Is it possible to calm the mind and alleviate emotional problems with something other than traditional drugs and therapy? That’s the question millions of people are asking in light of evidence that some essential oils can help people achieve a calmer lifestyle. The related field of aromatherapy has also shown promise when it comes to overall mental health and related conditions like headaches and sleeplessness.
Figure 1: The aroma of lavender can have a calming effect on some people.
Less Stress and Lower Anxiety Levels
Even mainstream medicine has come onboard the “aromatherapy” bandwagon in the past few years, declaring the benefits of certain essential oils for conditions like general stress, anxiety, and sleep irregularity. Most aromatherapy involves the user either putting the essential oil directly on the skin or inhaling it in a steamed form.
Some people prefer to have a bit of essential oil used as a base for massage oil. That way, they are able to get relaxation in two forms at the same time. Whatever method you prefer, it helps to understand the basics of essential oils and how they can bring an increased sense of well-being. In many cases, aromatherapy with essential oils has been shown to markedly improve overall mental health.
Figure 2: The five most popular essential oils used in aromatherapy
The Basics of EOs
When a plant’s oil is extracted and kept in its “essential” form, the result is an essential oil. These substances are not to be confused with plant oils that are extracted and then mixed with fragrances or other types of chemicals. True “essential oils” add nothing and subtract nothing from the plant’s own liquids.
One reason the price of essential oils is so high is that it takes a lot of plants to produce just a small amount of the desirable, oily extract. Consider that in order to come up with just one pound of lavender essential oil, more than 210 pounds of lavender plants have to be used. The same thing holds for most other essential oils, so don’t be surprised to see some pretty high price tags on your favorite product.
The upside is that it takes just a tiny amount of an oil to deliver big benefits. For example, just a drop or two of an essential oil can be added to massage lotion to bring about a powerful aromatherapy effect.
There are hundreds of essential oils on the market, thousands when you consider the many combinations. But most retailers who sell essential oil (EO) products say that about 90 percent of all oils sold are one of the following eight aromas: clove, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, peppermint, chamomile, cedarwood, and bergamot.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
A few of the key benefits of aromatherapy, based on the use of essential oils as lotions or inhalants, include measurable reduction of depression and anxiety, an increase in energy levels, an overall faster healing process for the body, elimination of most types of headaches, better and deeper sleep, bolstering of the immune system, more effective and complete digestion, better blood circulation and in some cases, a sharper mental process.
There are literally hundreds of different essential oils, and numerous ways to deliver them into the body. Depending on the type of oil and how you choose to use it, it is possible to target a specific ache, pain or mental state in a comprehensive aromatherapy regimen.
Aromatherapy defined: The actual practice of aromatherapy is growing in popularity as a stand-alone alternative medical treatment and in conjunction with massage therapy and many types of esthetics programs. The use of essential oils as inhalants and in skin lotions has been around for more than a thousand years, but it wasn’t until sometime in the 11th century when human beings learned how to use distillation via steam that the practice caught on in earnest. Since then, people have been inhaling essential oils for all sorts of conditions, though early uses were probably for respiratory infections and general aches and pains.
Allergy and toxicity warnings: The field of aromatherapy is quite complex, and covers much more than the simple act of inhaling an essential oil or two. Professional practitioners learn how to combine oils to create a synergistic combination of effects. This type of thing should be left to professionals because synergistic effects with essential oils can be extremely powerful. Some people can have allergic reactions to certain combinations, while others might suffer a toxic effect from a potent combination of oils.
If you’ve ever had an aromatherapy treatment at a spa or massage clinic, you’ll notice the practitioner diluting the oil before use. This is necessary because most essentials are so potent that they need to be “watered down” before they can be applied to the skin or can be put into a steamer for inhalation.
Specific Benefits of Essential Oils
Like many other alternative medical treatments, aromatherapy has multiple benefits. Aside from using a single oil in the bath or for self massage, it’s best to visit a trained professional. That way, you’ll be able to describe exactly what you hope to get from the treatment, and the practitioner will be able to mix just the right combination of oils in a safe, effective way. Here are the main benefits of aromatherapy, but keep in mind that this is merely a representative sampling of the dozens of things aromatherapy can do.
Stress reduction: The number one use of aromatherapy by professionals and do-it-yourself consumers is for stress reduction. There is plenty of research that backs this up and the oils used are sold in thousands of retail stores. Many people report instant stress relief from a simple aromatherapy regimen that contains bergamot, ylang-ylang, lemon oil, and peppermint.
As a treatment for depression: Alongside counseling, or sometimes as a stand-alone, aromatherapy has been shown to help lessen the effects of depression and anxiety. The most-used oils for this type of treatment are peppermint, jasmine, chamomile, and lavender.
Memory enhancement: Still a relatively new use for aromatherapy, there has been some research to back up the claim that sage oil has the ability to help boost the memory power even for people who suffer some forms of dementia. The effect is also present in younger populations and seems to be at least a short-term memory enhancer. While there is no known “cure” for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, early reports about the effects of sage oil have been promising and professional practitioners have been deluged with inquiries about the “memory enhancing” properties of aromatherapy.
Headache treatment: A doubled effect of headache relief can be achieved with an aromatherapy massage. The generalized pain relief from massage combined with the healing properties of essential oils like peppermint, sandalwood, and eucalyptus can help knock out even the most stubborn headache pain, including migraines. One of the tried-and-true systems for headache elimination involve using a body oil like almond or sesame combined with one of the essential oils known to relieve headache pain. Rubbing the essential oil and the “carrier oil” into the neck, upper back, temples, and scalp can bring instant relief without drugs.
Sleep regulation: Some essential oils seem to have a direct effect on the body’s sleep cycle, helping to better align the natural rhythms and induce a fuller, deeper sleep. A trained aromatherapy professional is the best person to help with this situation, although you can experiment on your own with some of the essential oils that are known to assist human sleep, like rose, sandalwood, chamomile, neroli, and jasmine. That last one, jasmine, is mentioned in ancient Indian and Egyptian literature as being a known sleep inducer, which might be why those two essential oils are among the top sellers today.
Pain reduction: One of the safest ways to reduce general body pain without drugs is with essential oils. Consumers can purchase individual oils for a home steamer, or visit a professional for more nagging types of pain. Chamomile, juniper, eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender are the most commonly used oils for general and specific body pains.
Immune system booster: Any medical doctor will tell you that it’s always better to prevent an illness than to treat it after it appears. This is one of the big advantages of aromatherapy. Many essential oils have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties that help protect the body from invasive and dangerous substances. Frankincense, mentioned famously in the Bible, as well as lemon, cinnamon, oregano, and peppermint oils contain known agents that are able to act against invasive microbes, fungi and bacteria.
The Verdict on EOs and Aromatherapy for Mental Health
The advantages of aromatherapy are well established and the field continues to grow rapidly. As more research is done on specific essential oils, there will likely be continued use of aromatherapy in spas all over the world, and by consumers who buy oils and use them at home. For mental health, aromatherapy has proven to be a good adjunct therapy for those who suffer from anxiety, depression and memory challenges.
Note: The above information is not in any way intended to be “medical advice,” and should not be taken as such. If you want to know whether essential oils and aromatherapy can play a role in your own emotional/mental stability, consult a medical professional.