What comes to your mind when you think of Aromatherapy and essential oils? Do you view Aromatherapy as a relaxing and pampering massage, where nice smelly oils are used? Essential oils have become increasingly popular over the years, and are readily available for purchase. Essential oils definitely smell nice, but how do they work?

The olfactory system (smelling system) is a very intricate system. Our sense of smell allows our brain to identify approximately 10,000 different odours and involves many processes. It begins when we inhale an aroma (in its volatile & gaseous state).

The olfactory system contains the olfactory tract, which is part of the central nervous system. There are two main pathways that the axons of the olfactory tract project to.

  1. Primary Olfactory area of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Conscious awareness of smell begins here, where smells are consciously interpreted and identified.
  2. Limbic system containing the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. The limbic system accounts for our emotional and memory evoked responses to odour. It is the home of our emotions, sexual feelings, memory and learning, and all these can be evoked with olfaction. The olfactory bulb (part of the intricate process) connects essential oils directly to the limbic system.

All essential oils have therapeutic properties, including (but not limited to): anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antidepressant, balancing, stimulating, relaxing, calming and sedative.

When we inhale an essential oil, the molecules travel through the nasal passage to a receptor neuron that transports it up to the limbic brain, especially the hypothalamus. For example: when we smell an essential oil that has a vibrationally calming effect on the body, the hypothalamus receives the input to relax, and creates neurochemicals that are sent through the body to relax and become calm. Similarly, if the vibration of the essential oil is stimulating, the limbic system will correspond by sending the message to become more active and energised.

Due to the interrelationship with the limbic system, it is evident to see how essential oils work. It does not matter whether the method of which we use them i.e. inhaled, diffused or massaged, the odour molecules of the essential oil will travel to the limbic system and create the appropriate neurochemicals to affect a physical response.


  • Battaglia, S. (2012), The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 2nd ed, National Library of Australia, Brisbane, QLD Australia.
  • Marieb, E. N. (2004), Human Anatomy and Physiology, 6th ed, Pearson Education, California.
  • Tortora, G. J. & Derrickson, B.(2009), Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 12th ed, John Wiley & Sons, USA.
  • Worwood, V. (1995), The Fragrant Mind, Transworld Publishers, Great Britain


Elizabeth is a Bowen Therapist, Remedial, Pre and Post Natal Massage Therapist, and Aromatherapist. Elizabeth is passionate about women's health and wellness.In addition, Elizabeth is the creator of the Nurture Mumma, Nurture Bubba Gift Packs, Baby Products and has developed a range of Aromatic Mists.