Essential Oils and The Brain

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Darshan Shingala MD, MPH

Key Information

Essential oils are natural plant extracts

They are obtained by cold pressing, resin tapping, or steam distillation of various plant parts

Essential oils can enhance cognition, mood, and sleep

They can stimulate the olfactory system and the central nervous system, affecting neurotransmitters and hormones.

Essential oils have different effects depending on their composition

Some oils can improve focus and memory, others can reduce stress and anxiety, and others can promote relaxation and sleep quality.

Essential oils should be used with caution and guidance

They can cause allergic reactions, skin sensitivity, or interactions with medications. They should not be swallowed or applied on injured skin.

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Essential oils are potent, natural plant compounds that provide many therapeutic benefits.

They have become very popular for pain management, but also have many cognitive benefits as well.

The following article highlights why essential oils are so good for mental wellness and cognitive enhancement, along with profiling the benefits of some popular essential oils.

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What Are Essential Oils

Essential oils are organically derived compounds from plants. Nowadays, these compound extractions are conventionally used for their therapeutic effect and aromatherapy.1Muhammad Ayaz, Abdul Sadiq, Muhammad Junaid, Farhat Ullah, Fazal Subhan, and Jawad Ahmed, Neuroprotective and Anti-Aging Potentials of Essential Oils from Aromatic and Medicinal Plants, Front Aging Neurosci. 20172Gregory A.Clark, Emotional Learning: Fear and loathing in the amygdala, Science Direct. 1995

All these oils are uniquely formulated and have their own characteristic scent and fragrance. These complex compounds appropriately capture the essence and flavors of a plant.

Each oil is derived mechanically by cold pressing, resin tapping, or by using steam and/or water distillation on various parts of a plant such as bark, flowers, fruit, or leaves. These extracted aromatic complexes are diluted, blended, or infused with a carrier oil to preserve its natural essence and enhance its potency.

However, it is important to note that not all aromatic oils are produced equally.

Essential Oils And The Brain

Essential oil is an incredibly potent composite plant extract to enhance brain health.3Mark Moss and Lorraine Oliver, Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma, Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2012

Aromatherapy with the ethereal oils has been in practice for centuries and is known for its therapeutic benefit.

Because these oils are fat soluble they have more affinity to binding with your fatty brain tissue.4Rebecca R Boyle, Stuart McLean, Sue Brandon, Natasha Wiggins, Rapid absorption of dietary 1,8-cineole results in critical blood concentration of cineole and immediate cessation of eating in the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), J Chem Ecol. 2005

On direct or indirect inhalation of essential oils, the scent molecules unswervingly travel from the olfactory nerves to the brain’s emotional epicenter, i.e., the amygdala.

The amygdala in the brain is a central component of the limbic system, which is responsible for learning emotional and behavioral features of experience, such as processing of fear; these parameters, in turn, influence numerous aspects of long-term memory and cognition.5David H. Zald and José V. Pardo, Emotion, olfaction, and the human amygdala: Amygdala activation during aversive olfactory stimulation, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 19976Tzu-Kai Lin, Lily Zhong, and Juan Luis Santiago, Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils, Int J Mol Sci. 2018

This region of the central nervous system is associated with a fundamental role in olfaction and also drives competition, hunger, nurturing, and sex.7Myung-Haeng Hur , Ji-Ah Song , Jeonghee Lee, Myeong Soo Lee, Aromatherapy for stress reduction in healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials, Maturitas. 2014

Studies have shown that essential oils aromatherapy can help relieve stress, relax the tightness in the body, and promote better sleep.8Irina Chamine and Barry S. Oken, Expectancy of Stress-Reducing Aromatherapy Effect and Performance on a Stress-Sensitive Cognitive Task, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015

Topical Applications

Apart from inhalation, essential oils can be applied topically on skin surfaces such as arms, legs, palm, sole, and face.

