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Indirect effects of essential oils on mood and cognition via
the olfactory pathway
The study of the effect of aroma on the body involves three levels of
•the chemical interactions of essential oil molecules and olfactory
neurons which lead to the perception of a smell;
•the links between the olfactory system and the limbic system
which controls mood and memory; and
•the psychological effects of those interactions, or what we make
the smells mean.
The olfactory system
Odorous substances are breathed in through the nose and dissolve in
the olfactory mucus layer. Here they bind to G-protein receptors on
the fine hair-like endings (cilia) of the olfactory nerves. When an
odour molecule comes in contact with an olfactory G-protein, the
protein registers its shape (or perhaps its bond energy vibrational
pattern). If the molecule fits, the G-protein changes shape on the
inside of the cell. This change of shape can trigger thegeneration of
an electrical impulse or release a cascade of ‘second messenger’
molecules inside the cell (for example cyclic-AMP).
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Impulses are generated and carried along the membrane of
theolfactory neuron, and collected in a pattern of impulses in the
olfactory bulb. These information patterns are then relayed from
theolfactory bulb to various areas of the brain, including the limbic
system, hypothalamus and the anterior part of the pituitary gland.
You only consciously know that you have smelled something when
the messages reach the cognitive areas in the neocortex of the brain.
The limbic system, mood, odour conditioning and memory
The limbic system is a collection of neuronal structures deep within
the brain that are thought to control various subconscious processes.
The amygdala is held responsible for fundamental mood states such
as rage and fear, whereas the hippocampus is associated with laying
down long-term memory patterns. The limbic system receives infor-
mation from the olfactory bulb, even if the person is not conscious of
The pleasantness or unpleasantness (hedonic quality) of an odour
is determined in the amygdala, and a reflex reaction occurs—either a
facial expression, or turning the head towards or away from the
source of the odour. Imagine a really disgusting smell being held up
to your nose and notice how your nose and forehead instinctively
wrinkle and you pull your head back. Very often our initial impres-
sions of a person or place depend on these subconscious hedonic
reactions to odour. Memories are often stored with olfactory com-
ponents, such that a smell can immediately summon the full memory.
Figure 5.13 shows the relationship between the limbic system and the
other brain structures involved in olfaction.
Mood effects of odours
The hedonic quality of odours has definite effects on people’s moods.
Living in environments with odours that were perceived as
unpleasant or bad caused people to report feelings of illness and
annoyance (Steinheider, 1999).82
Seeber et al. (2002) reported that
chemically irritating odours increased people’s self-reported levels of
annoyance only when they were also perceived as foul smelling.83
By contrast, pleasant smells improved mood and productivity in
the work-place. Workers in a pleasantly fragranced room chose more
efficient strategies and set higher goals for themselves than those in a
non-scented room (Baron, 1990).84
Other research has examined the
effect of essential oils on perceived mood. A major effect was that oils
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that were liked were more likely to cause feelings of relaxation,
alertness, happiness and focus than oils that were disliked.
Another interesting possible psychological effect is odour con-
ditioning. This is where a psychological or physiological challenge
can be associated with an odour in test conditions, such that at a
later date the odour alone causes a response as though the challenge
were still being given.
Case studies from Birmingham, UK show that people with epilepsy
can learn to associate the odour of essential oils like Ylang ylang with
auto-hypnotic relaxation suggestions, and then use the inhaled odour
of Ylang ylang to help avoid the occurrence of fits (Betts, 2002).85
The work is still in early stages, and other oils have not been method-
ically tested to see whether there is a pharmacological effect as well
as the conditioning effect.
Hedonic response and
Possible cascade to
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Essential oils and memory recall
Some essential oils are thought to stimulate memory formation and
alertness. Moss et al. (2002) showed that the presence of Rosemary oil
in the air of the testing cubicle enhanced subjects’ short- and longer-
term memory, but that it slightly impaired the speed of memory
compared to controls.86
The same study showed that the presence of
Lavender oil caused a significant decrease in memory performance,
and slowed reaction times in memory and attention tasks, compared
to both Rosemary and the controls. It was not determined whether the
longer-term memory effect persisted for more than a week.
Other studies have attempted to determine whether essential oils
have reproducible effects on cognitive tasks, but have ended up
asking more questions than they have answered. Part of the difficulty
in assessing cognitive function is the variation in individual responses
to odours, and the fact that not much is known about the dosage of
different oils required to achieve a significant effect. Variability of
constituents in any given oil type also makes it hard to compare trials
that do not have an analysis of the constituents in the oils.
Imaging brain activity
One possible way round the complexities of using psychological tests
is to use an imaging technique. Effects of essential oils on brain
function can be measured with functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI). Levy et al. (1999) found that odour causes different
patterns of brain activity in people with anosmia (loss of smell) than
people with normal sense of smell.87
Other research using fMRI is
focusing on the mapping of olfactory-related activity in the brain,
and the technique could be used to determine whether different types
of odour molecule affect different areas of the brain.
Another technique known as positron emission tomography
(PET)can also be used to monitor the effects of olfaction on brain
activity, as can electroencephalograms (EEGs). However, none of
these techniques really inform what is going on at the neurochemical
level. It could be possible to measure indicators of stress like salivary
cortisol levels, or perhaps blood pressure, but these parameters are
also indirect measures.
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Summary of health conditions and applicable
pharmacodynamic effects of essential oil molecules
Table 5.5 on pages 156–7 lists different organs and body systems, and the
health conditions associated with each that can be affected by essential
oil molecules. Most effects seem to be beneficial, but some may be un-
desirable. It does seem that the polypharmaceutical nature of essential
oils may prove to be ‘just right’ for treating the clusters ofsymptoms that
often accompany complex disease states. It may bethat they are best
suited for the management of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular
disease or arthritis because of their multiple modes of action on inflam-
matory processes, and the positive mood effects of the odours of different
oils. Much could be said about thepsychological benefits of an
aromatherapy consultation and the relationship that develops between
practitioner and client, but that isthe topic of another book.
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