Essential oils are Nature’s Answer to Mind-Body Medicine: they directly affect the limbic system of the brain and have been found scientifically to reduce anxiety and pain – both of which are associated with fatigue
Essential oils contain aroma compounds which directly affect the limbic system through olfaction (smell). The olfactory system of the brain communicates directly with the limbic system which in turn regulates the nervous, immune and endocrine systems via the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary axis.
The ability of olfaction (smell) to modulate mammalian biology and mood has been repeatedly demonstrated. A systematic review of 18 studies in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 2009 found “credible evidence” that odor affects mood, physiology and behaviour.
Unlike other senses such as sight and sound which are processed in the brain directly by the thalamus, smell is processed in the limbic system which is also known as the “seat of emotion.” The limbic system contains the hyppocampus (where associative learning occurs) and also the amygdala (where emotional processing takes place). Scents move through our emotional memory and can therefore powerfully effect how you think, feel and behave.
Essential Oils and Anxiety
Increasingly good evidence exists for certain essential oils specifically reducing anxiety in mammals.
A systematic review of 16 randomized controlled trials examining the anxiety-inhibiting effects of aromatherapy among people with anxiety symptoms showed that most of the studies indicated positive effects to reduce anxiety. No adverse events were reported.
In 2013 a study of people exposed to bergamot essential oil aromatherapy prior to surgery had a greater reduction in pre-operative anxiety than those in control groups. Another study in 2012 on sweet orange oil has been found to have anxiety-inhibiting effects in humans, supporting its common use as a relaxant by aromatherapists.
In 2000 researchers in the journal Physiology and Behaviour found that compared to the controls, women who were exposed to orange odor in a dental office had a lower level of anxiety, a more positive mood, and a higher level of calmness. Researchers concluded, “exposure to ambient odor of orange has a relaxant effect.”
In the same science journal in 2005 researchers found ambient odors of orange and lavender reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment
Reviews in the Neurosciences reported that 14 studies of animal models using rodents from 1999 to 2009 covering confirmed essential oils do have an anxiolytic effect (reducing anxiety)
Essential Oils and Pain
Researchers in science journal Brain Behavioural Research in 2002 clearly indicated the ability of lemon essential oil to reduce the limbic system response to pain stimuli in rats. Researchers made similar conclusions recently in a 2014 study in Molecular Pain where they found lemon oil had an analgesic effect by stimulating the pain inhibitory system in the limbic part of the brain of mice.
Many other studies confirm aromatic compounds like lavender oil can reduce pain, for example in 2013, science journal Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine published a triple blind randomized controlled trial with 60 pregnant woman and demonstrated that inhaling a blend of lavender essential oil significantly reduced postoperative pain from cesarian section.
Essential Oils and Chronic Fatigue
Per the Dr Leonard Jason’s Limbic Kindling theory of Chronic Fatigue which I wrote about extensively in CAM magazine, a one-off major stress, or low level intermittent stress (whether psychological, chemical, electrical or bacterial) can cause chronic over-stimulation of the limbic system of the brain which becomes a “hardwired” into a chronic sympathetic nervous system response – even when the external stressor is no longer present.
Chronic sympathetic nervous system stress will cause multiple changes in the body including changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis resulting in:
- lowered adrenal cortisol output,
- raised oxidative stress,
- changes the gut bacteria,
- reduced detox capacity,
- slower lymph flow and increased toxicity,
- reactivation of latent infections and new opportunistic infections,
- reduced mitochondrial function,
- autoimmunity amongst many other changes
All these changes lead to various degrees of the illness we call “chronic fatigue,” or “burnout.” Hypersensitivity to pain, chemicals and anxiety are both underlying causes of fatigue. Addressing the limbic system directly with essential oils is likely to be helpful for a subgroup of patients. Interestingly, a final point is that one theory behind Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is based on the idea that people develop hypersensitivity to the smell of chemicals according to the Olfactory-Limbic System Model of MCS.
Essential oils have also been found to help all these imbalances which will also support people with fatigue:
- Fight viruses
- Fight bacteria
- Soothe sore muscles
- Balance hormones
- Improve digestion
- Reduce oxidative stress
Many science articles backing the use of essential oils can be found at www.AromaticScience.com. The uses of essential oils are many and varied, their power should not be underestimated. Studies confirm essential oil frankincense and myrrh both powerfully fight cancer for example. However their physiological and psychological support is ideal for people suffering stress and fatigue.
As I have written many times, chronic fatigue requires a mind-body or “5 Levels of Healing” multifactorial approach to healing, and this is exactly how essential oils work:
As noted by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA): Aromatherapy..”seeks to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process.”
Other Benefits of Essential Oils
Essential oils are completely natural – they are steam distilled from plants and trees and contain “live essence,” unlike pharmaceutical drugs and supplements which are both synthetically made from “dead” petrochemicals. If using the brand of essential oils I recommend on this site, they are certified as the purest in the market place and can even be ingested internally due to the quality.
Essential oils are highly bioavailable and easy to use – as aromatic compounds the molecules they are made of are tiny and some have been found to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier to fight brain cancer, unlike most drugs or supplements. As they are also lipophilic oils (dissolve in fats), they easily cross fatty cell membranes through our skin and directly into cells, and as a result therapeutic benefits can be easily achieved by inhalation or rubbing onto the skin topically – completely bypassing a weak, compromised or sensitive digestion.