How Aromatherapy Really Works

Rachel Krause
Daniel Grill/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Daniel Grill/Tetra Images/Getty Images

As New Age-y as it sounds, even non-believers have to admit that aromatherapy works. Scent is so powerful—just think about how passing a particularly fragrant bakery can make you hungry for whatever’s on the table, or how nostalgic the smell of an old boyfriend’s shirt can make you feel. It makes sense, then, that a certain scent can make you fall asleep faster while another can improve energy and focus, particularly when said scents are as concentrated as those used in aromatherapy.

But how does it work? How does the act of sniffing a jar full of lavender oil or peppermint become a catalyst to improved mood or better rest? In brief: When inhaled, those essential oils go straight to your head—literally.

When the molecules hit the brain by traveling through your olfactory nerves, they affect the limbic system, otherwise known as the “emotional brain.” It’s connected to the parts of the brain controlling such variables as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance, which is exactly why aromatherapy can affect your mood and overall feeling. (The limbic system is also why your brain associates scent so strongly with memory—the olfactory nerves in the upper part of the nose pass that information on to that emotional component, thereby linking retrieved feelings and memories to scent.)

So next time you turn to a lavender pillow spray to ease you into sleep, or a lemon oil to relieve stress, know that you have your emotional brain to thank for the very real results. And don’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to scent: whatever your mood may be, there’s an oil for it, so you have every reason to give them all a try.

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