Most of us probably associate essential oils with fancy spas or that yoga class where the smell from a diffuser makes you feel Zen.
But research shows that, when inhaled, these plant extracts are also good therapy. This is especially true if you’re feeling anxious.
Used correctly, they make for one heck of a tonic to alter your body’s physical and emotional stress reaction.
That may prove helpful in the current climate as mental health charities, including MIND, are warning of increased stress levels over the Covid-19 outbreak.
With no two oils exactly the same, there’s a lot to get your head around.
Consider this your comprehensive guide for how to use them to your advantage…
What Are Essential Oils?
The practice of using essential oils is known as aromatherapy.
They are highly concentrated liquids that are extracted either through distillation (via water and/or steam) or manual methods like cold pressing.
Just make sure that you always look for blends created with 100% essential oils. Be cautious of vague, unregulated terms on the label like ‘therapeutic grade’ and ‘fragrance oil.’
Benefits of Using Them
Essential oils work through inhalation or topical application.
But it’s when you smell them that you really reap the mind-body benefits.
‘Studies have shown that essential oils are absorbed by smell receptors in your nose that are linked to the limbic system – the part of the brain controlling our emotional responses,’ says Dr Anna Persaud, a biochemist and CEO of This Works. ‘This, in turn, impacts heart rate, blood pressure and the nervous system.’
The molecules are also inhaled into your lungs, where they enter your bloodstream and affect your hormones via the endocrine system.
How to Use Essential Oils
Despite being natural, essential oils are still potent and should be used judiciously.
A diffuser is the most common way of releasing them into the air. Don’t blast it all day, though. 30 to 60 minutes is the recommended ‘on’ time as the scent can become overwhelming.
Aromatherapy Associates Home Fragrancer, £49, Liberty London
Don’t have a diffuser to hand? Just add a few drops of oil to a bowl of steaming hot water. Then apply the same rules.
Likewise, a rollerball will immediately turn your desk into a self-care station.
‘Apply the rollerball to your wrists and palms before cupping them over your face. Breathe deeply for the count of five to help settle a whirring mind,’ says Noella Gabriel, president of spa brand Elemis.
Trouble sleeping? Pour a tablespoon of carrier oil (jojoba, grapeseed or coconut oil), add five drops of your favourite essential oil and swirl the concoction in your bath water.
Or use one of the best calming pillow mists. These are pre-blended flower waters, herbs and essential oils that you mist onto your bed linen for a better quality night’s sleep.
An independent brain imaging study found the lavender, chamomile and vetiver in This Works’ Deep Sleep Pillow Spray activated specific brain areas related to feelings of trust and calmness. Both of which are conducive to relaxation and sleep.
This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, £19.50, John Lewis
‘Over time we create a connection in our brains that links the fragrance of a pillow mist to the experience of calm and falling asleep,’ adds Persaud.
Disclaimer: essential oils should never be used as a replacement for prescribed anxiety medication. If you are taking any medications or suffer from a chronic health condition, ask your doctor before you start practicing aromatherapy.
The Best Calming Essential Oils, According To Research
Each plant oil has a different chemical make-up so the perks you get depend on the essential oil you choose…
Lavender Essential Oil:
‘This purple flowering herb contains the compound linalool, which has a sedative effect,’ says Professor Tim Jacob, a neurologist from the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. ‘Smelling it increases alpha waves in the frontal regions of the brain, encouraging you to relax.’ Numerous studies have shown that lavender has a physical effect, too, by reducing blood pressure and helping the body to produce melatonin, the hormone that promotes restful sleep.
Chamomile Essential Oil:
According to the National Cancer Institute, a two-week clinical trial investigated the effects of massage with chamomile oil in people with cancer. The study found that massage with this diluted oil helped decrease anxiety and other symptoms more than massage alone.
Ylang Ylang Essential Oil:
A study by Geochang Provincia College in Korea found that when this essential oil was inhaled in a blend with bergamot and lavender oil once a day for four weeks, it lowered people's stress responses, as well as their cortisol and blood pressure.
Frankincense Essential Oil:
The resin, from which this deeply aromatic essential oil is extracted, has a tranquilising effect, according to a study by the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland. Use it to slow down anxious breathing and help you feel more grounded.
Bergamot Essential Oil:
If you’ve ever had a cup of Earl Grey tea, you’re already familiar with the soothing floral aroma of bergamot (also known as bitter orange). A study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that patients who smelled orange oil while waiting for a dental procedure experienced reduced anxiety compared to those who listened to calming music and those who had no stimulation at all.
Clary Sage Essential Oil:
What doesn’t this oil do? It’s known to be anti-spasmodic, so will reduce the tension in your muscles for a restful night’s sleep. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology also found that clary sage had antidepressant properties and that the effect of the oil was closely linked to the feel-good hormone dopamine.
Lemongrass Essential Oil:
This isn’t an oil that people automatically associate with stress relief. But in a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine scientists measured an immediate drop in anxiety levels in those who inhaled three to six drops of the scent.