How Aromatherapy Can Improve Your Mood and Health


Aromatherapy uses essential oils to improve psychological and physical well-being. Essential oils are concentrated extracts from flower, tree, and herb parts like seeds, leaves, buds, bark, roots, rinds, and petals.

This review included 12 studies of aromatherapy for pain management using a visual analog scale (VAS). There was a small but statistically significant reduction in VAS pain.

What are essential oils?

With 9 million posts on Instagram under the hashtag #essentialoils, there’s no denying that these potent plant extracts are in the zeitgeist. But what are essential oils, how do you use them, and can they really improve your mood and boost your health?

Also known as volatile oils or aetheroleum, essential oils are concentrated hydrophobic liquids that contain the essence of a plant’s smell and flavor. They are obtained by steaming, distillation or cold-pressed from parts of the plant—like seeds, bark, flowers, leaves and roots—and can be used for cosmetic, therapeutic and hygienic purposes.

Oils can be inhaled, like bergamot or rosemary, or applied topically to the skin—like lavender or chamomile—using a carrier oil. When inhaled, the scent molecules travel from the olfactory nerves to the brain, impacting the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—and can influence mood. When applied to the skin, they penetrate the soft tissue and can be absorbed into the bloodstream. They can also be ingested, though only under the supervision of a trained doctor or aromatherapist.

How do I use essential oils?

Many people use essential oils to help relieve stress, improve sleep and mood or treat common skin problems like acne. But they can be used in other ways, too. You can inhale them, apply them to the skin or add them to food and beverages.

Aromatherapy can be done using a diffuser, a water-based solution or mixed into a carrier oil. For example, you can put drops of lavender oil in a spray bottle and use it as a room or body spritzer to enhance relaxation or boost alertness.

Essential oils can also be applied to the skin, but should always be diluted before doing so. For example, if you’re planning to use cedarwood oil for the skin, mix it with a carrier oil to avoid irritation. You can also test a small amount of the mixture on your arm before applying it to the body, as recommended by the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.

What are the benefits of aromatherapy?

The aromas of essential oils reach the brain through the nose and the olfactory system, which send signals to parts of the brain that control emotions and memories. Researchers think smell may stimulate these areas in the same way that some drugs do, and they can influence our mental, physical and emotional well-being.

For example, some studies show that the scent of lavender and chamomile can help people who are anxious relax. The chemical compounds in those oils lower activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight-or-flight response with symptoms such as sweaty palms and a racing heart.

Inhaling these oil molecules also can cause a deep, cleansing breath that fills the entire lungs and releases accumulated tension and negativity. Other research shows that certain aromatherapy oils can lower pain from rheumatoid arthritis, cancer or headaches. Fennel, aniseed and sage oil have estrogen-like properties and may alleviate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.

What are the risks of aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy can be used safely, but it should never replace medical care or be seen as a cure-all. It may reduce the need for some pain medications, for example, when chamomile is used for headaches. But it should always be done under the guidance of a trained professional, and people with serious asthma or a history of skin allergies should avoid some oils.

The FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, so it is important to know what you’re getting into before using them. For instance, wintergreen oil can be toxic if taken by mouth and should only be used under the direction of a doctor.

Also, essential oils must be diluted before they’re used on the skin, and it is possible to have an allergic reaction to them. Finally, it is not known how the oils might affect infants and children, or how they might interact with certain medications or medical conditions. So, it’s important to work with a certified aromatherapist.