Essential Oils: A Beginner’s Guide to Aromatherapy

Essential oils are made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant to capture the compounds that give the plant its unique fragrance. Those oils can then be inhaled, added to a carrier oil for direct application on the skin, consumed orally (some, not all), or used in household products to clean and sanitize.

When inhaled, the molecules in essential oils travel up the nose and interact with scent receptors, which stimulates the olfactory nerve that connects to the brain.

“The oil itself doesn’t go up into the brain, but it stimulates a response that typically affects different aspects of the brain and the central nervous system, specifically in regions called the limbic system. This system has a lot to do with arousal, memory, and processing emotions,” says Michelle Davila, ND, a naturopathic doctor with the integrative medicine department of Beaumont Health in Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak, Michigan.

For example, scientists believe lavender stimulates the brain similarly to some sedative medications, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

However, one review, which evaluated several studies on the efficacy of lavender therapy in neurological disorders, found that longer-term follow-ups, larger studies, and more consistent clinical parameters are needed before its usage should be recommended for treatment of nervous system or psychological concerns.

Essential oils also create certain effects when applied to the skin. “Because of their low molecular weight and the fact that they’re fat-soluble, essential oils can get into the bloodstream and affect different aspects of our overall health,” Dr. Davila explains.

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