A Neuroscientist On The Benefits Of Essential Oils & How To Use Them

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Aside from just smelling nice, essential oils have a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. So, when it comes to understanding how they work with the body—and how best to use them—who better to ask than a neuroscientist? We chatted with the author of The Source and neuroscientist Tara Swart, Ph.D., to find out how she likes to use essential oils and what makes them so effective. Here's what she had to say.

How essential oils affect the brain.

Have you ever caught a whiff of something that brought you right back to your childhood? Or perhaps a smell you associated with being sick, and suddenly you felt nauseous? According to Swart, "Smell is actually the most emotive sense." The reason being: "the olfactory nerve [which controls scent], has a very short journey to where it connects with the limbic part of the brain—so it connects our memory and emotion really strongly," she says.

As such, "we can use smell to change our mood and mental state," she notes. Enter, essential oils. "I have all sorts of candles and diffusers and sleep sprays and things, but I'm obsessed with the therapeutic potency of essential oils," she adds.

And because smell is so personal, there may be smells that mean something to you or have a particular effect on you, Swart notes, "so it's really worth working out which smells work for you."

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How Swart likes to use essential oils.

First, Swart notes it's important to get high-quality oils. Look for 100% pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils. "That guarantees it's got the potency of the aroma, where that essential oil is actually going to have an effect on your brain," she says.

She recommends diluting the oil in a carrier and then massaging it onto your skin, specifically to your major organs, "your lungs, your heart, your kidneys, your liver," she says. "Make it a sort of ritual [...] Maybe you've done some dry body brushing and then you massage the body with it," she adds.

Swart notes that some oils can also be incorporated into your bath or shower, but she prefers putting them on the body (again, diluted in a neutral carrier oil for safety—learn more about those here).

And as far as which scents she goes for, "Lavender is nature's strongest neuromodulator," she explains. "If you're feeling anxious, it can calm you down—and if you're feeling tired, then it can actually perk you up." (She's associated the smell of lavender with going to bed so strongly, it's now a big part of her jet-lag regimen.)

Swart is also fond of citrusy smells like grapefruit in the morning but adds overall, it's about "listening to your body and figuring out which smells you're attracted to."

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