The simplest answer is that we don’t know for sure. But in recent medical studies, essential oils and aromatherapy do seem to have a positive effect upon those with brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In one study, for example, aromatherapy was used with a group of the elderly suffering from dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. The patients were given rosemary and lemon inhalations (via diffusers) in the morning. Later in the evening, the diffusers were used with lavender and orange essential oils.
Caretakers and medical professionals studied this group after the morning and evening inhalation sessions. According to professionals in the study, “patients showed significant improvement in personal orientation, without any side effects.”
Although research like this is encouraging, scientists are not sure of the “why” behind the power essentials oils seem to have in helping maintain brain health in seniors.
Here is what we do know:
- You are able to smell an essential oil because tiny molecules are being dissolved in the mucus lining of the olfactory epithelium located on the roof of your nasal cavity.
- These molecules stimulate olfactory receptors, triggering sensory neurons which carry signals to the olfactory bulb that processes and filters the input signals of the essential oil scent.
- From there, mitral cells carry the output signals from the bulb to the olfactory cortex, causes you to perceive the particular scent of the oil that you are smelling.
Interestingly, scientists know that the mitral cells not only lead to the olfactory cortex, but they also carry signals from the essential oil scent to other areas in the limbic system (the primal brain responsible for memory, instinct and mood.) The olfactory system is the only sensory mechanism that involves the limbic system and amygdala in its primary processing pathway.
This connection explains why smell is often linked to memory. This also gives us some insight into why essential oils are so popular as a non-pharmaceutical intervention for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Here are some ways to use essential oils:
- In search of calm? Try chamomile, frankincense, lavender or vetiver.
- Need deeper sleep? Lavender has shown increased sleep patterns in dementia patients.
- For an energy boost, peppermint oil has been proven to increase oxygen capacity.
- Geranium, lavender and mandarin orange, when mixed with almond oil base, resulted in contentment, increased alertness, and reduced levels of agitation, wandering and withdrawal.
- Lavender, marjoram, patchouli, and vetiver significantly increased the active mental states of dementia patients.
Try using pharmaceutical grade essential oils in small doses, just a few drops at a time, and see what brain-body benefits you receive. Some of these oils do have contraindications with prescribed medications, so if you are on prescribed medications, first consult with your physician.
Our sense of smell – and its direct connection to our brains — is a powerful resource.