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What is Aromatherapy & How Does It Work?

aromatherapy diffuser next to bed

Who knew that a scent could radically transform the way you feel and impact the people and pets around you, too? That's what aromatherapy is all about, using the power of aroma to do everything from boosting your mood and alleviating headaches to repelling insects and freshening the air. But what is aromatherapy, is it worth the hype, and can it deliver the many benefits it promises? Let’s answer some important questions about the therapy to find out. 

What is Aromatherapy?

At its core, aromatherapy is the practice of using plant-derived botanicals, most commonly essential oils, for therapeutic benefit. Essential oils are highly concentrated, pure extracts from plants, leaves, bark, peels, seeds, roots, or petals. When the essence, or the cells that give a plant its signature fragrance, is extracted from the petal or leaf and processed, it becomes an essential oil. It takes a lot of essence to make essential oils—over 200 pounds of jasmine flowers are used to make just one pound of jasmine essential oil.

The history of aromatherapy dates back almost as far as human civilization itself. Ancient texts found in Asia, Egypt, and parts of the Mediterranean describe rituals where scented ointments, oils, cosmetics, and perfumes were made and distributed for spiritual, hygienic, or therapeutic purposes. 

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

When an essential oil is inhaled, the scent molecules travel from olfactory nerves (AKA, your nose) to the brain and have a particular impact on the hippocampus and amygdala, two parts of your brain that regulate memories and emotions. While researchers aren’t exactly sure why or how essential oils work, the general belief is that these scents stimulate the hippocampus and amygdala to induce physical, emotional, and/or mental benefits.

For example, lavender essential oils are often used to promote relaxation, stress relief, and restful sleep. It’s said that when the lavender scent is inhaled or used topically, the scent triggers the same brain activity as melatonin or other sedatives.

From improving sleep to reducing pain, anxiety, or depression, the bonuses of aromatherapy are believed to be far-reaching. As aromatherapy has gained popularity, lower-grade essential oils that are mixed with fragrances and other chemicals are more widely available. To reap aromatherapy’s advantages, look for only pure essential oils—100% plant essence that doesn't change the plant chemistry while the essence is derived.

Looking for more ways to relax? Check out these relaxation techniques you can practice on the go.

lavender aromatherapy essential oils

How Do You Do Aromatherapy? 

The typical method for putting aromatherapy into practice in your space is through inhalation. Whether you’re lighting stress-relief candles or using an aromatherapy diffuser to diffuse mood-boosting essential oils, this surrounds you (and fills your home) with favorable scents. 

 Many also use essential oils through topical application, like a bubble bath, lotion, or massage with an essential oil mixed with a carrier massage oil. Be aware that some essential oils can cause skin irritation and others are toxic for pets, so always research what’s safe for you and your furry friends before use.

How to Use Aromatherapy Oils

There are hundreds of essential oil scents to choose from. Here are a few aromatherapy oils and their known perks:

  • Chamomile (Best for: Anxiety Relief) 

Not just a comforting cup of tea, chamomile’s scent can effectively manage anxiety and calm nerves.  

  • Lavender (Best for: Better Sleep)

Lavender’s soothing and herbaceous properties encourage relaxation and sleep improvement. Some use it as a massage oil, mixed with a carrier oil, for full-body recovery.

  • Orange (Best for: Mood-Boosting)

This bright, citrusy smell can lift a low mood and inspire feelings of joy. Dilute orange essential oil with water to create a natural air freshener and all-purpose cleaner.

  • Sandalwood (Best for: Focus) 

This soft, woodsy fragrance is commonly used in perfumes and has been seen to intensify focus and clarity.  

  • Eucalyptus (Best for: Clearing Sinuses) 

The cool, unmistakable scent of eucalyptus is most useful for relieving nasal congestion and coughs. It can be an insect repellent, too.

  • Peppermint (Best for: Waking Up)

Peppermint’s fresh punch doesn’t only take you back to the holidays—it can increase alertness and memory and alleviate mental fatigue.

  • Ylang Ylang (Best for: Stress Relief)

Usually employed to minimize tension, ylang ylang’s light and floral aroma are also good for enhancing the nervous system and lowering blood pressure. 

woman lighting aromatherapy candle on coffee table

Beyond the Benefits of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is just one of many unique methods for healing. There’s a similar power in the foods and drinks we consume every day. Tea, in particular, can do wonders for treating illness and even possibly prevent disease. For a closer look at how the beverage can benefit you, check out our “There’s a Tea for That” guide and get the tips you need to ease your ailments.