You’re frazzled. How do you deal? Yoga, meditation, exercise? If you want to try something new or deepen your self-care practice, use scent to bring you into a more balanced head space. While sometimes overlooked, essential oils boast therapeutic benefits—including greatly affecting the central nervous system. Recently, aromatic plant medicine has crept into consciousness as neuroscience research demonstrates a promising link between essential oils, the brain, and our ability to heal.
The sense of smell is considered the first to develop in utero, and the olfactory cranial nerve is even labeled No. 1. Evolutionarily, it seems as though we’ve moved away from our old friend, olfaction. Philosopher Walter Ong wrote, "Sight reveals only surfaces" and perhaps it’s true. To get beyond our cultural flings with appearance, analysis, and detachment, smell can take us where vision and thinking cannot. Recently, fragrant molecules have piqued the interest of many medical professionals because they can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier, which is a big deal. While scent touches on different emotions for different people, the cellular level of the brain doesn’t discriminate. In fact, just smelling essential oils influences neurotransmitters. One study showed that lavender creates an affinity to bind to GABA, the brain’s relaxing neurotransmitter, which aligns with lavender's well-known calming effect.
Here are five essential oils for tapping into the mind-body connection and fine-tuning the brain to influence behavior:
Do you ever feel overcome with a tsunami of anxiety? If you have panic attacks or chronic, sudden onset anxiety, then add neroli to your shopping list. This oil is pricey, but it’s worth it. In fact, the results of one study show that smelling neroli is comparable to taking Xanax. While more research is needed, this preliminary research suggests that neroli modulates brain activity and reduces anxiety. This oil can be a healthy tool that nicely complements pharmacotherapy.
How-To: Place a drop on your palm and inhale when anxious. A little goes a long way!
2. May chang.
Commonly referred to by its botanical name, Litsea cubea, this oil belongs to the laurel family. The cool, uplifting smell is reminiscent of citrus oils. Its abundant aldehyde chemical composition leads one to infer that it’s sedating yet uplifting. Seems like a paradox, right? What may chang so easily achieves is balancing the central nervous system while still maintaining alertness. It’s known to reduce stress and regulate central nervous system (CNS) activity. Just a whiff will have you feeling calm but present.
How-To: Add 10 drops into an aromatic inhaler. Feel free to combine with lavender and marjoram for extra relaxation.
3. Ho Wood.
Sometimes, we get so overwhelmed—zooming from place to place—that we forget what it feels like to stand strong in our core. If you’re in search of stability, get back in touch with ho wood. Distilled from the trunk of the tree, it powerfully centers and strengthens while calming the CNS. The soft, woody aroma has some of the highest linalool content of any essential oil, which is a chemical compound known to reduce anxiety and promote calmness. This oil is a must-have for those with stress-related insomnia.
How-To: Add 2 drops to a bit of jojoba oil and rub on pulse points before sleep. Lavender gets a lot of the spotlight when it comes to relaxation and sleep, but ho wood is just as calming. Combine with neroli or vetiver for extra stress relief.
This balsamic, fresh aroma acts on the neurotransmitter pathways while also working as an antidepressant. Part of the mind-body connection is focusing on the body, which is the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The major chemical component, 1,8 cineole, is incredibly potent and known to reduce pain. In fact, eucalyptus inhalation has been shown to decrease pain, swelling, and inflammation in patients who underwent total knee replacement. These results hint that eucalyptus plays a role in the serotonin system.
How-To: Add 7 drops eucalyptus and 3 drops lavender to 1 ounce of sesame oil. Massage the area to relieve sore muscles and calm the mind.
Any aroma lover knows what it’s like to obsess over a smell and carry it around at all times. Right now, that’s ylang-ylang for me. The exotic floral aroma is complex and instantly soothes my edges. But, there’s more than just my anecdotal evidence in support of ylang-ylang’s effect on the CNS. One study showed that the smell alone decreased blood pressure and heart rate but increased attentiveness. The same research team found that topically wearing the oil induced calm relaxation, which lends credence to its use in treating depression and stress. If you’re in need of a mind harmonizer, ylang-ylang is it.
How-To: Add a few drops to some sunflower oil and apply as you would with perfume. This routine is a great way to start the day. For a grounding synergy, add some vetiver and sweet orange.