Oily with a Chance of Pleasant: Aromatic Science


Before you insist you know little to nothing about aromatherapy, and certainly don’t practice this holistic art, stop and take inventory of your home. Do you own scented candles, carefully chosen according to the spice, flower, rain, marshmallows, tropical beach, or winter lodge it was named after? Do you have a stash of incense waiting on a nightstand or in a drawer, any little cones or sticks of sandalwood, frankincense, jasmine, or maybe a temple blend? Do you sometimes stop before sprinkling the nutmeg, cinnamon, oregano, cardamom, anise, or other spices into your recipe, just to stand still and breathe in the scent once the cap is open? When you buy cut or potted flowers, don’t you sit near enough to them, or bury your face in them in passing, to get the full effect of their olfactory characteristics? Is it difficult to resist shoving your face inside the opening of the coffee canister to get the biggest whiff possible of all those natural, aromatic grounds?

You’re using your natural inclinations for aromatic science, even if you wouldn’t call it that. The sense of smell offers a particularly powerful connection between our emotions and the world.

A brief description of the process of smelling: The nasal cavities are lined by the respiratory epithelium, a protective surface for the nasal passages, and also the olfactory epithelium, a membranous lining of neurons and supporting cells that catches odor molecules and triggers the brain’s olfactory response. Once the olfactory bulb is activated, the impulses are transmitted to the gustatory center, where taste is perceived; to the amygdale, where our emotional memories are stored; and throughout others areas of the limbic system. The limbic system affects heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress production, and hormonal balance, and interacts with emotions, memory, and arousal. The olfactory sense is considered to be the more evolved of the five physical senses because olfaction skips routing through the thalamus to be processed by the olfactory bulb directly.

This highly evolved sense of smell is strongly connected to nostalgic and chemical reactions when we encounter various odors. Not only can odors elicit feelings like joy, fear, disgust, anger, serenity, sadness, love, or optimism, they also stimulate the release of hormones which affect physiological activities like the fight or flight response, digestion, respiration and heart rate.

This sensitivity can be a disadvantage, such as when we encounter anxiety. Our senses become more acute during states of anxiety, and research has shown that when we are more anxious even a neutral smell can be perceived as bothersome. But sensitive olfaction can also work to our advantage when we learn how and when to place certain scents into our environments, and let them linger as our hormonal balances and subconscious thoughts begin the process of transforming the chosen scents into positive associations we can return to as needed. I can say I really do know; I have found comfort in aromatherapy in times of stress, during migraines, in childbirth, and when calming ambiguous thoughts following an anxiety attack. Combined with routines of regular exercise, yoga, prayer and meditation, breathing exercises, and time spent with music and the visual arts, I find that infusing my environment from time to time, and even myself, with a little aromatherapy keeps my senses and my soul vibrant, appreciative, focused.

We are such complex and delicate structures, composed of the observable physical, and the more evasive spiritual, emotional and mindful immaterial; and we are always in need of balancing both components. Each is affected by the other, and every bit of our physical and emotional health relies on finding some amount of equilibrium.

Why do you like your candles, your incense, your garden or pot or vase of flowers? One of the main reasons, most likely, whether you have consciously defined it or not, is because of the feeling of calm, energy, happiness, or other pleasant effect that settles into your body and thoughts. It keeps you relaxed and positive. This is the main function of aromatherapy: relaxation and positive thoughts for less anxiety and stress.

With aromatherapy, we have an opportunity to use our evolved, sensitive perception of odor to our advantage, whether we are in need of combating some serious anxiety, or in want of creating a space of relaxation where we can briefly pause and gather our thoughts before moving on with the day. And we can benefit whether we’re into holistic techniques for practical purposes (appreciating the resulting physiological improvements) or spiritual purposes (appreciating an improved awareness of your soul and your understanding of the spiritual realm), or both.

