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How Does Aromatherapy Work?

If you use aromatherapy, you might want to understand how it works. The short answer is that essential oils enter your body either by absorption or inhalation, and the chemical components of the essential oils then affect your body.

Let's look at a longer answer to the question of "how does aromatherapy work?"

Collage uses of aromatherapy, including soap, bath salts, and more.

Inhalation of Essential Oils

When your body's olfactory system processes smell, signals go to two parts of your brain: the olfactory cortex, where you consciously interpret the smell, and the limbic system, which processes emotions and memories.

The effect of scents on the limbic system is why freshly baked cookies remind you of your grandmother who was always baking cookies. Conversely, if you associate a scent with an unpleasant event, that smell can cause you to experience emotions related to that event.

The limbic system is directly connected to areas of your brain that control functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, memory, and hormone balance. This connection means that aromatherapy scents can have both emotional effects and physical effects. 

Absorption of Essential Oils

The mucous membranes in your respiratory tract and lungs absorb inhaled oils. 

Applying essential oils to your skin, usually combined with a carrier oil, lets your skin absorb essential oil into your body. Experts disagree about exactly how much essential oil the skin can absorb. However, most sources agree absorbed oils move into the lymphatic system and blood stream, where they can affect your physical body.

Most essential oils and their components pass through the skin and the body and can be detected in exhaled breath within 20 to 60 minutes, according to Aromatherapy for Health Professionals.

How Does Aromatherapy Work in Your Body?

Each essential oil contains many natural chemical components that can affect you. The predominate component, or combination of components, in an oil determines its effects (that is, relaxing, pain-relieving, unfriendly to bacteria and viruses, etc.). Some oils, such as lemon and lavender, are "adaptogenic" and adapt to what your body needs.  

Chemically, essential oils consist mostly of two chemical families: terpenes and phenylpropanes, according to Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil Therapy. The various types of terpenes and phenylpropane derivatives can have many beneficial effects, including:

  • Creating conditions unfriendly to bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
  • Helping reduce inflammation. 
  • Relaxing your nervous system and muscles to help reduce tension, cramps, muscle spasms, and pain.

Functionally, these chemical families are broken down into groups, including:

  • Acids kill bacteria and viruses and reduce inflammation. They also tone skin.
  • Alcohols also kill bacterial and viruses and are skin toners. 
  • Aldehydes kill bacteria and reduce inflammation. 
  • Coumarins are blood thinners and also have a calming, uplifting effect.
  • Esters relax muscle spasms, soothe irritated skin, and kill fungal infections. 
  • Ketones promote wound healing. 
  • Phenols kill bacteria and stimulate blood flow. 

The bottom line in answering the question of how does aromatherapy work is that essential oils have chemical components that affect your body. Currently, science does not fully understood the effects of essential oils, but more research is happening to provide more information.

To get the full benefits of using aromatherapy, buy only authentic, genuine essential oils.

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