“E-motions are energy in motion. If they are not expressed, the energy is repressed. As energy it has to go somewhere. Emotional energy moves us, as does all energy. To deny emotion is to deny the ground and vital energy of life.” John Bradshaw
How an essential oil’s fragrance acts upon the brain
Tracing the path of an essential oil’s fragrance through the olfactory system is fascinating.
When a fragrance is inhaled, the odor molecules travel up the nose, and are trapped by olfactory membranes These membranes are very tiny, and well-protected by the lining inside the nose. They contain about 800 million nerve endings, that receive the micro-fine, vaporized oil particles, carry them along the axon of the nerve fibers and connect them with the secondary neurons in the olfactory bulb in the brain.
Each odor molecule fits like a little puzzle piece into specific receptor-cell sites lining a membrane, known as the olfactory epithelium. When stimulated by odor molecules, this lining of nerve cells triggers electrical impulses, which are then transported to the limbic system and olfactory sensory nerves at the base of the brain. The olfactory bulb then transmits the impulses to
- the gustatory center (where the sensation of taste is perceived),
- the amygdala (where emotional memories, such as fear and trauma, are stored), and
- other parts for the limbic system of the brain, passing between the pituitary and pineal glands.
Because the limbic system is directly connected to those parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels and hormone balance, the fragrance of an essential oil can have profound physiological and psychological effects.
The link between the sense of smell and emotions
The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses directly linked to the brain’s emotional control center, the limbic lobe. Anxiety, depression, fear, anger and joy all emanate from this region. The scent of a special fragrance can evoke memories and emotions before we’re even consciously aware of it. (Where smells are concerned, we react first and think later.) All other senses (touch, taste, hearing and sight) are routed through the thalamus, which acts as the switchboard for the brain, passing stimuli onto the cerebral cortex (the conscious thought center) and other part parts of the brain.
The limbic lobe (a group of brain structures that includes the hippocampus and amygdala, located below the cerebral cortex) can also directly activate the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is one of the most important parts of the brain, acting as our hormonal control center. It releases chemical messengers that can affect everything from your sex drive to energy levels. The production of growth hormones, sex hormones, thyroid hormones and neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are all governed by the hypothalamus. Thus, the hypothalamus is often referred to as the master gland.
Essential oils — through their fragrance and unique molecular structure — can directly stimulate the limbic lobe and the hypothalamus, exerting profound effects on your mind and body. Not only can inhalation of essential oils be used to combat stress and emotional trauma, you can also use them to stimulate the production of hormones from the hypothalamus.
In 1989, Dr. Joseph Ledoux (New York Medical University), discovered that the amygdala also plays a major role in storing and releasing emotional trauma. He found that aromas have a profound effect in triggering a response from this gland. Dr. Ledoux theorized that this could provide a major breakthrough in helping to trigger the release of pent-up emotional trauma.
The effects of fragrance beyond the brain
Olfactory nerves are like other nerves and organs of the body. They respond to electrical signals and impulses that form coded messages, dispatched to various areas of the body. This may be why inhalation of some oils, which can have such profound effects in the brain, will also increase the production of endorphins, neurotransmitters and antibodies.
Conclusion: The opening of a new medical frontier
Essential oils, and the power of their fragrances to stimulate the olfactory nerves, could well be one of the most exciting breakthroughs in modern healthcare. They remain a relatively unexplored frontier in medicine, but interest is growing!