Aromatherapy Basics

Aromatherapy Basics

Let’s dive into Essential Oils and Aromatherapy Basics, what it’s all about and why it works.  I think most people think of Essential Oils and they either think of massages or people trying to sell the oils on the internet.

And while both may be true, there is so much more to it!  Essential oils aren’t just for a nice aroma in a massage oil.  They can have quite profound therapeutic properties – both emotional and physical.

I think most of you know that I am currently in graduate school working on my Master’s Degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  That degree covers a huge variety of topics but it is our choice if we want to cover a lit bit about a lot of topics or a lot about a smaller subset of topics.  I chose the latter.  I chose 3 topics so I could really dive deep.  My focus is Holistic Nutrition, Essential Oils and Herbal Medicine. 

Let’s talk about oils and why they may matters to you. 

Aromatherapy Basics

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What are Essential Oils?

Essential Oils are extracted from plants. It is basically the essence of that plant if you want to think about it that way. Once extracted, the oil goes through a processing process which I am not going to go into.. 

So, we have an essential oil from a plant.  Now what?  Well, your options are to smell it or put it on your skin (usually with a carrier oil).  Another way to use it is to ingest the oil, but there is a lot of controversy over this.  Some oils you can ingest, some you can’t, and others scientists simply can’t agree on.  My general rule of thumb is to focus on the aroma and using on the skin and just don’t ingest any oil.

How do Essential Oils Work?

Each essential oil has its own therapeutic properties and active constituents.  How and why they do what they do depends on the chemical makeup of the oil as well as how it is used. 

Inhalation of Essential Oils

When it comes to the aroma, the limbic system plays the most important role. The limbic system is responsible for things like Olfaction (the sense of smell), Appetite and Eating Behaviors, Sleep, Dreams, Emotional Responses, Sexual Behavior, Addiction and Motivation, Memory and Social Cognition [1].

So what happens when you inhale an essential oil aroma?

There are five distinct stages of when it comes to smell.  When an aroma is inhaled, it is:

  1. Detected
  2. Transmitted
  3. Perceived
  4. Analyzed
  5. Stored in the memory

The aroma is first detected in the nostrils, then passes by the trigeminal nerve, and on to the olfactory epithelium which is the primary reception area. It is here where the aroma “docks” and begins the change in the nervous system and the transmission phase begins. 

Messages are then sent to the brain.  The particular aroma print is sent to the olfactory bulbs (and other regions).  Following this, lots of stuff I won’t bore you with happens involving the olfactory cortex (perception), limbic system (recognition and storage) and hypothalamus (response/reaction).  Lastly, the reticular formation is responsible for tying the aroma with emotion and memory.  Just a little bit of science there for you!

The Limbic System

So, the limbic system is where I want to focus.  When a scent is inhaled, the limbic system processes the information, but the response itself comes from the hypothalamus.  For example, the limbic system may stimulate the pituitary gland which would then produce a hormone which would trigger emotional reactions and physiological reactions.

The tight bond between aroma, emotion and memory is key in things like emotional and spiritual healing.  So blending oils to trigger a memory is often a goal of aromatherapy.

As a general example, let’s use Lavender.  Lavender has a sedative effect and also reduces cortisol.  So someone might use Lavender in a diffuser if they want to decrease stress and sleep better.  It takes about 1-5 minutes for absorption, which is pretty fast. 

Fun fact – did you know that the aroma of things like pumpkin pie, licorice and lavender greatly increases blood flow to the nether regions of a male?  Just saying…..  Lots of fun facts with essential oils.

aromatherapy skin

Essential Oil Use on Skin

The skin is actually one of the major pathways of absorption of the oils.  The essential oil molecules are small enough in size that they can easily pass through the skin, through sweat glands and hair follicles as well as between the cell membranes.  It then enters the blood stream and lymph fluids and is carried to the whole body. 

It is important to note that most often when essential oils are used on the skin, they are mixed with a carrier oil.   Carrier oils, when used with essential oils, help the essential oils by safely “carrying” them across your skin.  This helps dilute the essential oils to reduce the risk of an adverse reaction on your skin.

My favorite carrier oils are almond oil, coconut oil and aloe vera oil.

Essential Oil Side Effects

It is important to understand that Essential Oils are not something to be used without consideration.  There are contraindications and potential side effects for all Essential Oils.  I have several very thick Essential Oil textbooks that I reference often. 

Possible side effects are things like allergic reactions, rashes, asthma attacks, nausea and others. 

As an example, one shouldn’t use chamomile if they are allergic to ragweed.  Simple things like that.  Always know your oil and if it is safe for you to use.

What is Aromatherapy?

Alright, so let’s get into some aromatherapy basics. What is Aromatherapy?  Aromatherapy is simply using Essential Oils as part of a holistic health treatment for health and general wellness. 

Essential oils, in aromatherapy, are used in a variety of ways.  Some of which can include:


Hot and Cold Compresses

Massage Oils

Body Oils and Lotions

Bath Salt

And more.

The most popular conditions that people seek out treatment for with aromatherapy are:






General sickness like the common cold

Why Include Essential Oils and Aromatherapy?

Whether someone is looking for relief from a physical or emotion ailment, essential oils have a lot to offer without the kind of side effects and yucky ingredients like many drugs and medications.

Essential Oils, if used correctly, can be a natural, safe and cost effective therapy for many common ailments as well as for preventative treatments.

If you have a cold with congestion, perhaps you might use Eucalyptus which has positive effects on congestion, bronchitis, coughing and breathlessness [2].

Examples of Essential Oils and Emotional States

Addictions – Garlic, Fennel, Grapefruit

Anxiety – Anise, Chamomile, Eucalyptus, Jasmine, Lemon, Rose

Depression – Basil, Clary Sage, Frankincense, Juniper, Peppermint

Hyperactivity – Clary Sage, Marjoram

Worry – Lemon, Rosemary

(Peterson, 2020)

Examples of Essential Oils and Physical Systems

Digestive System – Blend of Anise, Peppermint & Ginger

Respiratory System – Blend of Pine, Peppermint, Tea Tree & Bergamot

Urinary System – Blend of Cajuput, Lavender, Tea Tree, Juniper & Sandalwood

Muscle Pain – Blend of Chamomile, Juniper, Marjoram, Rosemary & Ginger

(Peterson, 2020)

Essential Oil Quality

I do want to point out that not all Essential Oils are equivalent.  There is going to be a vast difference between an oil that is sourced organically and natively than to, say, an oil you pick up at Walmart.  The oils that I use are from my school appocathery shop as well as from Plant TherapyPlant Therapy has organic options for most of their oils and their prices are middle of the road.  They have some amazing blends as well.  I have their chakra blend kit and their meditation blend.  All wonderful oil blends.

Lastly, always error on the side of caution and do skin patch testing as well as be aware of which oils should not be used around certain pets.  We do love our furry friends after all!

So what’s the biggest takeaway? The biggest takeaway today is that if you are moving to a more holistic and healthy life and want to start minimizing non organic products that you put in or on your body, then essentials oils may be something you want to look into further.  They are so versatile and as the saying goes, no matter what you need it for, whether physical or emotional “There’s an oil for that“!

Essential Oil Articles You Might Like

10 Rules of Essential Oil Safety

10 Essential Oil Rollerball Blend Recipes

5 Essential Oil Diffuser Blends for Fall

Lavender, Tea Tree, Lemongrass, Eucalyptus, Sandalwood Essential Oils and the Best Carrier Oils

The Best Essential Oils for Meditation


[1] Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian journal of psychiatry49(2), 132–139.

[2] Rhind, J.P. (2019). Essential oils (fully revised updated 3rd edition): A comprehensive handbook for aromatic therapy. London, UK: Singing Dragon. ISBN: 9781787752290

[3] Petersen, D. (2020). AROMA 503. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.


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