The use of essential oils in aromatherapy and complimentary medicine has gained plenty of traction in recent years and with good reason. Essential oils are made from plants via extraction or distillation (there are other ways, too but these are the modern means). With distillation, plants are put into a still and steam is applied to release the oils as vapor, which then condenses into liquid form and is captured and bottled.
On the other hand, extraction (cold press) is often used for citrus fruit oils (lemon, orange, bergamot, etc.). The rind of the fruit is pressed to release its oil, which is siphoned and bottled. (1)
Essential oils can be used topically, inhaled, and in some cases, ingested. One of the most powerful oils out there is frankincense essential oil.
Inhaling Essential Oils
Essential oils contain many phytochemicals that not only produce a particular scent but are packed with antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
When you breathe in plant oil through your nose, it bypasses the blood-brain barrier, sending signals directly into your brain via the olfactory bulb and stimulating various reactions in your hippocampus and limbic system (2). Hormones are then released throughout the body, depending on the neural messages delivered by the aroma. This whole process is much faster that topical application because the oil doesn’t have to go through the skin and circulatory system before reaching the brain.
The hippocampus is responsible for the storage of long-term memory, which includes all past knowledge and experiences (3). These memories are heavily associated with scent because of the proximity of the olfactory bulb and hippocampus. This is why essential oils have such a profound impact on emotional health. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, is responsible for involuntary activities like regulating blood pressure, hormones, stress levels, breathing, and heart rate.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than any other channel.” (4)
Beneficial Essential Oils
Essential oils are effective at mediating human physical responses because they are very similar in structure to human hormones. (5)
- Lavender has relaxing effects and can be used to ease anxiety and depression—better than any pharmaceutical (6)
- Rosemary improves memory and sharpens mental focus (7)
- Marjoram, peppermint, and eucalyptus relieve a headache
- Peppermint relieves nausea and congestion and improves alertness
- Many oils kill cancer, such as cypress, cedarwood, and wintergreen
- Sage and cypress reduce stress and relieves depression (8)
- Citrus oils inhibit cancer growth (9)
- Terpenes in cannabis amplify its medicinal effect in the treatment of cancer, infection, pain, inflammation, epilepsy, depression, and anxiety by virtue of an entourage effect: synergism of active and inactive compounds that bolster the potency of both. (10)
The list is virtually endless.
Many essential oils are anti-inflammatory. Terpenes are a class of substances that give plants their fragrance. They are known to be antibacterial, antioxidant, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory—plants possess these chemicals to protect themselves from predators and disease. (11)
Olfactory (smell) receptors exist not only in the nose but in skin, organs, and many other human tissue and fluids. This is why when you smell something, you feel it throughout your body (12). Terpenes taken in through olfactory receptors are directly applying their own supportive properties in addition to their neural stimulation effects.
Healing your Brain with Frankincense Essential Oil
Inhaling essential oils not only has healing effects in your body, it affects the brain’s healing capacity.
Perhaps the most brain-healing oil is Frankincense. Frankincense essential oil is made from the bark of the tree.
Here’s what it can do:
- Frankincense can distinguish between healthy and cancerous bladder cells and decreases the viability of the abnormal cells. (13)
- Injected frankincense solution provides neuroprotective effects on laboratory animals after stroke. It has the ability to protect neurons, reduce brain cell death, and increase antioxidant activity to promote healing. (14, 15)
- Shows efficacy in the treatment of some autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and bronchial asthma due to its potent anti-inflammatory properties. (16)
- Significantly reduces cerebral edema (swelling) in post-radiation brain tumor patients. (17)
- When injected, frankincense improves learning ability and cognitive function after epileptic seizure damage. (18)
- Anti-inflammatories in frankincense effectively heal lesions caused by atherosclerosis, with implications for chronic inflammatory diseases. (19)
There are few studies on the aromatherapy effects of frankincense, as science is just catching up with this ancient wisdom.
A 2015 study found that nasal delivery of frankincense increased its efficacy and impact on the brain. Brain damage suffered after stroke was more effectively treated by the plant’s compounds when inhaled. (20)
Frankincense contains terpenes called sesquiterpenes that are known to increase brain activity and oxygenation. The Biophysical Human Research Institute has performed several aromatherapy studies on neurological disorders, resulting in significant positive effects. (21)
Additionally, a combination of essential oils that included frankincense was used to moderate Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder behaviors in a group of children aged 6-12 years. Over the course of 30 days, “The inhalation of the oils proved to settle the brainwaves back into normal patterns and improved their scholastic performance and behavioral patterns.” (22)
Essential Oils are incredibly powerful healing tools, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
- When using aromatherapy for medicinal purposes, select therapeutic grade essential oils to ensure you’re getting the richness of the plants.
- In the U.S., they don’t require approval by the Food and Drug Administration, so there are no governmental barriers to their use.
- Aromatherapy is non-toxic and has few, if any, side effects (23)
- Ultrasonic diffusers work best to diffuse oil without affecting its quality.
Frankincense essential oil and other essential oils are just as useful as a traditional first aid kit. You can find an extensive database of essential oils here, published by the National Institute of Plant Genome Research.