Medically reviewed by, Russell Braun RPH
Aromatherapy scents that come from essential oils have been used for centuries as a cure for many ailments. Today, essential oils are flying off the shelves of retailers, why the renewed buzz? Normally essential oils are either inhaled or applied topically to the skin. You might be wondering, can essential oils actually help control your vagus nerve?
1. What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve you have in your body. The latin meaning of “vagus” means wanderer and that is what this nerve does. It wanders from your brain all the way to your gut with many stops in between. The vagus nerve is also a critical part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The PNS releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This substance is responsible for the rest and digest actions that are controlled by the PNS. In addition to releasing acetylcholine the vagus nerve is critical in communication between the brain and many other organs such as:
- Facial muscles
- Speech centers
2. What are essential oils?
Essential oils are made from plants. The plants are pressed or steamed to remove the oils. Through the process it leaves you with oils that provide different types of fragrances. Parts of plants such as fruit, leaves, flowers or bark can be used to create essential oils.
Aromatherapy essential oils have shown to have effects on the vagus nerve. Typically, this is to improve vagal tone, which simply means calming effects that promote rest and digest.
3. What is the purpose of aromatherapy with essential oils?
The purpose of aromatherapy is to promote health and well being. It is said to improve the health of mind and body as well as lifting spirits via the pleasant odors. The odors can be from the essential oil being suspended in the air or rubbed on the skin.
Smell is one of our primary senses and can have powerful effects on thoughts and emotions. The vagus nerve is impacted by aromatherapy and has been studied for calming effects. Specifically, minimizing the fight or flight and promoting rest and digest.
4. How does aromatherapy work in the body?
Aromatherapy works by providing odors that can provoke certain reactions. Based on the intensity and pleasantness of the smell, various functions in the body can be controlled. This is why aromatherapy can be a powerful way to provide calming effects via the vagus nerve.
Stimulation of receptors in the nose sends electrical signals to the brain. The vagus nerve sends signals that help calm the limbic system in the brain. That is the area which is involved in behavioral and emotional responses. Controlling the limbic system response via the vagus nerve leads to less stressful emotional and behavioral responses to stimuli.
5. What is the process of aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy normally consists of using essential oils and diffusing them throuought the air or applying them directly to the skin. Application to the skin can be via spray like a perfume or cologne or rubbing the oil into the skin.
Diffusers for the essential oils come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be used anywhere from room in the house, to the shower or even in the car.
6. How do you hack the vagus nerve?
Benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve are important, especially in today’s day and age. Research has shown you can actually stimulate the vagus nerve manually. This is great news for people who have super short attention spans and who doesn’t fit that description today? Busy lives have you seemingly in constant overwhelm bouncing from one thing to the next.
The good news, aromatherapy can be a hack for the vagus nerve.
7. How do you manually stimulate the vagus nerve?
Normally when scientists look at the vagus nerve, they speak of vagal tone. That simply refers to to the activity of the vagus nerve. That activity is to release acetylcholine at nerve synapses or places where nerve ends meet. Due to the fact that the vagus nerve helps promote calm, rest and digestion many people would benefit from increased vagal tone.
How do you manually stimulate the vagus nerve to improve vagal tone?
Sit or lie down.
Take your favorite essential oil and warm it by holding the bottle in your hands for several minutes. After that put several drops on your fingers. Now starting at your clavicle, slowly massage the oil in on the left side of your neck using an upward motion. Do this until you reach the top of your neck. Then repeat the process on the right side.
Repeat step 2, while taking deep slow breaths.
There are also other ways to manually stimulate the vagus nerve that do not involve essential oils. Some examples are listed in the table below.
|Foot massage||Light exercise|
|Meditation||Exposure to cold|
8. What happens when the vagus nerve is overstimulated?
Can you get too much of a good thing with the vagus nerve?
Although not that likely overstimulating the vagus nerve can lead to vasovagal syncope. Sounds serious, but it is relatively harmless.
Syncope means low blood pressure and it results when the vagus nerve dilates the blood vessels too much. This tends to affect the lower extremities more than other areas. The problem is the heart rate doesn’t pick up when this happens because the vagus nerve is also slowing it down. That combination leads to lowering of the blood pressure, sometimes to the level of syncope.
This typically goes away after a few minutes of sitting or lying down. The only concern would be falling down and hurting yourself. Therefore, the best practice would be to only stimulate the vagus nerve while sitting down!
Some people could get dizzy and possibly even faint, so make sure to be cautious.
9. What are the symptoms of a damaged vagus nerve?
There is not much chance of damaging the vagus nerve using aromatherapy with essential oils. That being said some of the symptoms of a damaged vagus nerve are listed in the table below.
|Difficulty speaking||Hoarseness when speaking|
|Pain in the ear||Heart rate changes|
|Blood pressure changes||Swallowing problems|
|Decreased stomach acid||No gag reflex|
10. What essential oils are used in aromatherapy?
Many different types of scents can be used. Normally people will have a preference of the types of scents they enjoy and use those more frequently. That is why it is great there are so many different options.
The list below is not all inclusive of every type of essential oil used in aromatherapy. However, these are the most commonly used according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
11. Benefits of essential oils to stimulate vagus nerve?
Aside from smelling good essential oils can bring positive effects that are due to vagus nerve stimulation. One of the biggest positive impacts is calming the limbic system responses to stressors of everyday life. The vagus nerve is involved in so many processes in the body that other positive effects could also appear.
Aromatherapy with essential oils are a hot item today even though the practice has been used for thousands of years. Some of the most commonly proposed benefits include:
|Reduce stress||Reduce anxiety||Boosts energy||Improves focus|
|Reduce pain||Improve sleep||Help with digestion||Immune support|
While it is hard to find double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trials for every brand of essential oils on the market, vagus nerve studies are available. Learning more about how your body deals with stress will prove beneficial to you in the long run. Moreover, learning ways to cope with stress using methods other than medication may be a great way to prevent side effects and heal naturally.
At the end of the day, who doesn’t like to have a nice smell to lift your mood?
Vagus nerve stimulation with essential oils can be a great way to boost your mood. Pleasant smells are also thought to be healing in ways we have discussed. Harnessing the power of the sense of smell to control a vital cranial nerve in the body just may have you taking time to smell the roses!
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