copaiba balsam oil increased resilience to psychological and thermal stressors.
Using Essential Oils for Depression and Anxiety Relief
Because essential oils can rapidly shift emotional states through their effects on the limbic system, they hold great potential for managing depression, anxiety, and stress.
For depression relief, combining essential oils that boost serotonin and dopamine levels can help counter depressed or low moods. Good options are sweet orange, lavender, clary sage, bergamot, patchouli, rose, and ylang ylang essential oils.
Create an aromatherapy diffuser blend using 2-3 of these oils together. Place the diffuser in a frequently used space like a bedroom or living area and inhale the aroma for at least 10-15 minutes once or twice a day.
Essential oils containing high levels of linalool, such as bergamot, lavender, and coriander seed, are great choices for anxiety relief.
Create a rollerball diluted oil blend with any of these oils mixed with a carrier oil. Apply a small amount to pulse points like wrists, temples, or neck, and take slow, deep breaths of the scent when feeling anxious.
Having the oil readily available makes it easy to use aromatherapy on-the-go to stop anxiety before it escalates.
Citrus essential oils with high limonene content are also excellent for anxiety relief. Add 2 drops of lemon, grapefruit, neroli, or sweet orange essential oil to a diffuser and inhale the scent for a few minutes when stress levels feel high. The refreshing citrus aroma helps promote relaxation and balance mood.
To Relieve Anxiety
One Roll On Bottle
- 10ml Jojoba or other carrier oil
- 3 drops Neroli
- 4 drops Mandarin
- 2 drops Sandalwood or Patchouli
1. Sattayakhom, A., Wichit, S., & Koomhin, P. (2023). The Effects of Essential Oils on the Nervous System: A Scoping Review. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 28(9), 3771. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules2809377
2. Fung, T. K. H., Lau, B. W. M., Ngai, S. P. C., & Tsang, H. W. H. (2021). Therapeutic Effect and Mechanisms of Essential Oils in Mood Disorders: Interaction between the Nervous and Respiratory Systems. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22(9), 4844. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22094844