Aromatherapy, Stress, and Immunity: 3 Essential Oils for a Healthy, Happy Holiday

Oct 25, 2022

Holiday season is fast approaching! It’s the time of the year many of us look forward to. While this can be a period of relaxation, being carefree, and celebrating with your loved ones, for other people, it can be quite the opposite, and stress levels may be at their highest. Now is the time to start building — and using — your aromatic support toolkit.

According to data from an American Psychological Association survey (Greenberg & Berktold, 2006), during the holidays, over 50% of respondents experienced symptoms such as:

  • feeling nervous and sad
  • fatigue
  • sleeping disorders
  • lack of motivation and energy
  • muscular tension

This concerning trend is mainly observed in adult women, who are most affected by stress and the associated decline in mood and mental well-being. An increase in stress levels during the holidays was observed by as many as 44% of surveyed women. Among men, this figure was 31% — lower, but still too high.

Many factors influence holiday stress, from operating under time pressure and strained finances to the unique pressures of exchanging gifts with others.

How you feel determines how you feel

While stress itself is a vast topic, it’s important to focus on how it affects us.

Living under constant stress takes a huge toll on our bodies, and the effects reach far beyond the obvious impact on our well-being and psychological comfort. Being overwhelmed by the number of stressors around you has a tremendous impact on the proper functioning of our entire organism…especially when it comes to our immune system.

You might wonder — how is that possible?

Scientists in the 1970s and 1980s observed that our psyche and mental health have a direct impact on our overall physical health. Over time, a new branch of science began to emerge, which we now call psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). PNI combines psychological and medical sciences and looks for connections between the functioning of the nervous system and the immune system.

Research in the field of PNI focuses mainly on the impact of the stress hormone cortisol and signaling proteins called cytokines on the cells of the immune system, as well as on analysis of gene expression activated in the cells of the immune system when it is under stress.

Everything is connected

The nervous system, specifically the autonomic nervous system, innervates the organs of the immune system (such as the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes). Nerve endings are even found in our marrow. The organs and cells of the immune system have receptors for neurotransmitters that are released by nerve endings throughout the body. As you may know, our autonomic nervous system responds to our stress levels. If you’ve heard the term “fight or flight response,” that’s part of your autonomic nervous system — specifically, the sympathetic nervous system — kicking into gear when you’re stressed.

In other words — the amount of stress and emotions we experience really does affect our physical health.

“Individuals exposed to chronic stressors can exhibit immune dysregulation that may be persistent and severe.”
(Morey et al., 2015)

Conversely, certain psychological or physiological disorders can influence the development of psychosomatic disease. These include, for example, stomach ulcers, migraines, hypertension, eating disorders, or insomnia. These are also a focus of psychoneuroimmunology.

What happens if you stress a lot?

To broaden your perspective, here are a few quick examples courtesy of Bryniarski (2017):

  • Depression and anxiety can cause a decrease in NK cells and T cells.
  • Loneliness is associated with a decrease in NK cell activity.
  • Revealing traumatic events may be associated with an increase in the body’s inflammatory response.
  • Academic stress results in a lower activity of NK cells, T lymphocytes, increased sensitivity to the herpes virus, and an increase in immunoglobulin A.
  • When you are overwhelmed by stress and emotions, your cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels begin to drift off the acceptable scale. This leads to a number of dysfunctions: a reduction in the number of lymphocytes, inflammation inside your body, and impairment of other vital cells of the immune system.

Then, how you feel begins to actually determine how you feel. Stress and emotions begin to overwhelm you physically, and a disturbed immune system does not help at all. Your body stops dealing with the encountered viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Supporting our mood and managing our stress levels is an important way to support our immune system.

This is one of the best and safest (at Essence of Thyme, these two words are synonyms!) ways to use your essential oils for supporting your overall health during the holiday season.

Which essential oils should I use to improve my mood?

We recommend essential oils that support general relaxation, a calm mood, and healthy cortisol levels. Below you will find 3 essential oils that you may find useful during the holiday season. You can combine aromatherapy with other relaxation methods (e.g., breathing techniques, meditation, or yoga) to maximize their therapeutic potential.

Inhalation is a particularly effective method if you are using aromatherapy for emotional benefits. Aromas delivered directly to the smell receptors in our brain have a powerful effect on our behaviour. And that is exactly what we need in this case.