It is important to remember that essential oils are not meant to be swallowed. It’s recommended to perform a patch test to avoid allergic complications. Also, avoid applying these oils on injured or inflamed skin, as this may lead to unwanted skin reactions.9Anna Herman , Andrzej P Herman, Essential oils and their constituents as skin penetration enhancer for transdermal drug delivery: a review, J Pharm Pharmacol. 2015

Rubbing diluted versions of these essential oils promotes permeability through the skin cells and also enhances percutaneous absorption. It should be pointed out that diluting an essential oil does not make it less effective.10Lucy Moss , Michelle Rouse, Keith A Wesnes, Mark Moss, Differential effects of the aromas of Salvia species on memory and mood, Hum Psychopharmacol. 2010

Essential Oils for Focus and Concentration

Essential oils can positively influence cognition, focus, and concentration independently through different neurochemical pathways.11Dalinda Isabel Sánchez-Vidaña, Shirley Pui-Ching Ngai, Wanjia He, Jason Ka-Wing Chow, Benson Wui-Man Lau, * and Hector Wing-Hong Tsang, The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017

Studies on essential oils suggest that the fragrances derived from the essential oils can produce substantial and idiosyncratic effects on both subjective and objective assessments of cognitive performance.12Mark Mosscorresponding and Lorraine Oliver, Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma, Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2012

It’s been shown specifically that some oils like Rosemary, for instance, are inhibitors of acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase, 2 enzymes that metabolize acetylcholine. This ultimately translates into sharper thinking.13Ilkay Orhan , Sinem Aslan , Murat Kartal , Bilge Şener , K Hüsnü Can Başer, Inhibitory effect of Turkish Rosmarinus officinalis L. on acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase enzymes, Food Chem. 2008

Some oils are effective at upregulating dopamine which is the primary neurotransmitter used for deep focus and concentration.14Min Sun Choi , Bang-sub Choi , Sang Heon Kim , Sok Cheon Pak , Chul Ho Jang , Young-Won Chin , Young-Mi Kim, Dong-il Kim , Songhee Jeon , Byung-Soo Koo, Essential Oils from the Medicinal Herbs Upregulate Dopamine Transporter in Rat Pheochromocytoma Cells, J Med Food. 2015

Essential Oils For Mood

Essential oils are particularly great for boosting mood.

This is backed by both regular essential oil users and the scientific literature.15Mark Moss , Steven Hewitt, Lucy Moss, Keith Wesnes, Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang, Int J Neurosci. 200816Mark Moss , Jenny Cook, Keith Wesnes, Paul Duckett, Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults, Int J Neurosci. 2003

Regular aromatherapy with oils, such as lavender, lemon, and bergamot, has proven to ease anger and relieve anxiety, depression, stress, and other mood-related disorders.17Xiao Nan Lv , Zhu Jun Liu, Huan Jing Zhang, Chi Meng Tzeng, Aromatherapy and the central nerve system (CNS): therapeutic mechanism and its associated genes, Curr Drug Targets. 2013

Aromatherapy has the potential to be used as an effective therapeutic option to alleviate depressive symptoms and help people suffering from psychiatric disorders.18David O Kennedy , Fiona L Dodd, Bernadette C Robertson, Edward J Okello, Jonathon L Reay, Andrew B Scholey, Crystal F Haskell, Monoterpenoid extract of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) with cholinesterase inhibiting properties improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults, J Psychopharmacol. 2011

Direct or indirect inhalation of essential oils facilitates the translation of signals to the olfactory system and stimulates the central nervous system to employ neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin), thereby elevating your mood.19David O Kennedy , Sonia Pace, Crystal Haskell, Edward J Okello, Anthea Milne, Andrew B Scholey, Effects of cholinesterase inhibiting sage (Salvia officinalis) on mood, anxiety and performance on a psychological stressor battery, Neuropsychopharmacology. 200620Brenda McDonnell, Patricia Newcomb, Trial of Essential Oils to Improve Sleep for Patients in Cardiac Rehabilitation, J Altern Complement Med. 2019

