The Limbic System
Located in the center of both hemispheres of the brain, the limbic system includes the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, olfactory cortex, and thalamus. The limbic system is a busy part of the brain, responsible for regulating both our emotional lives, and perceptions, and higher mental functions and thought processes such as learning, motivation, formulating, and storing memories, controlling adrenaline and autonomic response, and regulating hormones and sexual response, sensory perception (optical and olfactory), and motor function.
The limbic system is responsible for the processes of intercellular communication that affect how an individual responds to situations and all sensory stimuli and forms and stores memories about those situations and the resulting emotions.
The limbic system works closely with the endocrine system to help with hormone regulation. It partners with the autonomic nervous system, the part of the body responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response (sympathetic), and digestion, and healing (parasympathetic). It also works with the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure centre of the brain which is involved with sexual arousal and euphoric response to recreational drugs. The amygdala is the storehouse of traumas and contains the densest concentration of neuropeptide, affecting cellular memory. Smell is the primary sense that unconsciously activates and affects traumatic memories stored there. Acting as the “watchdog”, the amygdala is constantly on the lookout for danger or threats versus perceived threats (ex, saber-toothed tiger vs. a missed bus stop or being late to work and an angry boss). It passes on its concerns and notifies the hypothalamus when safety and security are at risk, this then sets off the alarm for fight-or-flight stress response and releases cortisol and adrenaline.
The emotional stress triggered the release of the stress hormones. The hypothalamus - the "control and command center" of the brain - converts mental thoughts and emotions into hundreds of different types of ligands (a molecule - antibody, hormone, or drug, that binds to a receptor), specifically neuropeptides. The motions triggered by a perceived threat, for example, are powerful and initiate the release of specific messenger molecule chemicals which, as indicated above, attach to certain receptor sites of cells and affect cell function. What the hypothalamus "believes to be true" determines what the "factory" produces, and chemical production ensues. Neuropeptides affect our chemistry, and our chemistry affects our biology. Bottom line - emotions trigger cell activity! The hippocampus, specifically, is involved in storing memories and producing emotions. It works effectively at full capacity when it is producing new neurons and solid nerve connections to assist with these key activities. When an individual experiences stress, the blood flow around the hippocampus changes – and individuals in their later years can often experience up to 20% loss in the nerve connections of the hippocampus, which can drastically affect mood and memory.
The Sense of Smell
The sense of smell is one of our more complex and discerning senses, and is ten thousand times more powerful than our sense of taste. Aromas have a direct and profound effect on the deepest levels of the body systems, emotions, and psyche. Interestingly we only have three types of receptors for sight, and one hundred distinct classes of smell receptors. It is the ONLY sense linked directly to the limbic brain. The response is instant and so are the effects on the brain’s mental and emotional responses and our body chemistry. Herein lies the power and beauty of essential oils for limbic health. Their aromas are one hundred to ten thousand times more concentrated and more potent than the solid form of a plant. Due to their unique ability to bypass the blood-brain barrier and their concentrated aromatic compounds, pure essential oils can provide significant benefits to improve the limbic system function.
The Scent Alarm It's accurate to say we "smell" danger. Our sense of smell is inextricably connected to our survival, and it plays a major role in remembering what is and isn't safe, and what is pleasurable. Why remember danger, stress, trauma, and pleasure? To learn from experience so we can protect ourselves, survive, and procreate. If it wasn't safe this time, we can avoid it the next time; or if it was pleasurable (ex. food, intimacy), we want to participate again. People, environments, food: smelling them is part of everyday life. Aromas serve as exogenous ligands. The binding chemical, called a ligand, is classified as a "messenger molecule", because it sends information to cells that will influence the cell's development and function. The ligand can be a neurotransmitter, hormone, pharmaceutical drug, toxin, parts of a virus, or a neuropeptide used by neurons to communicate with each other. There are two types of ligands: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous ligands, such as serotonin, are produced in the body and can have an impact on emotions. Exogenous ligands are substances that are introduced into the body and have a similar effect. They, too, are messenger molecules and can come from a variety of sources such as medications, or essential oils. They are received via olfactory receptors, which are highly concentrated in the limbic system, the primitive part of the brain and seat of emotion. In the center lies the amygdala, which instantly receives the incoming scent information before other higher brain centers. By the time the information reaches our "thinking" and decision-making cortex and we actually figure out what we smelled, the scent has already triggered emotional and body chemistry responses. Many researchers agree that physical illnesses are often the result of emotional inflammatory response to trauma or negative experiences. What can begin as “emotional inflammation" can later become physical issues and disease. Although medical technology is not advanced enough to see them, memories, trauma, and painful emotions are stored in the body and eventually manifest as physical inflammations when the body's tissues follow suit. The Importance of the Sense of Smell Smell is used beneficially in healing efforts as scents are experienced long before words and can create neurological and physiological changes. Whether for relieving stress, stabilizing mood, improving sleep, eliminating pain, relieving nausea, or improving memory and energy levels, scents can actually change nervous system biochemistry. Essential oils can facilitate a rapid emotional response in the brain and the body to facilitate such a release. Essential oils are powerful biochemical agents for emotional balance, wellness, and toxic release, which can be paired or partnered with any holistic or medically-derived program to create successful approach to mental, emotional wellness. As essential oils are used, the body’s vibration is raised and its emotional frequencies are impacted, as is the capacity for emotional well-being. Each individual oil with its diverse chemistry has the ability to be a tremendous multi-tasker and work in multiple areas of interest simultaneously. Additional benefits to essential oil use comes from combining oils to create synergistic blends.