You can use your essential oils in a diffuser, add 10–20 drops of your essential oil blend to an inhaler for a healthy adult, or put 1–4 drops on a tissue and inhale gently for a few minutes. While each essential oil can be used on its own, we recommend blending them together to benefit from the combination of therapeutic constituents and for a more complex aroma.

Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia)

There are many studies about lavender oil, but for the sake of this post, we want to talk about 3 of them. A single-blind clinical trial by Hosseini et al. (2016) aimed to determine the effect of lavender essential oil on anxiety and blood cortisol levels in candidates for open heart surgery. The study and control groups inhaled 2 drops of lavender and distilled water for 20 minutes respectively, then blood samples were taken. Results showed a significant reduction in mean anxiety score in the study group compared to the control group. There was also a higher difference in cortisol levels in the study group compared to the control group. Other tests showed that the 10.8% variance in anxiety score and 69.6% decrease in blood cortisol resulted from the inhalation of lavender.

In the other study, pregnant women were massaged with 2% lavender oil (please note that at Essence of Thyme, we recommend 1% dilution for pregnant women). After 20 weeks, their saliva had a lot more IgA antibodies and decreased cortisol levels (Chen et al., 2017). A similar study examined the effect of a massage mixture of lavender, marjoram, and cypress oils, which was found to lead to an increase in the number of lymphocytes in the blood (Kuriyama et al., 2005). Based on these results, researchers concluded that the calming effect of lavender oil may have a positive effect on the functioning of the immune system.

Sweet orange essential oil (Citrus x sinensis)

During winter, sweet orange not only reminds us of the sun and summertime, but it also suits the festive mood of December. Let’s examine some studies concerning sweet orange oil.

In a study by Jafarzadeh et al. (2013), 30 children aged 6–9 years participated in a type of study called a crossover intervention study. Every child underwent 2 dental treatment appointments with orange aroma in one session (intervention) and without any aroma (control) in the other. Each child’s anxiety level was measured using salivary cortisol and pulse rate before and after treatment in each visit. These results suggest that the use of aromatherapy with sweet orange essential oil could reduce salivary cortisol and pulse rate due to a child's anxiety state.

In another interesting study by Komori et al. (1995), citrus oils (including orange oil) were given to 12 people diagnosed with depression. Results indicated that the doses of these individuals’ antidepressants could be markedly reduced. The use of citrus oils normalized neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function and was concluded to be more effective than antidepressants in this regard as measured during the course of the study.

Research by Goes et al. (2012) also suggests that sweet orange essential oil shows anxiolytic activity, and could be used by aromatherapists to support a calmer mood.

Clary sage essential oil (Salvia sclarea)

Clary sage is another great essential oil to use when dealing with stress and improving your mood. It is often recommended for women who are entering the menopausal transition and the unpleasant symptoms that can go with it.

In a study by Lee et al. (2014), the researchers examined 22 women (some of whom were diagnosed with depression) in their 50s, and their cortisol levels, neurotransmitter concentrations, and thyroid stimulating hormone. The results showed that after inhalation of clary sage oil, cortisol levels were significantly decreased. Another conclusion is that clary sage oil might have an antidepressant-like effect and can elevate one’s mood.

Some conclusions on the immune system and aromatherapy

Essential oils are a great tool for many things, and you can safely use them to elevate your mood during stressful situations.

Taking care of your immune system should be a priority all year round. It is about very simple things, which are often easy to forget, such as a balanced diet, adequate sleep, proper hydration, physical activity, and reducing the stress that we encounter every day.

Stress can often make us feel isolated, and it’s very difficult to feel alone, especially during the holiday season. If you are dealing with a personal crisis or feel overwhelmed, please don’t hesitate to seek support, including taking advantage of support hotlines available to us all over the world. Click here to find a mental health support line in your country: https://checkpointorg.com/global/

Finally, while these are compelling findings about how essential oils can support your mood and, in turn, your immune system, please discuss with your prescribing physician before making changes to your health plan including the dosage of your medications for mental or physical concerns. Please also use caution and follow safety guidelines when blending for children, people who are pregnant, or people with health concerns. While we haven’t covered autoimmunity in this post, individuals with autoimmune disease may need to discuss the optimal use of essential oils with their health provider. When in doubt, you can also consult a professional aromatherapist.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn more about essential oils and how they affect your immune and nervous systems, we’ve got you covered. You’ll study immunity in Module 5 of our Professional Level Certification Program, and this information is also included in our Gold Standard Advanced Diploma Program in Aromatherapy. In both certification programs, you will learn more about the lymphatic system, and you will also explore psychoneuroimmunology with Dr. Florian Birkmayer, a member of our expert faculty.

