The Netflix docuseries (Un)Well explores the growth and increasing mainstream appeal of the multi-trillion dollar wellness industry and investigates some of the increasingly popular products and practices being adopted by people looking to live happier, healthier lives.
Among the facets of wellness being put under the microscope in the series is aromatherapy.
While once considered the purview of hippies, or simply a decor item for your bathroom, essential oils actually represent a business valued at more than $17 million.
Aromatherapy uses oils from plants, usually through massage or inhaling, to promote relaxation or treat illnesses: but do the claims that aromatherapy can help to ease your anxiety have any scientific basis?
As psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Marks explains in the video below, essential oils contain volatile organic compounds (simply meaning they can vaporize and become a gas) that exert a pharmacological effect when they penetrate the body, either through the skin or your olfactory nerve.
Inhaling essential oils do cause a reaction in the brain, and there is evidence to back up the assertion that certain oils can have a calming effect; Marks cites a 2005 study that found that test subjects who were exposed to lavender oil experienced an increase in deep, slow-wave sleep.
This is because our sense of smell is controlled by the olfactory nerve, which connects to the temporal lobe in the brain. The temporal lobe contains the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus plays a role in the memory of past experiences, and the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain.
"By inhaling these molecules, you send them directly to the emotional part of the brain," says Marks. "This is why inhaling gases and fumes is a big deal; there's a direct pathway from your nose to your brain. Inhaling things is a faster route to affecting your brain than eating something because when you eat it it has to be digested before it enters your bloodstream."
Popular methods of inhaling essential oils to help get a good night's sleep include putting a few drops on a cotton ball, or under a pillow. Marks advises against putting undiluted oils directly on the skin, as some people might have an adverse reaction. When massaging the oil into the skin, she recommends mixing a few drops of the essential oil into a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut oil, or alternatively, mixing a few drops into bathwater.