We’ve known for a while that scents play a role in our emotional states. Think how the scent of your favorite food can be comforting, even if you’re not eating it, or how smelling flowers can instantly lift your mood. A scent associated with a bad memory, on the other hand, can leave you feeling down all day.
Essential oils harness the power of certain scents and the effects they have on emotional states. In our most recent blog posts, we explored two studies conducted by nurses who tried using essential oils to relieve stress and improve mood among the nursing staff. In both cases, participants experienced a significant improvement in their emotional states after the essential oils were introduced into the workplace, resulting in less stress and happier, more energized staff members.
Speaking at the 2017 dōTERRA Convention in September, Dr. Rena Szabo, PsyD, CAADC, MA, Med, explained some of the fascinating science behind our sense of smell and how it relates to the effects essential oils have on cognitive function. Recently, Dr. Szabo conducted a clinical trial at a major hospital oncology center to test the effects of essential oil blends on the emotional states of staff members. Over 10 months, participants experienced a significant reduction in negative feelings, including anxiety and apathy at work.
In this post, we’ll delve a little deeper into how our sense of smell affects our emotions, before exploring Dr. Szabo’s findings in more detail in Part Two.
The Connection Between Your Nose and Your Brain
Your sense of smell is one of your most powerful senses. Unlike other senses, which travel through various touch points (like the neurons and spinal cord) before the message is received by your brain, your sense of smell is immediate. Think of your nostrils like portals leading directly to your brain and you’ll see why this sense is so remarkable!
When you smell something pleasant, like diffused essential oil, what you’re really smelling are vaporized molecules that enter your nostrils. Once they’re in your nose, these molecules are absorbed into your mucus and connect with the olfactory epithelium which lies beneath. Receptors in the olfactory epithelium detect the scent, and send a message to olfactory bulbs located in the back of your nose.
It might sound like a long distance to travel, but the olfactory bulbs are actually part of your brain, so this all happens very quickly. When they get the memo about whatever it is you’re smelling, they shoot this data off to two parts of the mind—the neocortex, which is your conscious brain, and your limbic system, which is your primitive brain. And since the limbic system contains the amygdala, which is thought to be the seat of emotion, this can trigger all manner of emotional responses.
This means that while your conscious brain is thinking about how lovely the smell of the essential is, that scent is also having an effect on your primitive brain behind the scenes. Without you realizing it, the scents you encounter can activate responses in the limbic system (both positive and negative), altering your mood for better or for worse.
Your Sense of Smell and Your Sense of Wellness
Smells don’t just make you happy or sad. They can also affect the physical functioning of your body. The limbic system and the scents it encounters can affect the endocrine system (which is responsible for hormone production), your sleep and circadian rhythms, your memory, your energy levels, and how hungry or thirsty you feel. In short, scents can play a large role in your sense of wellness—which is why essential oils can be so powerful.
In our next post, we’ll examine Dr. Szabo’s clinical study into the effects of essential oils on emotional states to see just how effective essential oils can be. If you’d like to learn more about how to incorporate essential oils into your self-care routine, speak to your acupuncturist at your next session.