Essential Oils for Sleep

For the sleep-challenged, essential oils can be incredibly useful as a low-cost, non-pharmacological therapeutic technique to improve quality of sleep, reduce sleep disturbances and maintain sleep hygiene.21H. M. A. Cavanagh J. M. Wilkinson, Biological activities of Lavender essential oil, Wiley Online Library. 2002

Several studies show essential oils used either via inhalation or topically have been shown to ease sleep disturbances among several target population, such as college-going students, night shifts nurses, cardiac rehabilitation patients, etc.22Ying-Ying Chang, Chao-Ling Lin, and Li-Yin Chang, The Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Sleep Quality of Nurses on Monthly Rotating Night Shifts, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 201723Angela Smith Lillehei, PhD, Linda L. Halcón, PhD, MPH, RN,corresponding author Kay Savik, MS, and Reilly Reis, MS, Effect of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene on Self-Reported Sleep Issues: A Randomized Controlled Trial, J Altern Complement Med. 201524Mahnaz Keshavarz Afshar,Zahra Behboodi Moghadam, Ziba Taghizadeh, Reza Bekhradi, Ali Montazeri, and Pouran Mokhtari, Lavender Fragrance Essential Oil and the Quality of Sleep in Postpartum Women, Iran Red Crescent Med J. 201525Angela S Lillehei , Linda L Halcon, A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep, J Altern Complement Med. 2014

In other words, if essential oils can work in these extreme, sleep-deprived groups, they can certainly work for you.

Popular Essential Oils

There are about 100 different types of essential oils, and each has its exclusive scent and health benefits. Here’s a descriptive list of the 15 most popular essential oils:

Lavender oil

The fragrance of this organic extract helps to elevate mood, relax, alleviate headaches, relieve stress, and manage sleep disturbances. It may also be an effective remedy in management of quite a few neurological disorders.26Peir Hossein Koulivand, Maryam Khaleghi Ghadiri, and Ali Gorji , Lavender and the Nervous System, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013

It can be topically applied on the inflammation site caused by any bug bite to reduce itching and swelling.27Xuesheng Han, Damian Rodriguez, and Tory L. Parker, Biological activities of frankincense essential oil in human dermal fibroblasts, Biochim Open. 2017

Frankincense oil

A bottle of essential oil with frankincense resin

Scientific literature reveal that using frankincense aroma for a month facilitates the procurement and retention of motor memory.28Elham ASADI, Mohammad Reza SHAHABI KASEB, Rasool ZEIDABADI, and Mohammad Reza HAMEDINIA, Effect of 4 weeks of frankincense consumption on explicit motor memory and serum BDNF in elderly men, Turk J Med Sci. 2019

This oily composite is also known for its antiseptic, astringent, digestive, and disinfectant properties. It can also be used to prevent numerous skin sensitivity and dental issues, including bad breath, dental cavities, mouth sores, and toothaches.29Kazuya Murata , Kazuma Noguchi, Masato Kondo, Mariko Onishi, Naoko Watanabe, Katsumasa Okamura, Hideaki Matsuda, Promotion of hair growth by Rosmarinus officinalis leaf extract, Phytother Res. 2013

Rosemary oil

rosemary oil

The scent of this oil is used to support mental health by improving cognition, focus and memory. This oil also helps to combat male pattern baldness and patchy hair loss. It may also help in relieving pain, inflammation and also repel some blood-sucking insects.30Mark Mosscorresponding author and Lorraine Oliver, Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma, Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 201231Kamilla Ács, Viktória L. Balázs, Béla Kocsis, Tímea Bencsik, Andrea Böszörményi & Györgyi Horváth , Antibacterial activity evaluation of selected essential oils in liquid and vapor phase on respiratory tract pathogens, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018

Clove oil

Clove essential oil. Clove oil glass bottle for skin care or acne

The earthy aroma of this compound has been found to reverse the short-term and long-term memory deficits.32Sumita Halder,Ashish Krishan Mehta Rajarshi Kar, Mohammad Mustafa, Pramod Kumari Mediratta, Krishna Sharma,Clove Oil Reverses Learning and Memory Deficits in Scopolamine-Treated Mice, PubMed. 2010

