Knowing the psychology and physiology of the inhalation of essential oils helps to better understand why what you smell actually creates a therapy.
Essential oils can enter the human body through skin absorption and inhalation. The quickest and most effective method of using essential oils for emotional issues is through inhalation. Essential oils have tiny molecules, which disperse into the air and reach the nose when we inhale in their presence. When inhaled the scent molecules reach the olfactory epithelium, which is two groups of about 25 million receptor cells at the top of the nostrils. Odors are then converted into messages, which are relayed to the brain for processing. Inhalation provides the most direct route to the brain.
The average person takes about five seconds to breathe, two seconds to inhale and three to exhale. During an average year, we breathe 6,307,200 times and with every breath, we smell. The human body is capable of registering and recognizing thousands of different smells. The sense of smell is ten times more sensitive than taste. Our ability to distinguish different smells is incredibly precise, but it is almost impossible to describe a smell to someone who has never smelled it. Response to smell only takes 0.5 seconds, as compared to 0.9 seconds to react to pain.
With every breath some scent molecules inescapably travel to the lungs. Some molecules are absorbed by the mucous lining of the respiratory pathway. Some of the molecules reach the alveoli and are transferred into the blood stream. Inhalation of essential oils, therefore, does not only have an effect on emotions, but also has a physical result.
Brain activity has been observed and documented by brain scans and other imaging techniques. Smell triggers psychological and physiological responses in the body. Scent receptor cells transmit impulses to the olfactory area of the brain in the limbic system, which is linked, to memory, emotions, hormones, sexuality and heart rate. These impulses trigger neurochemicals and endorphins that can stimulate, sedate, relax, produce gratifying sensations, restore emotional equilibrium, or cause euphoria, thereby bringing about a mental and a physical change or response.
The limbic system plays an important role in provoking feelings and memories. It assists in stimulating learning and memory retention. The limbic system works in coordination with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus area of the brain to regulate the hormonal activities of the endocrine system. It triggers the production of hormones that govern appetite, body temperature, insulin production, overall metabolism which influence immunity, stress levels, sex drive, conscious thoughts and reactions. In the limbic system is the amygdale, which is where we process anger; the septum pellucidum, where we process pleasure sensations; and the hippocampus, which regulates how much attention we give our emotions and memories.
Aromas have a powerful effect on sex drive. One out of every four people who suffer from anosmia, which is a loss or impairment of smell, also lose their interest in sexual activity. Pheromones, which are the subtle glandular odors of each individual person plays a large role in sexuality. Women who live together have the tendency to menstruate at the same time every month. This is attributed to a natural scent regulation of women living in close quarters who pick up pheromones which cause their bodies to regulate themselves. Every person has their own genetic encoded odor print that is as individual as our fingerprints. No two people smell alike, except identical twins. We often see animals use their sense of smell, but forget what a major role even subtle scent is used by the human animal. Mothers are able to identify they baby by scent alone.
Smells trigger a memory response. Scent memories can trigger changes in body temperature, appetite, stress level and sexual arousal. There are no short-term memories with odors. A whiff of a familiar scent can bring back a flood of memories that are so vivid it can bring one to tears of joy or grief. There is a direct physical route which exists between memory and smell.
Smells can transport us through time and distance. It is common for someone to walk into a room and smell the exact scent of their Grandmother, and find themselves smiling warmly without even realizing it. Conversely, when they come across a smell that floods them with negative memories their heart rate increases and they have a nauseous feeling at the pit of their stomach. Smell creates a chemical response to stimuli, which explains the wave of chemical response to the stomach when confronted with a negative smell. A yummy smell may make someone hungry because it sends a chemical reaction that stimulates the gastric juices.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell.” I know from my experience that this statement is true. How about you? Have you experienced scent memories?