Americans love candles.
About 70% of U.S. households use candles regularly. About three-quarters of candle buyers say the most important quality they consider is scent, and a large number of them say their primary reason for using candles is to help them relax or to relieve stress – in other words, for aromatherapy.
Americans buy essential oils for aromatherapy, too – but not as often.
One survey found that only about one-third of respondents believe that essential oils can provide health benefits, and the majority of those are middle-or lower-income females. It’s not millennials buying essential oils, either. Many more gen-Xers and baby boomers believe in the benefits of aromatherapy.
It’s time for everyone else to get on board. A few “experts” disagree, but a growing body of research shows that essential oils can help with a wide variety of health issues.
And anxiety is high on the list.
What are Essential Oils and Aromatherapy?
Articles explaining (and praising) the benefits of essential oils (EOs) and aromatherapy seem to be everywhere, yet they usually don’t explain exactly what these oils are, or how they’re supposed to be used for the best results.
Let’s discuss that part of the story first.
Essential oils are natural, liquid compounds contained in plants. They’re primarily responsible for giving the plants their natural scent, but some perform other functions like protecting against pests, too.
These oils are extracted for human use with several different methods. The most common is steam distillation, but some oils must be removed by mechanically compressing plant parts, or with the use of natural or chemical solvents. Reputable producers ensure that all of the processes they use create safe essential oils.
Extracted EOs can be used in a number of ways. They can be applied to the skin, either by themselves (and should always diluted with a carrier oil and used in conjunction with a “skin barrier” oil or aloe), or blended into health and beauty products. They can be mixed with bath water (using the same precautions as when applying to the skin). Some people even ingest them.
Health experts usually suggest being very careful using essential oils on the skin and never swallowing them, since the oils can cause allergic reactions and may even be poisonous. And the government doesn’t provide much clarity on the issue, since the Food and Drug Administration classifies them as cosmetics and doesn’t regulate them.
In any event, the best, most popular and safest use for essential oils is in aromatherapy.
A large number of essential oils have been shown to provide health and wellness benefits when their scents are inhaled. The practice, known as aromatherapy, is widely used today in holistic and therapeutic medicine, but has actually been around for thousands of years. Even Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” used aromatherapy in his practice way back in the fourth century B.C.
Here’s how it works. The scent molecules in essential oil first stimulate the olfactory nerves in the nose and then, moving through the nervous system, several areas of the brain – including the amygdala, the part of the brain’s limbic system that control emotions. They help to lower stress hormones, while also stimulating the brain to release mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. The molecules travel through the respiratory tract into the blood stream and the organs as well, which is why aromatherapy may be able to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
There are several different methods of aromatherapy administration. Necklaces and bracelets can be filled with essential oil so the wearer can inhale the scent as desired; portable aroma sticks known as “inhalers” can easily be carried in the pocket or purse; cosmetics infused with an essential oil can provide a continuous “dose” of the scent.
Most common, however, is the use of essential oil diffusers. Diffusers spread the scent of an essential oil throughout an entire room or home, providing health benefits – as well as the uplifting sense of well-being that’s provided by any pleasing aroma.
And one of the most popular uses for essential oils in aromatherapy is to ease anxiety and stress.
Essential Oils to Treat Anxiety: What Research Says
Aromatherapists, and perhaps some enlightened health care or mental health professionals, regularly suggest essential oils as a natural remedy that can treat the effects of anxiety and stress.
But do essential oils really help? Evidence suggests that they do.
Many clinical trials and research studies have examined the efficacy of essential oils, and a number of them have focused on anxiety and/or depression. The bottom line: it appears that some aromatherapy agents like lavender essential oil work in a way that’s similar to anxiolytic agents (drugs that prevent or treat anxiety disorders) like Xanax and Valium. They target the chemical messengers in the brain that can elevate anxiety or stress levels.
In fact, one study found that essential oils were able to provide stress relief for pre-operative patients, and another reported the same positive results among women suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety. Still others discovered the benefits of essential oil therapy for the stress of childbirth and for those in hospice care. And the review of lavender essential oil research we mentioned earlier even showed that aromatherapy can help with such serious issues as panic attacks and phobias.
A few experts still believe the effects of essential oils don’t last long enough to provide much benefit, with a 2000 review of the literature published in the British Journal of Medical Practice cited most often. However, the bulk of research done more recently indicates that there are clear benefits to the use of many EOs in aromatherapy to treat anxiety and stress.
Best Essential Oils for Anxiety
The sheer number of essential oils available in the offices of wellness practitioners, at natural foods stores, and even in supermarkets and on Amazon can be overwhelming.
First and foremost, of course, you want to choose a scent that you find pleasing – and either relaxing or invigorating, depending on your mood and needs. But chances are good that the EO that you decide on will help – at least to some extent – to ease anxiety and relieve stress.
The reason is simple. There are nearly 100 different essential oils on the market, and a large percentage of them have been shown to at least help with anxiety.