It has antioxidant properties, which helps not only in treating neuronal infections but also aid in dental problems, and even fighting cancer cells. This oil is can also be used for easing digestion, relieving pain, and managing multiple respiratory conditions.33Lauren A Hassoun, Jennifer N Ornelas , Raja K Sivamani , Cedarwood Oil as Complementary Treatment in Refractory Acne, J Altern Complement Med. 2016

Cedarwood oil

Atmospheric perfusion of this oil has been recommended to relax mind and enhance comfort when anxious or stressed.34Kai Zhang , Lei Yao, The anxiolytic effect of Juniperus virginiana L. essential oil and determination of its active constituents, Physiol Behav. 2018

This is otherwise used topically for skin-related problems and aesthetic treatments. This oil helps to fight acne, treat eczema, and reduce dandruff. This essential oil also helps to relieve symptoms of coughing and arthritis.35Hiren Hirapara, Vishal Ghori, Ashish Anovadiya,3 Seema Baxi, and Chandrabhanu Tripathi, Effects of ethanolic extract of Jasminum grandiflorum Linn. flowers on wound healing in diabetic Wistar albino rats, Avicenna J Phytomed. 2017

Jasmine oil

This flowery sweet essence is very potent and has neuroprotective and anti-aging properties. If regularly used, this organic aroma may also potentiate cognitive performance.36Muhammad Ayaz, Abdul Sadiq, Muhammad Junaid, Farhat Ullah, Fazal Subhan, and Jawad Ahmed, Neuroprotective and Anti-Aging Potentials of Essential Oils from Aromatic and Medicinal Plants, Front Aging Neurosci. 2017

Jasmine flowers with essential oil on

This essential oil affects various neuronal and helps to feel more positive, energetic, and romantic. It is also known to be effective in treating and preventing infections.37Mohamed Nadjib Boukhatem , Abdelkrim Kameli, Mohamed Amine Ferhat, Fairouz Saidi, Maamar Mekarnia, Rose geranium essential oil as a source of new and safe anti-inflammatory drugs, Libyan J Med. 2013

Geranium oil

Oil with pink geraniums on board

This oily complex has been proven to be beneficial for several medical conditions, including anxiety, depression, infection, pain management, and stress reduction.38Kang-Ming Chang and Chuh-Wei Shen, Aromatherapy Benefits Autonomic Nervous System Regulation for Elementary School Faculty in Taiwan, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011

It is also known to have antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.39Abhijit M. Nirwane, Purnima V. Gupta, Jitesh H. Shet, and Sandeep B. Patil, Anxiolytic and nootropic activity of Vetiveria zizanioides roots in mice, J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2015

Vetiver oil

The scent of this emollient can stimulate mental alertness, calm anxiousness, advances neuronal synaptic activities and also protects against bug bites. Also, massaging this oil on the feet at night induces better sleep.40Jay D Amsterdam, Yimei Li, Irene Soeller, Kenneth Rockwell, Jun James Mao, Justine Shults, A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder, J Clin Psychopharmacol. 200941Dania Cheaha, Acharaporn Issuriya, Rodiya Manor, Jackapun Kwangjai, Thitima Rujiralai, and Ekkasit Kumarnsit, Modification of sleep-waking and electroencephalogram induced by vetiver essential oil inhalation, J Intercult Ethnopharmacol. 2016

Chamomile oil

oil in glass bottle with fresh chamomile flowers on wooden

This oil has a calming and soothing effect and is usually used to cure sleep-related problems and stress reduction. It is also known to have therapeutic effects on skin-related conditions such as inflammation and eczema.42Janmejai K Srivastava, Eswar Shankar, and Sanjay Gupta, Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future, Mol Med Report. 201143Noura S. Dosoky and William N. Setzer, Biological Activities and Safety of Citrus spp. Essential Oils, Int J Mol Sci. 2018

