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Aromatherapy: Does it still work if you

This question comes up quite frequently, so we are happy to discuss it here.

Q (by Renee Highlen Gabet): If one has lost their smell does aromatherapy still work with the emotions like uplifting or physical like relaxing?

A: As far as we know, psychological effects do not take place for someone who has completely lost their sense of smell, but the physiological effects still do.

In other words, the body will react to essential oil constituents in the usual ways, but the mind not. When we inhale an essential oil there is a two-fold reaction – a physiological one, which is hard-wired, and a psychological one which is not, and which varies from person to person.

For those of us with an intact sense of smell it may be interesting to note that an essential oil (or blend) cannot have one effect on the mind and the opposite effect on the body. Also bear in mind that psychological effects partly depend on our state of mind and may be different at different times.

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2 Comments

  1. Dia Couttouw June 3, 2017 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    I am curious about the ineffectiveness of essential oils on a person with total loss of smell. I wonder if the source of the damage ( ie blunt head trauma, chemical/environmental exposure) could result in damage to different locations along the olfactory pathway, and thereby effect the perception (or lack of) of aroma, leaving intact the limbic system’s response to the aromatic stimulation? Along those same lines of thought, if some aromatic constituents are absorbed by the blood via dermal of respiratory applications, may some of those constituents still pass through the blood-brain barrier and have an impact on the psychological response?

    • Hana Belikova June 4, 2017 at 11:38 am - Reply

      Hello Dia!

      And thank you for your questions. Anosmia is a complicated issue and as you said, it very much depends on why the person lost their sense of smell in the first place. You are asking about the psychological/neurological effects of essential oils. The answer to this is not simple, as olfactory stimuli are processed by the olfactory and the trigeminal nerve, and the latter usually stays intact in anosmic people. On top of that, unless the olfactory nerve is disrupted (by a head trauma, for example) signalling is taking place, but not to the full extent. Interestingly, essential oils can be used to re-train your olfactory senses, and I am currently working on an article about this.
      Pharmacologically speaking, the effects should be similar. The difference will be in the amount of essential oils is going to get into the brain, as olfaction is a direct route, while going through the bloodstream means that the essential oil constituents will be metabolized before reaching the brain.
      However, the psychological effect depends very much on the actual perception of the smell (and what we associate with it). So, to answer your question – pharmacologically speaking, there should be say a calming effect, but we can assume that it will be much less pronounced for people with anosmia.
      I hope this helps!
      ~ Hana Bělíková

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