Scent and the Brain: aromatherapy and its effects on emotions

When any scent or fragrance is inhaled, the odor molecules travel up the nose where they are trapped by olfactory membranes that are protected by the lining inside the nose. Each odor molecule fits like a little puzzle piece into specific receptor cell sites that line a membrane, known as the olfactory epithelium. Each one of nerve cells is replaced every 28 days. When stimulated by odor molecules, this lining of nerve cells triggers electrical impulses to the olfactory bulb in 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 are stored), and other parts of the limbic system of the brain.

Because the limbic system is directly connected to the parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance, therapeutic-grade essential oils can have profound physiological and psychological effects. The sense of smell is the only one of the five senses directly linked to the limbic lobe of the brain, our emotional control center.

Unique features of essential oils are:

• Pass easily through our skin and cells membranes.

• Diffuse through the entire body within half an hour.

• Go directly to the brain through the olfactory bulb.

• Affect our feelings and thoughts; smell is our most emotional sense.

• Perform multiple functions because of their structural complexity.

This explains ‘why’ one therapeutic essential oil, using only a couple of drops, can do so many different things for you all at the same time – emotionally, physically, and mentally. I use and recommend Young Living Essential Oils, they are the best I’ve found.

Scent stimulates nerves to fire in the emotional center of the brain, but it also stimulates the master gland to release hormones. Hormones affect the fight or flight response, as well as digestion and heart rate. In this way, essential oils can affect us in many ways all at once, just through their fragrance.

Anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and joy all emanate from this region. The scent of a special fragrance can evoke memories and emotions before we are even consciously aware of it. When 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 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 sex drive to energy levels. The production of growth hormones, sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, are all governed by the hypothalamus. Thus, the hypothalamus is referred to as the “master gland.” Essential oils–through their fragrance and unique molecular structure–can directly stimulate the limbic lobe and the hypothalamus.

Not only can the inhalation of essential oils be used to combat stress and emotional trauma, but it can also stimulate the production of hormones from the hypothalamus. This results in increased thyroid hormones (our energy hormone) and growth hormones (our youth and longevity hormone).

A therapeutic-grade essential oil can increase cellular oxygen up to 21 percent – no other plant component comes close. For instance, hydrogen peroxide increases cellular oxygen only percent.

Essential Oil Choices for Harmonizing Some Emotional States


• Blends: Release, Valor, Sacred Mountain, Joy, Harmony, Hope, Forgiveness, Present Time, Trauma Life, Surrender, Christmas Spirit, White Angelica.

• Single Oils: Bergamot, Cedarwood, Roman Chamomile, Frankincense, Lavender, Lemon, Marjoram, Myrrh, Orange, Rose, Sandalwood, Ylang Ylang


• Blends: Valor, Hope, Peace & Calming, Present Time, Joy, Citrus Fresh, Surrender, Believe

• Single Oils: Orange, Lavender (a study), Roman Chamomile, Ylang Ylang.


• Blends: Valor, Motivation, Live With Passion, Hope, Joy, Brain Power, Present Time, Envision, Sacred Mountain, Harmony, Highest Potential

• Single Oils: Frankincense, Lemon, Sandalwood, Geranium, Lavender, White Angelica, Orange, Grapefruit, Ylang Ylang.

Grief / Sorrow

• Blends: Valor, Release, Inspiration, Inner Child, Gathering, Harmony, Present Time, Magnify Your Purpose

• Single Oils: Bergamot, Roman Chamomile, Clary Sage, Eucalyptus globulus, Juniper, Lavender.


Valor for Aligning Emotions

“I put five or six drops of Valor in each hand. By placing my left hand on the sole of my left foot, and placing my right hand on the sole of my right foot, I am creating an energy circuit. I patiently hold this position until I sense energy or a “pulse” in both hands. Then I release my hands and stretch myself long and straight to allow my body to come into alignment, both physically and emotionally. Stretching also gives me a chance to be still and focus on my next step. Usually, I am in a better mood already…and often go to my oil kit for another oil that will support me in whatever I am facing that day. Hmmm…what oil will I put on next?” ~ Melissa B.

RutaVaLa Essential Oil for Emotions

“People with chronic states of excitation often have digestive difficulties. I believe these situations are related. People with chronic states of excitation, get depleted adrenals eventually and are chronically tired. Often there are also sleep difficulties as well. The list goes on as to what organs are effected and how they are effected by this process of anxiety and chronic stress. I believe many disease processes can be tracked back to this state of chronic excitation, and also to emotional challenges that occurred earlier in life that generated the development of the pattern.

So, when using the oil blend RutaVaLa every 15 minutes, I am finding that you interrupt the cycling that occurs. Applying it once is great and you can feel wonderful benefits. But if you really want to work with the underlying pattern, to begin to change it at a deeper level, and to really feel what it is like to RELAX more deeply, and to feel a sense of well-being like you have never felt before, I recommend using it every 15 minutes for at least an hour. You will see what it feels like to come down off this cycle, and how you will begin to feel the rise of excitation if you wait 15-30 minutes and then use it again, and then again and again. It is an amazing experience to get a frame of reference for relaxation and excitation in this manner.

Other benefits I have found and that people are reporting; Better digestion! Better bowel movements, better focus, improved and deeper sleep, greater productivity during the day, increased sense of safety, comfort, ease and well-being.” ~ Debra R.

Studies on Aromatherapy and the Brain

In a large clinical study [1], Alan Hirsch, MD, tested the fragrances of peppermint, to trigger significant loss in weight in a large group of patients who had previously been unsuccessful in weight-management programs. During the course of the six-month study involving over 3,000 people, the average loss exceeded 30 pounds. According to Dr. Hirsch, some patients actually had to be dropped from the study to avoid becoming underweight.

In 1989, Dr. Joseph Ledoux , at New York Medical University, discovered that the amygdala plays a major role in storing and releasing emotional trauma.[3] From the studies of Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Ledoux we can conclude that aromas may exert a profound effect in triggering a response.

In studies conducted at Vienna and Berlin Universities, researchers found that sesquiterpenes, a natural compound found in essential oils of Vetiver, Patchouli, Cedarwood, Sandalwood and Frankincense, can increase levels of oxygen in the brain by up to 28 percent (Nasel, 1992). Such an increase in brain oxygen may lead to a heightened level of activity in the hypothalamus and limbic systems of the brain, which can have dramatic effects on not only emotions but on learning, attitude, and many physical processes of the body such as: immune function, hormone balance, and energy levels. High levels of sesquiterpenes also occur in Melissa, Myrrh, Cedarwood, and Clove essential oils.

Young Living Essential Oils can provide many benefits to the human body without side effects, whether it is through diffusing or simply inhaling the aroma straight from the bottle. Proper stimulation of the olfactory nerves may offer a powerful and entirely new form of therapy that could be used as an adjunct against many forms of illness. Therapeutic essential oils, through inhalation, may occupy a key position in this relatively unexplored frontier in medicine.


Hirsch, AR, Inhalation of Odorants for Weight Reduction, Int J Obes, 1994, page 306

LeDoux, JE, Rationalizing Thoughtless Emotions, Insight, Sept. 1989

Related articles

Emotional response with Therapeutic-grade Essential Oils

20 Health Benefits of Therapeutic-grade Essential Oils

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s