Biochemical Aromatherapy article

With more and more people turning to Aromatherapy not just for a relaxing massage but as a form of treatment for their ailments, it is time for us Aromatherapists to understand scientifically how essential oils work within the body.

At the moment, the only thing that we know about oils are that they relax us or stimulate us or that they are good at relieving headaches and so on but do we know WHY they do this and how.

I have decided to write over the next few issues a series of articles centering on how oils work within the body and why they heal us as they do. This will enable you to gain more insight into what oil you should use for a particular symptom and to know where within the body the oil is working.

In conventional Aromatherapy courses we are taught the ways in which essential oils are carried into the body but there it stops. This article takes it a stage further to explain the effect on the brain by the oil and its effects on the entire body as a consequence.

The first thing to know is that the moment that we smell an essential oil or have a drop placed on our bodies, biochemical changes occur within the brain. These changes elicit responses from other parts of the brain which then lead messages to be sent to all parts of the body.

You can by choosing the correct oil, encourage the body to produce a particular brain chemical that will counteract a symptom or feeling.

For example Frankincense works on the biochemicals for fear and panic and some of my clients have been known to stop a panic attack in mid flow just by smelling Frankincense straight from the bottle. This is because Frankincense works on the biochemicals that help block the flow of adrenalin and other substances which lead to people having a panic attack.

Smelling frankincense has the effect of increasing our Endorphins ( substances that make us feel good) and another chemical called phenylethylamine (a chemical which plays a critical role in the limbic system of the brain and known to give a feeling of bliss) and therefore counteracts the effects of the fear chemicals that are coursing through the body.

This week though I am focusing on Lavender and how it works within the body.

Lavender is usually, the one oil that, people who are not really into Aromatherapy in a big way, will have in their homes at any one time.Ask them why they have it, they will say a number of reasons, namely to ‘help me sleep’, ‘to help me relax’, ‘for headaches’ etc.

For Aromatherapists, we know that Lavender is balancing (why? And what does that mean?) and that it helps people to relax, unwind and let go. It aids in the healing of headaches and wounds and burns and it also helps to put us to sleep at night.

So for both of the above groups, there is not much difference between what they know about the action of Lavender and its abilities. The fact that one of the above groups is a qualified practitioner and the other not doesn’t matter, they both have the same limited knowledge of what Lavender does, which I feel is not good at all for us as practitioners.

The reason that Lavender helps us to sleep at night is because it has a direct action on the amino acid Tryptophan. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin and it is this chemical that floods the brain and with other chemicals helps us to sleep at night. Tryptophan is involved in the synthesis of B3, it’s a mood stabiliser, it helps against vascular migraine, is an anti-depressant, sleep enhancer, aids against restless leg syndrome amongst other things.

Can you see any parallels in the above symptoms and the ones that Lavender treats.

This could be one of the reasons that Lavender has such a wide acting range in healing.

For some people though, Lavender does not help them sleep, but can irritate them. This maybe is, because the reason that they cannot sleep may not be due to Tryptophan but because other biochemicals are not being produced.

Roman Chamomile works on the biochemical melatonin, a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland and which gives us our regulation of our bodies biological clock, promotes sleep and can inhibit reproductive matters amongst other things.

I have found that if people do not respond to Lavender, then they do to Roman chamomile (if no other factors exist like panic or fear etc) to help them to sleep. This is because Lavender works on the Hypothalamus and Roman chamomile the pineal gland and so they tackle sleep from different points and with different biochemicals.

What maybe needed is to help flood the brain with both serotonin and melatonin by giving them both Lavender and Chamomile to use before bed and if there is fear involved, then you can give them Frankincense as well to help block the adrenaline that maybe influencing it.

Lavender helps alleviate stress because it influences biochemicals such as Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is at all nerve-muscle junctions as well as many other sites in the nervous system. It is involved in the control of sweat glands and heart beat and it transmits messages between neurons in the brain and spinal cord. It is involved in stress responses and Lavender encourages this transmitter to help bring the heartbeat back to normal and encourage the person to calm down.

Lavender also influences Dopamine (the chemical involved in Parkinson disease) and again Dopamine helps bring the heartbeat and blood pressure back to normal and is again involved in emotional responses.

This is why Lavender is a hypertensive as its actions influence the neurotransmitters that help bring down blood pressure.

I have been told of a research program involving Lavender and Parkinson disease (where sufferers have low levels of Dopamine) with good results but as of yet I have not been able to find out where the research is being carried out.

A lot of these neurotransmitters are involved in the stress response and a lot of them help make us feel good, which is why, in a recent survey, so many people loved the smell of Lavender to any other oil.

Lavender is known to be an oil that helps wounds to heal. This maybe due to its effect on serotonin, a neurotransmitter.

Serotonin levels increase after an injury where it is released at the site of bleeding to constrict small blood vessels and control blood loss. Lavender increases the amount of serotonin at the site of bleeding either administered topically onto the actual site of the blood loss or even by sniffing the oil.

This encourages the blood loss to slow and allows the wound to heal quicker.

Experiments using other oils that have no effect on serotonin levels and other blood constricting chemicals showed no speed of healing within the wound and the wound took longer to clear up.

One of the things that we need to remember is that we do not have to use oils in a massage to influence our body chemicals, but even sniffing the oil direct from the bottle is enough to produce the desired effect.

I think that the reason why people feel that Lavender is ‘balancing’ is that when you are under the influence of chemicals that are making us feel fearful, stressed, or unhappy, we are in fact unbalanced. Lavenders actions on the neurotransmitters that help bring our blood pressure, heartbeat, emotional responses and our ability to cope with stress back to normal, give us the space to breathe and recharge ourselves again, so we feel more balanced and able to cope with life again.

Lavenders’ balancing action can be explained by the fact that it has an action on the Hypothalamus. The Hypothalamus is if you like the company director of our bodies and the Pituitary the foreman. If you can influence the company director, then you can elicit great changes throughout the entire energy system.

Some of the main biochemicals Lavender actually influences are:

  • Acetylcholine
  • Dopamine
  • Endorphins

Interferon (this helps fight infection – made by white blood cells. Stops many viruses from replicating within body cells. Lavender owes a lot of its antiviral action on influencing and increasing biochemicals such as interferon).


Anandamide (used by the brain as a central fine-tuner of electrical activity. Acts as a chemical messenger between the embryo and the uterus during implantation of the embryo in the uterine wall – affected by the stress response. Could be one of the reasons some women cannot get pregnant and because its linked to the stress response why some women have found that Lavender has helped them to conceive. Namely that Lavender encourages the neurotransmitters that make us relax and make us feel good and helps also by influencing anandamide).


Enkephalins (increased secretion of these into the blood stream when stressed. Produced in the adrenal medulla where Lavender has a big influence).

Lavender influences a wide range of neurotransmitters, too many to mention in the small confines of this article. But hopefully this small amount of information will aid you in actually knowing and understanding a bit better why Lavender does what it does.

You can learn more about each individual essential oil’s psychological profile by buying Josie’s book – ‘The Psychological Aspects of Essential Oils’ in the shop on this site.

Aromatherapy Times – June 2005