Our sense of smell, I’m told, is our most primal and ‘exerts a powerful influence over our thoughts, emotions, moods, memories and behaviours’.
It’s the reason the whiff of a particular perfume reminds us instantly of that someone we used to know, and why a kitchen filled with the spiced aroma of baking makes us smile and remember.
The connections between our nose and brain are being reinforced and altered all the time, and what I found most fascinating when I took part in an Essential Oils and Emotional Wellness workshop, is that choosing scents is an intuitive process. We’re each attracted to different smells as naturally as we prefer certain colours over others.
While I adore sweet vanilla, warm cinnamon, ginger and citrus, holistic therapist Kate McMorrow, who co-led the workshop in Colchester, is grounded by earthy smells like pine, cedar, juniper, and cypress.
She likened a human’s powerful sense of smell to being beasts in the wild.
“Our nose doesn’t lead us astray. Just as animals in nature would gravitate towards safe berries and things, they would also be repelled from ones which cause them harm.”
Confronted with a table of dozens of vials containing single essential oils from coriander, juniper berry, patchouli and vetiver (both I disliked), it was only instinct I could rely on to help create my custom blend rollerball to take home. That and several resources which linked emotions and emotion states with the best oils to either combat, or complement, those feelings.
So for example, to combat negativity, a suggested mix is spikenard, red mandarin, kumquat and frankincense. In my custom ‘motivate’ blend was (if I remember rightly) orange, clove, star anise, lemon myrtle, vanilla, ginger and cinnamon.
But how exactly do essential oils, which in their purest form can be up to 70-times stronger than the plant itself, impact stress levels and mood?
Kate said: “All the different chemicals in our brain send and bring messages throughout our bodies to our organs. Everything is connected in a cycle and we’re always trying to reach that state of homeostasis within ourselves.
“Serotonin is one of those things I think some scientists consider a hormone and others a neurotransmitter, but either way, we have to sustain a certain level of it balance our mood, sleep, energy levels – everything.
“So when serotonin is lacking or low, there are specific essential oils which research has shown to support and stimulate the serotonin levels.
“My favourite go-to is rosemary but there is clary sage, or wild orange, and you can almost feel an instantaneous connection.”
As a naturopathic doctor, Rebecca Bonneteau’s foray into aromatherapy began with wanting to help people with chronic eczema, including her own which she was born with.
Although she opts for natural methods of healing, having converted some of the most sceptical even in her own family, her practice is backed up with science and the knowledge each oil has different superpowers.
“When we breathe in essential oils, they go to the subconscious part of our brain. The amygdala [part of the brain which is important for dealing with our emotions] is going to soak all of that in, and it really helps to transition us from one emotional state to another.
“When we apply it topically onto our skin or take it internally, what the oils have the ability to do is get into our cells.”
The magic of this, Rebecca goes on to say, is that unlike other substances in the body which need to be let into the cells before they can get to work, essential oils, remarkably, are absorbed all by themselves.
“And if you’re picking the right oils – if you need liver support, for instance, you can get an oil which is known to support the liver.
“The cells in our bodies are continually renewing and rebuilding. The person I am today, none of these cells were here two years ago – these are all new so we’re continually evolving.”
For people who believe aromatherapy is another hippy creation, or like me, question whether essential oils and scent does actually affect the body’s physiology, having it rooted in science is helpful.
Both Rebecca and Kate explained there is no need to identify as a spiritual person to practise aromatherapy.
However, if you do choose to incorporate this into your meditation routine or mindfulness practice, the results might be heightened.
“It’s important to remember, first and foremost, nutrition and the daily choices we make,” Kate began.
“Integrating these oils can enhance overall health and wellness, and the feeling of balance and harmony within ourselves.”
So if you’re feeling stressed or out of sync emotionally, or physically, how might you go about using essential oils?
Adding them to drinks is one way too, but only certain oils are pure enough to take internally so be sure to check the label first.
She said: “I use the water diffuser in my children’s bedrooms at night, usually with frankincense and lavender in it, they both have really calming effects and promote relaxation.
“You have to experiment with what works well for you.”
And what about where to use the oils?
The general consensus between the pair is this is also a personal decision based on where in the body you need healing, and what the desired outcome is.
I roll my vial under my nose and across my forehead to get a fast aroma hit, but if you’re targeting physical ailments, rolling it straight onto the affected area would make more sense.
Referencing natural medicine, Rebecca explained: “If you put them on the bottom of the feet, the body decides where it’s most needed, from a reflexology point of view.
“If you’re beginning, the idea is to put them on the body where the largest pores are because that means it will be absorbed really well so your wrist, behind the ears, back of the neck, bottom of the feet and inside the wrist.”
“The same way as being drawn to the oils, I find to use them intuitively is also empowering, so wherever I feel in the moment,” Kate added.
“Sometimes when I’m in traffic, I place it across my chest so over my heart centre.
“Whichever oils you use will find a way to promote healing.”
Another key piece of information I took away from the workshop at Colchester’s Tree Rooms, is not all essential oils are created equal.
One reason plants produce oil is to defend themselves in the wild, so if pesticides are used, the plant’s need to defend itself is reduced which affects the potency of the oil.
Rebeccca said: “As a human if we’re not happy with our environment, we can get up and move, but a plant or tree rooted in the ground has to defend itself in some other way.
“They will create their own chemicals which contain properties we want to take out of the plant to use on us like the anti-viral, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal effects.
“Therefore, it’s important as to how the plant is grown and harvested, and processed.”
A trained nose might be able to smell the difference between pure and impure oils, but if it’s not pure, it’s not going to work.
So if you’re interested in going on an aromatherapy journey, start getting to know which smells you like and do your research into their properties.
Remember, essential oils are very strong so always mix with a carrier oil like almond, jojoba, and coconut, like we did.
1. Avoid the eyes, ears and nose (I failed on that one)
2. Avoid exposing areas of application of citrus oils to direct sunlight for 12 hours
3. Always dilute oils for topical use on sensitive skin and children especially
4. Always store essential oils away in a safe place, out of the reach of children
*Disclaimer: This blog was first written in 2018