Imagine sitting in a traffic jam, seething while cars slow to a stop, a mile from the upcoming tollbooth. The stress of the situation can turn a happy mood into one that is significantly darker. In addition to causing mood changes, stress can also wreak havoc on your health.
Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which in turn triggers a flood of glucose into the bloodstream, sent to provide the energy required to escape from the threat triggering the stress. At the same time, cortisol signals the body to produce less insulin, so excess glucose will still be available for energy.
In a traffic jam, however, there’s no place to escape, and glucose settles in. Over time, especially when stress is chronic, risk factors include insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, food cravings that can lead to obesity, heart disease, and inflammation.1
It’s time to rethink all that anxiety. When stressful situations occur, hormones and neurotransmitters become out of balance, triggering a wide range of mood changes including irritability, sadness, or anxiety.
Those stress responses happen in the amygdala, a region of the brain that messages the hippocampus, which sends out alarm bells throughout the nervous system, signaling the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, as well as blood glucose for energy. The amygdala is the same region of the brain where essential oils do their work.
Dangers of Stress
Most people know by now that stress is no joke. Chronic stress is not only linked to mood changes—continual feelings of anxiety can lead to irritability, moodiness, anger, and low-level depression—but, in the long term, stress can cause a host of health problems that can also contribute to mood changes.
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With chronic stress comes an elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and excess blood glucose that can’t be reabsorbed because the body’s insulin response has essentially been turned off, ensuring that you have enough energy to escape your stressors.
The trouble, of course, is that pre-historic humans were running from wooly mammoths, while we modern humans become stressed from being on hold for an hour, worry about caring for aging parents, or wonder how they are going to pay an unexpected bill. While you may want to run from these situations, generally you can’t.
So, when blood glucose levels are unchecked, the potential for insulin resistance—a precursor to type 2 diabetes—is a real possibility, especially if stress causes you to turn to sugary or carb-dense comfort foods, which also send blood sugars soaring.
When blood glucose levels are high in the long term, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, heart disease, and obesity are possible outcomes. Since health problems can make exercise—a proven mood booster because of the flood of endorphins that occurs when people physically exert themselves—difficult, it can be harder to break free from the cycle of anxiety and low-level depression.2
Easing Anxiety, Naturally
Chronic stress impacts almost a quarter of Americans who say that discrimination, money woes, health, work, family responsibilities, the political climate, and the economy all contribute.3 Given the health risks associated with all that stress, many people are looking to natural solutions for relieving it.
In 2009, Americans spent almost a third of what they paid for traditional medicine on alternative, holistic options such as aromatherapy. A $34 billion business almost a decade ago, aromatherapy is more popular than ever. Science shows that there’s a good reason for the investment.4
When used aromatically, essential oils are processed by the olfactory nerves, which deliver volatile compounds to the amygdala, the same part of the brain that initially processes stress.
Distilled from plants, essential oils have small molecules that are able to permeate the blood-brain barrier, delivering compounds that have been clinically proven to restore balance to the neurotransmitters negatively impacted by stress.
Terpenes including alpha-pinene, Linalool, beta-pinene, thujone, and myrcene are all compounds that encourage elevated levels of the neurotransmitters that promote better mood, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which counteract anxiety symptoms and restore a sense of calm.
Essential Oils and Mood Changes
According to Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Professor at Brown University, most responses to aromas develop in childhood when scents are new. Think popcorn at the movie theater, flowers from a grandmother’s garden, the bold, spicy scent of tomato vines, or sandwiches eaten on paper plates under the summer sun.
Scents that bring back joyful memories can trigger feelings of happiness, but the process is more complex than that.
Similarly, essential oils have the power to transform your mood because of the relationship between the olfactory nerves and the parts of the brain that control emotion. And even though essential oils may trigger scent memories, it’s the compounds in those oils that take the aroma beyond memory to a place of alternative medicine.
Terpenes are powerful, and a lack of exposure to these natural-born mood boosters has been considered one reason for elevated levels of depression on a global scale. (Experts estimate that 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression.)5
Taking in more terpenes through aromatherapy can ease symptoms by restoring levels of those important neurotransmitters connected to mood. There are many essential oils that contain compounds that can calm and soothe frayed nerves, some of which are highlighted below.
Lavender Essential Oil
This lovely spa favorite contains linalool, which helps reduce stress and anxiety as effectively as the prescription benzodiazepine Valium, according to a recent study from Japanese researchers that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.6
Vetiver Essential Oil
A grass native to Asia and Africa, vetiver is rooted in Ayurvedic medicine. A 2015 study from researchers in Thailand and the United Kingdom found that vetiver essential oil was as effective at easing anxiety symptoms as benzodiazepines. Their work appeared in the journal Natural Product Research.7
Rose Essential Oil
Rose essential oil is packed with stress-busting compounds including linalool, beta-pinene, and alpha-pinene, a trio that works in synergy to restore neurotransmitter balance.
A 2012 study appearing in the journal Chemical Senses found that stressed rats exposed to rose essential oil had fewer symptoms of anxiety after breathing in the scent.8
Bergamot Essential Oil
This powerhouse citrus oil contains linalool, myrcene, alpha-pinene, and beta-pinene, and based on 2015 research appearing in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, it is an effective oil for those with chronic stress.9
Lemon Balm Essential Oil
Also known as Melissa, this citrus-scented herb has high levels of rosmarinic acid, which has been linked to elevated levels of GABA, the busiest of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Depression and anxiety send GABA levels plummeting, but lemon balm can help replenish the brain’s stores of the important neurotransmitter.
Depression and anxiety are not the only moods that can be altered by exposure to the terpenes in essential oils, however.
If your energy levels are low, try citrus essential oils—lemon, grapefruit, sweet orange, wild orange, bitter orange, neroli, bergamot, and lime—to lift fatigue and stimulate the senses. Eucalyptus also offers an energy boost when used aromatically.
And to help increase happiness levels, look to essential oils with compounds that encourage the production of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which help improve concentration, boost energy and relieve pain.
Some common options include frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cedarwood, lavender, coriander, jasmine, chamomile, rose, bergamot, geranium, patchouli, basil, clary sage, cinnamon, ylang-ylang, and coriander.
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