Aromatherapy & the Stress Response Cycle

  • Many of us are experiencing a tremendous amount of psychological stress due to the current worldwide pandemic. I spent the last year and a half researching and writing about Aromatherapy for stress. Since I cannot share this information one-on-one or in the Symposium that we had scheduled for spring, I decided there is no better way than blogging to share this information with you in hopes of helping in your current situation. We need many tools to cope with the crisis. The inhalation of essential oils offers a direct interaction with the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is known to be a powerful emotion processing center and is responsible for learning, memory, and emotional aspects of behavior. It is also the “brain’s alarm system” according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The Limbic system along with the Hypothalamus and Amygdala are functionally linked. The Hypothalamus is in control of regulating various things in the body like heart rate, respiration, hormone secretion, blood pressure, and body temperature. It allows us to respond to our internal and external environment and maintain homeostasis.

    The HPA Axis includes the Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenals. Acute exposure to stressful stimuli activates the HPA Axis. The Hypothalamus releases a hormone which stimulates a release of hormones from the Pituitary gland. Those hormones travel through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands where several types of hormones like cortisol are then released. Cortisol follows a circadian rhythm and is beneficial in many ways including the formation of glucose and suppression of inflammation in the body. With high levels of stress and chronic stress, however, the body releases high levels of cortisol which can lead to various health problems. People experience stressors in different ways based on our life experiences, and patterns of coping with stressors are effected by our environment.

    Enter Essential Oils! Though my research was on “10 Essential Oils for Stress”, here I will highlight the five that I included in my Restorative Mind-Body Blend. Rose Otto, Sandalwood, Sweet Orange, Lavender, and Patchouli create a harmonious spa experience in a bottle.

    In my research Rose Otto (Rosa damascena) was the only essential oil (EO) I came across that was shown to regulate cortisol. Rose Oil also caused significant decreases of heart rate and blood pressure (Songklanakarin J. Sci. Technol. V 26, 2004). The eugenol and linalool rich EO of Rose has the powerful ability to inhibit the HPA activation that occurs during acute and chronic stress (Chemical Senses Journal 37, 2012). From a Chinese Medicine perspective it regulates the liver and relieves stagnant conditions like tension and irritability (Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, Mojay, G.).

    The preferred essential oil of my 20’s, Sandalwood (Santalum album), has proven its place in anyone’s aromatic medicine cabinet in recent years. There is an enzyme in various cells of our body called PDE4 that triggers inflammation in the skin and activation of the HPA Axis. Sandalwood has been shown to inhibit PDE4, thereby deactivating the stress cycle (Frontiers in Pharmacology, V 9, March 2018). In a new field called psychodermatology discoveries are being made, specifically in the link between our mental health and skin health. It has been further shown to be one of the most potent EO’s for atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.

    Many studies on the therapeutic properties of Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis) EO confirm its helpfulness in aiding depressive symptoms. In a human study, Sweet Orange EO “caused significant increases in heart rate as well as in subjective alertness” and suggest the relief of mild forms of depression and stress. (Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants V 5, 2005, p. 75). It can also support in times of anxiety. There is a noteworthy study suggesting that Orange EO has an acute anxiolytic activity, “giving some support to its use as a tranquilizer by aromatherapists”. (Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry V34, 2010).

    Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most highly regarded EO for moderate anxiety, evident in the overabundant commercial (and often adulterated) use. Essential Oils that are high in linalyl acetate have a calming effect on the nervous system (Aromatic Medicine, Skipper C.). Clinical study after clinical study, involving dental patients, hospital patients, and people receiving an Ayurvedic Shirodhara treatment demonstrate lavender’s anxiolytic properties (Flavour and Fragrance Journal V 26, 2011). On a side note, for high anxiety I would recommend Melissa, or Lemon Balm. I have personal experience helping someone out of a panic attack with a couple drops of Melissa on a handkerchief.

    Lastly, Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is an oil you either love or hate. Even if you’re a hater, blended with complementary oils Patchouli added a sweetness that cannot be matched. It contains the constituent, b-patchoulene, which exhibits a greater reduction in locomotor activity (Journal of Natural Medicine, 2011). Another study showed that Patchouli EO “caused a 40% decrease in relative sympathetic activity” (Japanese Journal of Pharmacology, 2002). At the same time, however, it helps with concentration and attentiveness as it has a stimulating effect on the brain (Songklanakarin J. Sci. Technol. V 26, 2004). Andrea Butje of Aromahead Institute speaks of it so beautifully when we look at it from the perspective of the plant part used in distillation: “We can use oils made from leaves to support respiration and deeper breathing. These oils can also protect us from infection. They can help us breath when we feel stress and anxiety, while supporting expansion and creativity. Leaf oils can also support us when if we get into over-thinking and need a calm, clear mind.”

    Whether you look at clinical studies, Chinese Medicine, chemical constituents, or the plant part distilled there is both science and intuition that can guide you towards the essential oils that can help you achieve greater equilibrium. 7% of the aromatic constituents that you inhale goes through the olfactory nerves and 93% goes through the lungs, so make every breath count! My blends are available here.

    Video introduction of the Restorative Mind-Body Ritual here: