The Role of Aromatherapy for Mental Health

The sense of smell is a tremendous gift. It helps us to perceive aromas that can influence our feelings, bring back memories, ignite our desires, and give us a sense of comfort and calm.

Our sense of smell can be stimulated, and our mental health improved naturally through aromatherapy. Humans have used plants for their therapeutic and aromatic properties for thousands of years. It has also been used to uplift mood and improve mental well-being.

We can use plant extracts to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, sleeplessness, etc, which can be treated by aromatherapy. Therefore this blog post seeks to understand the role of aromatherapy for mental health.

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What is aromatherapy

The words aroma mean fragrance, while therapy means treatment. Aromatherapy has been defined by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) as the use of essential oils for complete healing.

When inhaled, the aroma molecules travel from the olfactory nerves to the brain, affecting the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center.

The skin can absorb essential oils. Drops of wintergreen oil may be added to the massage oil by the masseuse to help loosen up tight muscles. Also, skincare companies use lavender to bath salts to make a calming soak.

Aromatherapy aims to improve a person’s physiological, emotional, cognitive, and psychological well-being.

These organically produced aromatic oils are usually mixed with a carrier oil, applied, or massaged on the skin. You can also inhale the aroma of these oils through the nose.

There are other uses for diluted essential oils, such as adding them to a warm bath, a cold compress, or a diffuser.

Aromatherapy does not target specific symptoms, despite the potential benefits of some oils. But rather, it supports the body’s inherent capacity to achieve equilibrium and balance from health issues.

It can also be used to complement a more popular therapeutic method. And usually included in specific types of massage therapy.

History of aromatherapy

Since around 6,000 BC, the therapeutic purpose of essential oils has been known. They were employed in cosmetics, fragrances, and medicines by the ancient Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians.

Also, essential oils were often used for ceremonial, medicinal, hygienic, and spiritual purposes.

French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé discovered plant therapeutic benefits when he used lavender oil to treat a burn on his hand caused by an explosion in his laboratory.

He then started researching the chemical composition of essential oils, their use for skin infection,  burns, and gangrene, and to treat the wounds of World War I soldiers.

He established the science of aromatherapy in 1928. And by the 1950s, it was used by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, beauticians, massage therapists, etc.

In the United States, aromatherapy gained popularity in the 1980s. These days, several lotions, candles, and cosmetics are advertised as aromatherapy products. However, many of them include synthetic scents, which lack the qualities of essential oils.

How does aromatherapy work?

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Researchers do not fully understand how aromatherapy functions. Some experts believe that our sense of smell plays a major role in this function.

Our nose’s smell receptors communicate with the amygdala and hippocampus. These are two regions of our brain that act as emotional and memory repositories.

Some believe that the molecules of essential oils we breathe in stimulate certain brain areas and affect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

For instance, researchers feel lavender affects the amygdala’s brain cells to become more active, just like some sedative drugs do. According to some experts, the compounds from essential oils interact with hormones or enzymes in the blood.

Due to its multiple simultaneous effects, aromatherapy massage is a popular technique for using essential oils. They are absorbed by the skin or inhaled in addition to benefitting from the massage’s inherent physical treatment.

Common oils used in aromatherapy to promote mental health

Different plant extracts are used to produce essential oils. And they are believed to have medicinal benefits and help treat mental health issues. These oils include but are not limited to the following:

a. Lavender oil

As a result of the benefits attributed to lavender, aromatherapists use it in various health therapies. This is because lavender’s delicate scent is relaxing.

One of the best methods to use lavender aromatherapy is pillow spray because it helps with anxiety, sleep, and relaxation.

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b. Cedarwood oil

Researchers have discovered that cedarwood essential oil can reduce tension, especially for people who are stressed due to work or school.

It’s believed that inhaling cedarwood while working enhances productivity and sharpens focus. Although it hasn’t been tried on humans, cedarwood has been demonstrated to be beneficial in reducing the signs and symptoms of depression in rats.

c. Chamomile

Studies have shown that chamomile’s antidepressant properties can lessen the symptoms of depression.

Chamomile is an excellent alternative in situations when anxiety and depression are contributing to digestive problems, as it promotes calm and minimizes gut inflammation.

d. Grapefruit oil

You will feel more invigorated after applying grapefruit essential oil, which according to experts, has an uplifting and energizing effect.

It’s recommended for people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction since they can use it to suppress cravings. Mental health challenges and withdrawal symptoms may persist for weeks or months when sobriety sets in.

Therefore, grapefruit essential oil therapy is a holistic approach that helps with the recovery process in addiction treatment programs.

Roles of aromatherapy for mental health 

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Aromatherapy has various psychological effects depending on the essential oil being used. It helps people easily manage symptoms, although it won’t cure a health problem. Below are examples of mental health challenges that aromatherapy can treat.

i. Anxiety and stress

Aromatherapy has a relaxing effect that calms and releases tension when used for anxiety and stress. Mandarin, sweet marjoram, neroli, and lavender essential oils can relieve anxiety and stress.

Research has revealed that lavender is a highly effective relaxant for anxiety. A 6-week oral lavender treatment (Silexan, 80 mg/day) was tested against lorazepam’s efficacy in treating people with generalized anxiety disorder.

According to this study, lavender reduces generalized anxiety compared with 0.5 mg/day of lorazepam.

Thirty-six hospitalized patients who received aromatherapy with lavender oil treatment (with 1% concentration) reported less anxiety and happier emotions.

ii. Sleep disorder

In a study comprising 50 leukemia patients, patients were asked to choose three lavender, peppermint, and chamomile fragrances. It was discovered that patients who experienced insomnia had remarkable improvement.

Jasmine, bergamot, lavender, marjoram, chamomile, ylang-ylang, and essential oils can treat insomnia and other sleep disorders.

iii. Depression

Aside from our reactive, subjective, energizing human reactions to aromas, aromatherapy is supported by science in that it reduces depression symptoms.

In a study conducted in 2016, essential oils use the olfactory system to activate brain functions. About 25 million olfactory receptor cells in the nasal epithelium attached to the olfactory bulb are stimulated by essential oils when inhaled.

Following activation, the signal travels from the olfactory bulb and olfactory tract to the limbic system and hypothalamus in the brain.

The release of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, occurs after the signals reach the olfactory cortex and cause the anticipated effect on emotional responses.

Therefore, we can produce serotonin and dopamine through inhaling essential oils, which can help control our mood.

Also, lavender, bergamot, and yuzu are the most used essential oils to treat depression symptoms. People who are depressed can also benefit from the therapeutic function of rosemary and jasmine essential oils.

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iv. Dementia

Pine, sweet orange, lavender, and cedar oils are beneficial in using essential oils for treating sleeplessness in older people having dementia.


For people considering using aromatherapy to treat the symptoms of ADHD, there are essential oils that promote concentration and mental clarity.

These include vetiver, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and frankincense oils, which improve cognitive function, alertness, and attention.

vi. Autism

Some people turn to aromatherapy to treat conditions like anxiety that come with autism. People with autism can manage their symptoms through the relaxing effects of orange, peppermint, and sandalwood essential oils.

vii. Chronic pain

Aromatherapy won’t be able to treat chronic pain like it won’t with any other health problem. But it can help with some aspects of pain management.

Patients who experience chronic pain can have some relief using eucalyptus, sweet marjoram, and lavender to help ease pain and enhance sleep.

viii. Menstrual and menopausal issues

Many distressing physical, emotional, and mental health symptoms can be caused by menstrual problems such as PMS, premenstrual dysphoria (PDD), and menopause-related problems.

But these symptoms can be alleviated by black pepper, citrus, ginger, geranium essential oils, etc.

Take away

Aromatherapy has proven to be a potent complementary therapy for treating mental challenges for many centuries. This is a result of its therapeutic properties, which have made aromatherapy for mental health effective.

Aromatherapy is generally safe. However, you should be careful when selecting compounds because you can be sensitive to plants that produce these essential oils.

And ensure you’re only using therapeutic-grade oils for the best outcomes. For the best recommendation, consult your doctor.

Uchechukwu Ufoh Kyrian

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