Listed below are three blends of essential oils, what they address, and how to use them for a simple introduction to trying out oil aromatherapy techniques. Think also of your favorite scents; pick some up and experiment with your own combinations for a fusion that suits your mind and body. Check local businesses to begin building your supply of essentials—aromatherapy supplies and various oils are typically available everywhere from Walgreens to Target to holistic clinics and shops. Numerous reputable sites are also available online. There are various ways to infuse your sense of smell with the oils when you are ready: applying a few drops of the oils to your wrists or neck, applying to a damp washcloth and holding it against your forehead, soaking a cotton ball and wafting it under your nose, filling a spray bottle and spritzing your surroundings, wearing pendant diffuser jewelry, and using a diffuser or nasal inhaler. The nasal inhaler is not a method I have tried, but many find it a comfortable and convenient method, especially since you can carry with you for a sniff when you’re fairly sure it’s just going to be one of those days. Always test a small amount of the oils with a dab or a subtle sniff—some people experience irritation of the skin, lungs, nose, or eyes from oils.

And don’t forget, while aromatherapy can alleviate symptoms and contribute to beneficial physiological changes, it generally isn’t a cure that addresses a root cause; if you are using aromatherapy for relaxation and healing in conjunction with physician prescribed medications or other treatments, never replace your treatment of any condition without speaking to your physician first. Always seek medical attention immediately if you believe you are having a health emergency.

Happy concocting!

*NOTE* Oils are not to be taken orally; they can be poisonous if ingested. For another inhalation method, which can be more subtle to the respiratory tract, add the blends to 2 or 3 cups of water and boil, wafting the steam. The blends can be adjusted to your liking, increasing or decreasing the amounts suggested. If you plan to use the cotton ball or nasal inhaler method, start with smaller amounts, 1 to 3 drops of oil in each blend. If applying directly to skin, you can use a base such as 1 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil if you find the aromatic oils harsh. Any pleasant fragrance can positively affect us, and while the oils here are matched to issues they are commonly used to address, they are versatile and can be interchangeable for issues and conditions. How you relate to the scents is based upon your personality, history, and personal chemistry. Find what works for you!

Energy Corrector The main scent in this blend is citrus; citrus scents help alleviate headaches and nausea, and offer a perk to the fatigued. Breathing in the scent of lemon, orange or grapefruit is known to sharpen concentration and improve energy. Add in a few other energy essential oils for a pleasant aroma and a second wind.

7 drops Lemon

3 drops Orange

3 drops Cypress

2 drops Ginger

1 drop Peppermint


Anxiety Reduction Everyone feels anxious at times, and if you live in a developed nation you may be more likely to encounter chronic anxiety: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developed countries generally have higher prevalence estimates of anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, than developing countries. Regardless of where we live, what we have, or what we do, we all need to allow time to connect with others and with ourselves or risk stress, negative thoughts, bad memories, or personal crises occupying us until we are stifled by anxiety. Prolonged anxiety can lead to, or make worse, sleeping troubles, high blood pressure, mood changes including depression, gastrointestinal disorders, and heart disease. Usually there are many areas of an individual’s life and lifestyle that need to be addressed to improve or stop anxiety, and seeking medical advice is often the best starting point.

Throughout history, lavender has been renowned worldwide for its medicinal and calming properties; it is a fundamental in anxiety reduction and relaxation aromatherapy. Among studies done to test the use of lavender as anxiolytic, in a trial by Kritsidima & Asimakopoulou assessing anxiety in dental patients prior to an appointment anxiety levels were lower for the patients exposed to lavender scent than those in the control group. Other scents noted for effectiveness in reducing anxiety are sandalwood, vanilla, Clary sage, juniper, and orange.

10 drops Sandalwood

8 drops Clary Sage

5 drops Vanilla

2 drops Juniper


Calming (Soothing for insomnia and restlessness) Once again, lavender is an optimal choice when you need to calm the mind and body, throughout the day or for sleep. Spraying a light amount of straight lavender oil, or among a blend of calming oils, directly onto sheets, comforter or pajamas can soothe insomnia, helping you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Ylang ylang, with its sweetly flowery fragrance, is also noted for calming the mind, and is associated with helping let go of angry feelings. Add lavender  and ylang ylang to the mix when you’re feeling restless, tense, or grumpy, and begin deep breathing until you feel relaxation drifting in and unnecessary physical and mental kinks evening out.

9 drops Lavender

6 drops Ylang Ylang

5 drops Geranium

3 drops Jasmine

1 drop Marjoram


Study Cited:

Kritsidima M, Newton T, Asimakopoulou K. The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: a cluster randomised-controlled trial. Community Dent Oral Epidemiol. 2010;38(1):83-87.

Diffusers/Inhalers and Oils: