The Power of Smell: Why Aromatherapy Works

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

I love using essential oils. They have made such an impact on my life, but knowing that essential oils work wasn't enough for me, some of you may feel the same way. I wanted to understand why and how they work. I wanted to explain to an avid essential oil user or the random skeptic why and how so many people swear by them for their complimentary health needs. As a trained and certified Clinical Aromatherapist, I felt it was vital for me to understand these questions in-depth to explain to anyone who may want to know or understand. Here is my attempt as presenting in the simple terms possible why and how essential oils work as it relates to merely smelling them. Explaining the topical or internal use is another discussion and one that is more in-depth.

The human body is a truly amazing thing. Did you know that the sense of smell is fully functioning even before a baby is born! This fully developed sense allows babies to recognize smells even before birth, including its mother (First-time Pregnancy Inc, 2013). It's no wonder that the smell of something familiar at such an early age can take us right back to that experience without us fully understanding why.

In studies done by scientists on rat behaviors, the sense of smell was noted to be connected to behavior and sensation (Aromahead Institute, 2018). As a clinical aromatherapist and an avid essential oil user myself, I knew this to be the case, but I wanted to understand the neurological reasons behind why and how this happens. If you are a scientist at heart, I hope you find the reasons as fascinating as I did.

The olfactory sensory nerves have the sole purpose of transporting sensory information related to smell to your brain for interpretation. Unlike other sensory nerves, these nerves are directly connected to the brain's limbic system areas that process memory and emotions rather than the thalamus where all other sensory data is processed. Because the limbic system is the memory and emotion center, is it any wonder why essential oils can positively impact emotional health. When we consider the effect that emotions have on physical health and the regulation of hormone production, particularly stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline, and chemicals in the brain associated with pleasure, love, mood, and pain such dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, we can begin to understand how smells can impact physical health as well as emotional health. An even more fascinating addition to this process is that the olfactory nerve is also directly connected to the olfactory cortex, which just so happens to be located in the cerebral cortex. The sense of smell is the only sense capable of bypassing the thalamus sensory information filter processes altogether and accessing the cerebral cortex directly, which makes all the big decisions, whether it be somatic or autonomic responses.

Getting to the bottom of the question inspired me to help my clients understand why this has such an impact on aromatherapy as a complementary medicine practice. While neuroscientists and the like are trying to fully grasp the inner working of the brain and the olfactory system, we know that the smells of essential oils are interpreted via the olfactory membrane and move onto the limbic system and in part onto the cerebral cortex, which is the primary control center that we have to interpret and act upon the information. So, what does this mean for the average Joe or Jane? This means that essential oils can play an active part in helping to reduce things like flight or fight due to anxiety, depression, or other stressors. It means essential oils can play an active role in producing stress-reducing chemicals in the body to promote emotional, physical, social, psychological, and even spiritual wellbeing. This is powerful knowledge to have when considering the increasing issues of such stress-related illnesses and the increased number of people who suffer from them. And even more powerful when you recognize the impact these stressors have on the immune system and its ability to respond.

This research and more have influenced interest in more in-depth studies

and trials in places like emergency rooms where there is a great need to reduce

stress and increase mental clarity, energy, and the ability to heal, and these studies show fantastic promise. One such research shows that the use of essential oils in the hospital setting have helped to significantly reduce anxiety, nausea, sleeplessness, and vomiting, as well as other health conditions and has also assisted health professionals on the job with anxiety, mood, and energy (Lillehei & Halcon, 2014). There are many more studies like this, as this study uses the inhalation of essential oils alone (PubMed).

Essential oils have been around for centuries and can also be used topically or internally and include a vast array of benefits depending on the essential oils being used. As an aromatherapist, I am so excited to be in this business at a time when science is catching up to the experience and long history of essential oils, as we are finally able to understand how and why they work and to prove the value it holds to our wellness and wellbeing. If you haven't used them, I highly recommend adding them to your repertoire of tools for your wellness journey.


Lillehei AS, Halcon LL. A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2014; 20(6): 441-451.

Press Release: The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 24 Jul 2018. <>

Tortora, G. J., & Derrickson, B. (2013). Principles of anatomy and physiology (14th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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