Here are some of the best choices.
Even if you’re not buying aromatherapy oils, it’s difficult to avoid the pleasant scent of lavender (lavandula angustifolia) when shopping for health and wellness products. It’s a key ingredient in everything from hand creams and bath bombs to baby shampoos.
The lovely aroma is one reason, of course, but just as important is its undeniably calming effect. We’ve already discussed the science behind EOs and mentioned several studies on the effects of lavender; this essential oil is perhaps the most effective at reducing the body’s cortisol levels (cortisol is better known as the “stress hormone”). It’s also been shown to help with insomnia and sleep quality, too.
Anxiety and stress aside, there are other good reasons to give lavender essential oil a try. The EO has shown promise as a treatment for acute migraines, and lavender oil appears to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties as well.
If you’re not partial to the scent of lavender, you can often find it as one of the ingredients in common essential oil blends. It’s that effective.
Everyone’s heard of lavender, but vetiver is not as well-known. It’s a fragrant grass with an earthy scent that’s often used in perfumes. And its essential oil is another good choice for anxiety relief.
Animal studies have shown that vetiver EO may be able to ease associated with anxiety; it’s already being used as a treatment for children with ADHD and ADD, because it’s able to boost alertness as well as provide relief from anxiety. It has antioxidant properties as well.
While we’re talking about less-familiar plants that produce essential oils which are effective for anxiety, let’s bring bergamot into the conversation. Bergamot is a citrus fruit that resembles an orange; it’s often used to make tea (it provides the signature scent and flavor of Earl Grey), but its fragrant and soothing essential oil has been shown to be a good weapon against anxiety, depression and mood disorders.
Did someone mention tea? Chamomile tea is well known for its ability to lull you into restfulness, but it can do more than just provide a respite from anxiety by putting you to sleep. There’s been research showing the herb’s ability to help those suffering from general anxiety disorders as well.
If just walking past a fragrant jasmine plant immediately puts you into a better mood, that’s not just your imagination working overtime. The essential oil from this plant has been used for centuries in Asian nations like Thailand, because it improves mood and feelings of well-being – thereby reducing stress.
This extract from an Asian tree is commonly used in beauty products for its antibacterial properties. It’s also a terrific essential oil for reducing anxiety because it lowers production of the body’s stress hormone.
Hold the myrrh – frankincense will do just fine if you’re searching for an EO that can help you fight stress and anxiety. This herb has been shown to stimulate the brain’s limbic area, reducing the emotions that contribute to anxiety and depression, while easing stress by inducing relaxation.
No, this isn’t the one that’s in your spice rack (or the one sitting in the back of your kitchen cabinet because you hardly ever use it). Clary sage is a flowering herb that’s cultivated primarily for medicinal purposes. It can help regulate menstrual periods and ease female cramping, and it also is good for reducing excess skin oil. We list it here, though, because it’s been shown to control stress in women by reducing cortisol levels.
It may be difficult for those who dislike the aroma of patchouli incense – and there are quite a few – to believe that this herb can provide health benefits like treating oily hair or dry skin, easing queasy stomachs and acting as an antibacterial. But the reason so many people find the incense relaxing is the same reason that its use is so prevalent in aromatherapy: the scent calms nerves and relieves depression.
Other Essential Oils for Anxiety
The nine essential oils we’ve mentioned are far from the only ones regularly used, with great success, to ease anxiety and relieve stress. Many others can be quite helpful for those purposes, including:
- Geranium oil
- Lemon oil
- Sandalwood oil
- Peppermint oil
- Sweet almond oil
- Cedarwood oil
- Jojoba oil
- Neroli oil (orange blossom or bitter orange oil)
Many of these oils are also used in combination in essential oil blends. Some are mixed because their therapeutic properties work well together, like lavender and bergamot, or clary sage and ylang ylang. Other good combinations are based on scents which complement each other, like citrus and floral aromas, or spicy and woody ones.
Potential Side Effects
One of the beauties of using essential oils instead of prescription medications is that EOs are unlikely to cause any major side effects.
The most common issues are burning or irritation which may occur when essential oils are applied directly to the skin. That’s why EOs should always be diluted with a carrier oil, and tested on a small patch before being more widely applied. A “safer” approach is using skin care products with the essential oils already blended in.
(We’ve already mentioned that ingesting EOs can potentially be toxic. Even though some essential oil producers give directions for internal use of their products, the best advice is to only use them outside of the body.)
The only potential issues associated with the use of essential oils in aromatherapy are allergies and sensitivities, a particular concern when using diffusers. The person buying the oil may not be allergic or sensitive to it – but others in the home may be. Headaches, asthma attacks or other allergic reactions like rashes are always possibilities, so be cautious before blasting essential oil droplets into the air around others.
Those side effects, however, are rare. If you use essential oils smartly and with care, they’ll be a welcome addition to your health and wellness repertoire.
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