When inhaled, essential oils enter the olfactory system and directly affect the amygdala and therefore impact mood and emotional response; thus they can be beneficial in reprogramming the significance that individuals have attached to past experiences and can initiate rapid responses both physically and emotionally in the brain and the rest of the body. Inhalation of essential oils can be done directly from the bottle, rubbing a drop of essential oil in the palms of the hands and cupping over the nose, or by using a diffuser - it is the fastest, most effective method of impacting the limbic brain by altering chemical messages being relayed resulting in significant benefits on your mood and well-being. When taken internally, essential oils support healthy chemical reactions in the body, nourishment of cells, and release of toxins. This internal support fosters a health and balanced emotional environment. Cleansing the internal environment allows emotions to be recognized and processed more readily.
When applying oils topically it is important to get them as close to the limbic system as possible and apply them where they can best bypass the blood-brain barrier. Directly below the base of the skull, on both sides of the neck, there is an “indentation” that can be felt with the fingers. This area is called the suboccipital triangle, and when pure essential oils are applied here, they are able to enter the circulatory system of the body. Oils may also be topically applied on the mastoid bones behind the ears, across the front of the forehead, directly under the nose, and may even be applied to the roof of the mouth (applied to thumb and press thumb into roof of mouth) for more direct access to the limbic system. The Power of Essential Oils - Choose Your Mood Emotional stress, whether acute or chronic, can have profound effects on the body. A range of illnesses, from headaches to digestive issues, lack of sleep, and heart disease can be the result of emotions such as grief, anxiety, depression, taking a toll on the immune system and other cells, tissues, and organs of the entire body. Moods are often perceived as having chosen us, as if they are happening to us. Rather, the chemical impact of our emotions and other exogenous ligands is the real chooser of moods. That's why we reach for certain foods, sugar, caffeine, or a drug of choice, interact with certain people, do certain things, and act out certain behaviors of how it makes us feel to get a "chemical" hit. With essential oils, we have the ability to direct our own emotional traffic using a healthy form of exogenous ligands, where unlike synthetic forms, their complex molecular structure allows them to intelligently bind to the receptor sites of cells in our body and support a desired effect to restore balance and healthy function. Taking it to the Next Level Emotional healing and rebalancing of moods is accomplished when a new stimulus is introduced to the same chain of command in the brain. The brain’s response is determined by what aroma is introduced and the information it conveys. Traumatic memories stored in the amygdala can be released by utilizing the sense of smell and essential oils. If the significance an individual attaches to a past experience can be shifted, the amygdala can release the trauma of the memory. This is what makes aromatherapy a wonderful means for healing and rebalancing moods. The diverse and concentrated chemical constituents in essential oils work to cleanse, ground, lift, balance, and calm the central nervous system and the emotional body. Some essential oils, like frankincense, patchouli, and sandalwood have high concentrations of sesquiterpene molecules that have been clinically demonstrated to cross the blood-brain barrier. The molecules have significant oxygen supporting effects on the brain and, when combined with aromatic stimulation can assist the amygdala in releasing the effects of stored memories.
Here are some additional demonstrated mental and emotional benefits:
Cleanse negative memories
Reduce stress, anxiety, and tension
Offset mental fatigue
Calm the central nervous system
Relax muscular tension
Induce restful sleep
Invigorate the sense
Increase feelings of courage and determination
Promote cathartic effect (release stuck emotions)
Support DNA correction and expression
In conclusion, aromatherapy offers many practical healing advantages, but perhaps one of the most fascinating is the relationship it has with emotional well-being. Essential oils offer a fresh, effective support tool to aid in the emotional healing process and to shift out of old habits and ineffective coping patterns. Aromatherapy allows the individual to harness the olfactory power of plants for healing, or simply enhance the state of well-being using scents to create a powerful influence over how one thinks, feels, and behaves.