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What is Aromatherapy, and How Does it Relieve Stress?


By Sarah Parker Ward

Aromatherapy has gotten a lot of hype in the past few years as our scheduled commitments – and stress levels – have collectively increased. But many curious minds find themselves asking whether this naturopathic remedy is really useful or if it’s just new-age jabber. Here’s the full scope of what aromatherapy is, how it works, and whether it might be right for you.


Aromatherapy dates back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Egyptians. Since those early implementations, essential oils have been used for a wide variety of perfumes, as well as for hygienic, therapeutic and spiritual needs. However, the modern complementary treatment applications were not thoroughly studied until the 20th century.

What are essential oils?
Essential oils, the hallmark tool for aromatherapy, are concentrated extracts derived from the seeds, roots, leaves, or blossoms of a plant. Typically, they are derived from one of two possible methods: distillation and expression.

What’s the difference, you ask? Essential oils derived from expression are said to have a more true-to-nature scent, but also tend to have a shorter shelf-life and may have some residue in them that can stain fabrics. Also of note is that oils produced from chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.

How does aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapy is the act of smelling essential oils through one of two methods:

  • Inhalation: Either directly or indirectly, as is commonly done using diffusers
  • Topical application: Applying the oil concentrate directly to the skin or diluting it in lotion or a bath

Through either application, the scent of the essential oils is thought to stimulate certain olfactory, or smell, receptors that subsequently send messages to the brain through the nervous system. These messages are targeted toward the limbic system, or the part of the brain that controls emotions. The potential benefit of topical application is that the oils may generate anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects, in addition to the olfactory stimulation.

What does the research say about stress relief?
Studies on animals have shown both sedative, stimulant and immune-boosting effects for a limited number of essential oils. Research done on humans, including MRI scans, supports claims that aromatherapy impacts the emotional pathways of the brain. Such clinical studies have focused predominantly on critically ill and hospitalized patients and treatment of stress and anxiety. Lavender oil is one of the most commonly cited essential oils used for stress relief

It’s important to note that while numerous studies and medical associations do support the use of essential oils for stress relief, these products are not regulated by the FDA. Likewise, if you are pregnant or considering using essential oils for your infant or toddler, you may want to first discuss the options with your doctor.

Finally, allergic reactions to essential oils are always a possibility, so consider doing a topical application test on a small area with just a drop or two before sailing full-speed ahead.

The links provided in this article are for educational purposes only. No sponsorship or endorsement is implied. Information was used from the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic.

©Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. 2016

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