Plants are masters of biochemistry. They don’t have teeth and claws for defense. They can’t run away and hide. They can’t yell, bark, growl, sing or communicate in the ways animals do. So instead they manufacture all kinds of chemicals. When we concentrate these chemicals we call it an essential oil. Some of these chemicals are, for humans, bioactive. Meaning that when we are exposed to them by eating, touching or smelling, they have certain pharmacological effects on us. This is the basis of aromatherapy. Diffusing the active, volatile plant chemical into the air to take advantage of those pharmacological effects.
There are a variety of these aromatherapy benefits, each specific to the plant chemical you decide to use. Let’s check out four aromatherapy essential oils we can use to hack mood and cognitive performance.
Lavender is known for calming, stress relieving and sleep promoting effects. Linalool is the primary active chemical in lavender oil and it can cross the blood brain barrier in humans when inhaled during aromatherapy. Studies have shown anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) and calming effects; including decreases in salivary cortisol and a rise in alpha brain waves on EEG. You can think of alpha brain waves like shifting your brain into neutral where it can relax and idle. Another study that used lavender aromatherapy during heart surgery found decreases in blood pressure and heart rate. The lavender volatiles may act as GABA agonists, meaning they lower brain activity. This means lavender is great if you want to chill out, de-stress or get ready for bed.
If you need to bring your A game and laser-focus to a work meaning then skip the lavender infused foot bath beforehand. In fact, lavender aromatherapy decreases performance on memory and reaction time tests.
What Wise Ape doesn't love the fresh scent of pine trees on a crisp morning? One of the chemicals responsible for that pine fresh scent is the aptly named pinene. Let’s be clear, tossing a pine-scent air freshener into your car doesn’t count as aromatherapy. Pinene is found not just in pine trees but also other plants like rosemary, chamomile and eucalyptus. One rat study showed that inhaled alpha-pinene showed up in the brain and increased brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus. BDNF supports neuron health and growth. There was also increased locomotor activity and behavioral tests showed the rats had less anxiety. Another rat study using alpha-pinene was shown to affect mitochondria in the brain and activate biochemical pathways associated with anti-depressive effects.
In short BDNF has been shown to assist with learning, memory, brain neuron repair, along with supporting a variety of motor functions, so start sniffing that alpha-pinene.
Mint has been in use for biohacking since Ancient Greece and consuming mint is known as a remedy for nausea and headache, but what about its aroma? In a study with human participants peppermint oil increased alertness and improved performance on a battery of cognitive tests such as reaction time and word recall. These participants did not know they were in an aromatherapy study. The researchers speculated that the mint volatiles may have improved memory performance through a cholinergic effect, meaning it may act like the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Fresh peppermint leaf can also be found in our Chocolate Hustle tea, so the next time you're sipping take a deep whiff to pick up on the stimulating scent of mint.
Bergamot is the result of the romantic union of a lemon and a bitter orange and bergamot essential oil comes from cold pressing the hybrid citrus fruit’s peel. As an agent for aromatherapy the volatile compounds from the bergamot are known for calming, anxiety-reducing effects. In a rat study bergamot oil induced anxiolytic, sedative, and antidepressant effects; and increased the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA. In a study with women who were exposed to either water vapor, bergamot aromatherapy or nothing found that after 15 minutes in the bergamot aromatherapy salivary cortisol decreased and parasympathetic nervous system activity increased (meaning they were more relaxed). In another human study a bergamot oil diffusion increased ratings of positive feelings 17% by those who were exposed for 15 minutes. Bergamot oil can be used on the skin but use caution since UV light can turn the bergamot oil into a skin irritant.
Try using these aromatherapy essential oils to hack your mood and cognitive performance. You can diffuse them into the air by mixing a few drops with another oil, like shea or coconut; you can mix with water in a spray bottle or use an electric diffuser.
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