The Science Behind Aromatherapy

The word aromatherapy is thrown around so often. You’ve grown so accustomed to seeing it brandished on everything from candles to lotions to toilet cleaners.

Most people have grown so numb to the phrase that they don’t even realize that aromatherapy is in fact a scientifically studied therapeutic practice.

Aromatherapy has been used as a form of treatment for conditions that range from the superficial such as wound care to the emotional such as depression. Through the use of oils extracted from seeds strong enough to grow a nourishing fruit or herb, aromatherapy uses the chemical components within the aromatic molecules of these plants to alleviate many ailments.

Come explore this misunderstood health practice, as we break down the science behind aromatherapy.

What is Aromatherapy?

In order to get a better grasp as to how aromatherapy can actually transform your life, you need some background knowledge on how this practice came to be. For over 6,000 years aromatherapy has been used in a variety of ways.

The originators in herbal medicine, the Chinese, used to burn incense containing essential oils as a way to promote harmony and balance. Centuries down the road, Egyptians used cedarwood oil to embalm the dead. As the 15th century rolled along, the Greeks started to use essential oils for healing.

Egyptian releasing fragrance

It was during this time period (between 460-377 B.C.E.), The “Father of Medicine,” Hypocrites, documented around 300 different plants’ medicinal properties. These include essential oil staples of today such as peppermint and lavender.

Although aromatherapy has been around since the beginning of time, it wasn’t given the name that’s so casually slapped onto bubble bath labels until 1937. In France, esteemed chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé wrote a book entitled “Aromatherapie.”

In this book, he noted the healing powers of what we now know as essential oils. While attempting to create a perfume in his laborty, Gattefossé’s hand was the victim of a chemical explosion. The chemist quickly developed a case of gas gangrene, which would have proven to be fatal. With his hand on fire, he looked for any liquid to alleviate the pain. In a panic, he stuck his burning limb into a vat of lavender oil.

The chemist described the experience,

“Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped ‘the gasification of the tissue.’ This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day (July 1910).”

The Creation of Aroma

Aroma is a result of the evolutionary process of almost every single plant. In order for the plants that are not extinct survive in today’s day and age are the same reason we all are. We evolved to survive.

Plants developed their aromas as a means of survival. Over time, plants developed a chemical called terpenes. These are the scents that evident in areas such as the roots, leaves, or bark. The plants developed their own particular scents because their species found it the most effective to repel predators.

As we all know, a lot of plants have some beautiful scents. Those stem from their fruits and flowers. Those sweet scents are created in order to provoke pollinators to spread their seed.

Chemically there are reasons why each individual person on this planet looks different. There is a gene in their makeup that gives them a distinct hair color, skin tone, or eye hue. The same can be said for plants.

We are all made up of unique chemical compounds that react in the own individual way when they come into contact with other chemicals in their atmosphere. That is why there are so many different essential oils to choose from for your specific needs.

There are two ways of extracting the essential oils of plants. It’s either done by using steam or pressure. During either process, the cell membranes of the their seeds, leaves, and flowers are ruptured. This releases aromatic oils which are then bottled.

How Essential Oils Affect You

There are many ways to use essential oils. They can be added with thicker oils such as avocado oil or olive oil to make an array of beauty care products from shampoo to lotions to even toothpaste.

For aromatherapy purposes, the best and easiest way to use essential oils is either inhaling straight from the bottle, or (preferably) enjoying the oils through a diffuser.

Combining a few drops of oil with water (preferably distilled) in the diffuser can have your whole house smelling fresh while making a positive impact on your overall health.


When we sniff the aroma of an essential oil, thousands of odorant molecules enter a part of nose known as the olfactory epithelium. Neurons in the olfactory epithelium that contain cilia bind to the aromatic molecules.

As the aroma molecules become bound, the proteins they carry are converted into electrical impulses. These impulses ride through the olfactory nervce and into the cribriform plate, which is what separates the nasal cavity and the brain. The cribrifrom plate cradles an essential area of this process, the olfactory bulb.

The Olfactory Bulb


This area acts as the toll both to the brain. Receptors inside the olfactory bulb interprets all the messages sent from the aroma of an essential oil. Based on the unique chemicals within this oil, the receptors interact differently with each essential oil. However they interpret these interactions, the receptors send messages along their axons, which leads to the olfactory cortex.

In this area of the brain, the specific compounds are identified. The message becomes clear and mitral cells are sent so they can reach an area of the brain many chemicals cannot reach- the limbic system.

The Limbic System

The limbic system is composed of cellular structures located on top of the brainstem and buried underneath the cortex. These areas of the brain have affects on memories and emotions. There are three main components of the limbic system that interact with essential oils. They are the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala.


Each component serves a specific function to the limbic system. The hypothalamus’ primary goal is to bring your body to homeostasis. Think of a thermostat. Its main function is to regulate the temperature in your household. The hypothalamus is a thermostat inside your body that works towards keeping you in balance internally.

The hypothalamus’ other function is to connect the nervous system to the endocrine system. Through the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus delivers messages of sexual arousal, blood pressure, and sleepiness to the nervous system.


The hippocampus is like a compass in the body. It allows us to navigate physically by giving us our sense of direction. The hippocampus is also responsible for converting our short-term memories into what become long-term ones. Typically, this is the first part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. Damage to the hippocampus leads to the inability of creating long-term memories. That is why Alzheimer’s patients have a tendency to forget where they are.


Finally, the amygdala is responsible for our emotional reaction to events. Our emotional responses to past occurrences are stored in the amygdala. These stored memories dictate how we will react emotionally when facing similar events in the future. When a scent’s message is sent from the olfactory bulb and cortex, its arrival at the amygdala signals the body’s fight or flight instincts.


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