In the meantime, we send you the warmest greetings and wish you a happy fall-winter season! May this season bring you joy, happiness, and wellness through the safe and effective use of essential oils.


About Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies

Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies offers 370- and 700-hour professional aromatherapy certification programs that help you grow a successful, fulfilling career by specializing and creating your market niche. Professional Level Certification prepares graduates to become aromatherapy consultants, launch product lines or retail businesses, or provide services as an adjunct to existing holistic health specializations. Master Level Certification and electives are ideal for certified aromatherapists seeking higher education or a path to clinical aromatherapy practice.

All Essence of Thyme programs focus on aromatherapy product development and advanced formulation, evidence-based research, spa and business management, international industry regulatory guidelines, and sustainability and conservation of essential oil and carrier oil-bearing plants.

Our comprehensive, evidence-based programs meet or exceed the criteria set forth by 5 international professional aromatherapy associations. Learn more about our aromatherapy certification programs.


References

Bryniarski, K. (2017). Immunologia: Dla studentów wydziałów medycznych i lekarzy (1st ed.). Edra Urban & Partner.

Chen, P. J., Chou, C. C., Yang, L., Tsai, Y. L., Chang, Y. C., & Liaw, J. J. (2017). Effects of aromatherapy massage on pregnant women's stress and immune function: A longitudinal, prospective, randomized controlled trial. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 23(10), 778–786. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2016.0426 

Dragoş, D., & Tănăsescu, M. D. (2010). The effect of stress on the defense systems. Journal of medicine and life, 3(1), 10–18.

Goes, T. C., Antunes, F. D., Alves, P. B., & Teixeira-Silva, F. (2012). Effect of sweet orange aroma on experimental anxiety in humans. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 18(8), 798–804. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2011.0551 

Greenberg, A., & Berktold, J. (2006, December 12). Holiday Stress. American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf

House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540–545. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.3399889 

Hosseini, S., Heydari, A., Vakili, M., Moghadam, S., & Tazyky, S. (2016). Effect of lavender essence inhalation on the level of anxiety and blood cortisol in candidates for open-heart surgery. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 21(4), 397–401. https://doi.org/10.4103/1735-9066.185582 

Jafarzadeh, M., Arman, S., & Pour, F. F. (2013). Effect of aromatherapy with orange essential oil on salivary cortisol and pulse rate in children during dental treatment: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Advanced biomedical research, 2(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.4103/2277-9175.107968 

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology and psychosomatic medicine: back to the future. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(1), 15–28. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-200201000-00004

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology: psychological influences on immune function and health. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 70(3), 537–547. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-006x.70.3.537 

Komori, T., Fujiwara, R., Tanida, M., Nomura, J., & Yokoyama, M. M. (1995). Effects of citrus fragrance on immune function and depressive states. Neuroimmunomodulation, 2(3), 174–180. https://doi.org/10.1159/000096889 

Kuriyama, H., Watanabe, S., Nakaya, T., Shigemori, I., Kita, M., Yoshida, N., Masaki, D., Tadai, T., Ozasa, K., Fukui, K., & Imanishi, J. (2005). Immunological and psychological benefits of aromatherapy massage. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, 2(2), 179–184. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/neh087 

Lee, K. B., Cho, E., & Kang, Y. S. (2014). Changes in 5-hydroxytryptamine and cortisol plasma levels in menopausal women after inhalation of clary sage oil. Phytotherapy research, 28(11), 1599–1605. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.5163 

Morey, J. N., Boggero, I. A., Scott, A. B., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2015). Current directions in stress and human immune function. Current opinion in psychology, 5, 13–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007

Vollhardt L. T. (1991). Psychoneuroimmunology: a literature review. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 61(1), 35–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0079226

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