Bitter Orange oil

This organic composite is loaded with Vitamin C’s goodness and makes skin appear brighter, clearer, and smoother. This oil exerts beneficial effects on anxiety, stress, nervousness, pain sensation, and emotional disturbances.44Carmen Mannucci, Fabrizio Calapai, Luigi Cardia, Giuseppina Inferrera, Giovanni D’Arena, Martina Di Pietro, Michele Navarra, Sebastiano Gangemi, Elvira Ventura Spagnolo, and Gioacchino Calapai , Clinical Pharmacology of Citrus aurantium and Citrus sinensis for the Treatment of Anxiety, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018

It is also helpful to manage blood pressure, and reduce heart rate.45John P Heggers , John Cottingham, Jean Gusman, Lee Reagor, Lana McCoy, Edith Carino, Robert Cox, Jian-Gang Zhao, The effectiveness of processed grapefruit-seed extract as an antibacterial agent: II. Mechanism of action and in vitro toxicity, J Altern Complement Med. 2002

Grapefruit oil

This aromatic complex has a high Vitamin C content and helps with all types of skin-related conditions. In addition, to which, this oil has been found to have relaxing effect on neurons, calming potential to help stress and anxiety problems, positive effect on mood, and antifungal properties.46Alicia Lanzerstorfer , Melanie Hackl , Matthias Schlömer , Brigitte Rest , Evelyn Deutsch-Grasl , Christof Lanzerstorfer, The influence of air-dispersed essential oils from lemon (Citrus limon) and silver fir (Abies alba) on airborne bacteria and fungi in hospital rooms, J Environ Sci Health A Tox Hazard Subst Environ Eng. 2019

Lemon oil

lemon oil

Like other citrus oils, lemon oil is loaded with a high amount of Vitamin C and antioxidants that can help manage anemia, boost energy levels, reduce inflammation, and relieve nausea. It can also be used to aid digestion, ease headaches, reduce stress levels and uplift mood.

Basil oil

The aroma has been found to have both anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. Hence, this oil can work as a muscle relaxant, cold, and flu remedy. In addition, It can also be used to manage stress, nervous beak-down, depression, treat acne and other skin conditions.47Ané Orchard and Sandy van Vuuren, Commercial Essential Oils as Potential Antimicrobials to Treat Skin Diseases, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 201748Tibet Tangpao, Hsiao-Hang Chung,and Sarana Rose Sommano, Aromatic Profiles of Essential Oils from Five Commonly Used Thai Basils, Foods. 2018

Holy Basil oil

Holy Basil Essential Oil in a Glass Bottle with Fresh Holy Basil Leaves in porcelain mortar on white over background

This essential oil is traditionally used for anxiety, depression, and other nervous disorders. This oil also helps to relieve migraines and other types of headaches. Its properties are also known to manage low blood pressure, low self-esteem, and mental and physical fatigue.49Tapanee Hongratanaworakit , Gerhard Buchbauer, Relaxing effect of ylang ylang oil on humans after transdermal absorption, Phytother Res. 2006

Ylang Ylang oil

This essential oil has been found to have a calming effect on the central nervous system, and hence, helps in relaxation, maintaining optimum blood pressure, heart rate, and rhythm. This oil is also found to encourage hair growth.50Juliana Rizzo Gnatta, Patricia Petrone Piason , Cristiane de Lion Botero Couto Lopes , Noemi Marisa Brunet Rogenski , Maria Júlia Paes da Silva , [Aromatherapy with ylang ylang for anxiety and self-esteem: a pilot study], Rev Esc Enferm USP. 201451Peir Hossein Koulivand, Maryam Khaleghi Ghadiri, and Ali Gorji, Lavender and the Nervous System, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013

Essential Oil Safety

If you’re planning on using an essential oil topically, it is highly recommended to consult a doctor or perform a patch test to avoid serious complications or any possible allergic reaction.

Any scented oil with Vitamin C makes skin sensitive to the sun. So, please make sure to use the aromatic oil complexes at night and wash it thoroughly in the morning.

In any case its always best to consult your physician before using essential oils or any therapeutic product.


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Erik Abramowitz is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), Naturopathic Doctoral student, health coach, and father. He is the primary content creator for and the host of the Holistic Nootropics Podcast.

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