Our mind set effects everything - our attitude, heart rate, brain chemistry, immunity. Science and modern day’s approach to wellness puts physiology as the main focus, but the irony is that our physiology is very much affected by our psychology. In other words, what we “feel” and our mental patterns have a big impact on what we are experiencing on a physiology level. In 2012 Carnegie Mellon University released an extensive research paper stating that stress is causing such havoc with our health and is the underlining issue in an estimated 75% - 90% of illnesses and diseases. Depression, immunity issues and inflammation in the body are all known illnesses that can be triggered by stress.
There are many external stimuli’s in modern day society that are doing us more harm than good. Interestingly, researchers now say that we are the most stressed out generation!
So what can we do to switch up our stressful lives? For me, taking some time out of my day to care and nourish for myself (even when my to-do list is suggesting otherwise!) really helps to keep my stress levels in check. Essential oils can also help to promote a healthy emotional environment. They can be wonderful allies for supporting and maintaining a healthy mind and body. There are many oils which can help boost the immune system, support stress responses, regulate hormone secretions and calm the mind. They can easily be integrated into our daily routine and self care practices, either by applying them topically or diffusing them.
So, how exactly can essential oils help to relieve stress? Let’s take a closer, more scientific look at how smells trigger emotion responses in the body.
Emotions and the Olfactory System
What is the Olfactory system?
The Olfactory system is responsible for our sense of smell (Olfaction). When we smell we are inhaling volatile particles through the nostrils. The tiny hairs in the nostrils called Cilia will filter a lot of these particles, but some will make it all the way to the back of the nose to the olfactory epithelium. This is the olfactory system’s main organ and it contains millions of sensory nerve endings. Once the particles hit the epithelium they are dissolved in the mucous that coats it and begin to trigger olfactory receptors which relay messages to the brain through mitral cells. The brain processes this information accordingly. Smells which trigger emotions are processed by the Amygdala in the Limbic System, while other smells such as food and drink are processed in the Frontal Cortex of the brain.
If the brain processes a smell as dangerous i.e smoke, then it will quickly activate the sympathetic systems response ‘fight or flight’. If, on the other hand, the smell is associated with something pleasant such as the smell of Roses then it will activate the parasympathic systems response ‘rest and digest’. The Limbic System stores memories of smells so over time responses become much faster.
What is the difference between Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system?
Well, quite a lot actually!
Sympathetic – Known as Fight or flight. The body responds as if it is under attack, even if it is not. Heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, energy and blood is redirected away from body systems which aren’t deemed crucial for survival at that time such as Digestive, Reproductive and Integumentory systems. This is the state our body is in when we feel any sort of stress. FYI – the body processes all stress in the same way, so whether you are being chased by a bear or you have a deadline to meet at work, the body will respond in the exact same way. This is not a sustainable way for the human body to survive and thrive long term. Over time the body becomes exhausted, the adrenal glands become over stimulated and systems start to slow/shut down.
Health related issues that can arise from long term exposure to flight or fight mode: high blood pressure, headaches/migraines, digestive issues such as IBS, reproductive issues such as amenorrhea, adrenal fatigue, erratic mood swings and depression – to name a few!
Parasympathetic – Known as Rest and Digest. The body responds in the opposite way. Heart rate slows down, blood pressure decreases, energy and blood is directed to all body systems – which mean they can work to their optimal best.
Essential oils generally affect the parasympathetic system. Oils such as Lavender, Bergamot, Neroli, Basil, Chamomile, Sweet Orange and Frankincense will all work by triggering a relaxing response in the body, thus affecting our emotions.
Does smelling freshly baked cinnamon buns remind you of baking with your Mother as a child? When we inhale scents often we train our body to create memories associated with it. These memories are stored in the Limbic System. Frequently inhaling relaxing, calming and uplifting scents such as essential oils over time will prompt the body to relax and shift itself out of sympathetic mode to the parasympathetic.
The body thrives best in parasympathetic state (unless it is under attack, of course!). Modern day living is filled with stresses and stimuli making this increasingly challenging.
Self care practices, essential oils and other stress relieving practices can help to counter balance the effects that stress and unhelpful emotions have on our mental and physical health. Having a relaxing roll on blend to hand that can be applied to the body or inhaled during the day can be a real saviour. Exercise, relaxing breathing techniques and quiet time are also great practices to help shift the body from flight or fight mode to rest and digest.