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Essential Oils for Neurotransmitters

By Jodi Cohen

A digital illustration of neurons with detailed dendrites and synaptic connections in the brain, highlighting the complexity of the nervous system.

Neurotransmitters are your body’s chemical messengers that carry electrical signals between brain cells. Neurotransmitters circulate through your body, communicating between cells to help them perform important functions that directly impact how you feel and how you function

Neurotransmitters are either excitatory or inhibitory.

Excitatory neurotransmitters help mobilize you for action, ramping up or “activating” your body and your brain for action, impacting your physical energy levels and mental alertness, enabling the brain to respond effectively to any challenges or threats that it encounters. This ensures that your brain and  body are prepared for any physical or emotional stressors by triggering you “fight or flight” response.

Inhibitory neurotransmitters block, or inhibit, certain brain signals, which help decrease excitatory and anxious activity in your nervous system. While excitatory neurotransmitters tell your brain  to “fire”, inhibitory neurotransmitters tell your brain not to, in effect inhibiting the continuation of the message along that particular neural pathway, which is why they are considered  “the brakes of the brain”, helping to shift your brain into a lower, and calmer gear.

Essential Oils for Neurotransmitters can be used to activate or inhibit both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters.  For example, inhibiting an inhibitory neurotransmitter leads to more activity. While inhibiting an excitatory neurotransmitter helps calm your brain.  Similarly, you can stimulate an excitatory neurotransmitter for more energy and focus or stimulate an inhibitory neurotransmitter to calm your system.

Many of the drugs designed to support your mood and brain function work on this principle, altering the balance of different neurotransmitters in your brain or compensating for its imbalance by either enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter or preventing their reuptake.  Beta-blocker drugs work by blocking neurotransmitter receptors.

Research has demonstrated that the inhalation of essential oils can communicate signals to the olfactory system and stimulate the brain to release neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood. For example, one study found that smelling bergamot, lavender, and lemon essential oils helps trigger your brain to release serotonin and dopamine.  Similarly, the strategic application of Parasympathetic over your vagus nerve can stimulate the release of acetylcholine to slow down heart rate and help anti-inflame the body and the brain.

How Neurotransmitters Work

Neurotransmitters send signals between brain cells to communicate.  More specifically, a neurotransmitter is released from the surface of one brain cell – the sending cell – into an extracellular space which forms part of the “synapse” – the connecting space between two brain cells.

Once released into the synapse, the neurotransmitter travels to the “other side” of the extracellular space and binds to specific proteins – called cell receptors – located on the surface of the receiving brain cell. When the neurotransmitter “binds” to these receptors, it sets up a cascade of chemical reactions within your receiving cell to carry the electrical signal through that cell and further into your brain.

These cell receptors are pathway by which  pharmaceutical drugs work to support emotional and psychological concerns like anxiety and depression — including Barbiturates, anesthetics, benzodiazepines, anti-depressants and anti-seizure medications.  These drugs bind to your cell receptors in the brain and altering their function to help enhance your mood and relieve anxiety and depression.

How Essential Oils Impact Neurotransmitters

Essential oils can work in the same way.  For example, research has found that essential oils, like Lavender™, can bind to the receptors on your cells that receive your body’s calming neurotransmitter, Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), and help balance your brain’s level of excitation and inhibition which is vital for normal brain function and a healthy nervous system – MORE HERE.

While some foods and supplements contain neurotransmitters and their amino acid precursors, their inability to cross the blood-brain barrier impede their ability to modify your brain’s neurotransmitter response. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier because it does not contain the necessary “transport” mechanisms needed to get them across.  In the same vein, GABA and Glutamate require a significant concentration differential between the blood and brain to be allowed in.

Your blood–brain barrier is a highly selective, semipermeable border comprised of endothelial cells wedged extremely close together that protect your brain from potentially dangerous agents that could disturb brain function. It prevents all but very small, fat soluble molecules from passing into the brain.

Most conventional pharmaceuticals are neither small enough nor fat soluble. Essential oils are both very small and fat soluble, they are uniquely suited to help access and heal regions of the brain affected by physical environmental toxins and emotional and mental stress.  Inhalation is a very efficient mode of administration for affecting neurological function, as the smell receptor sites in our nasal cavity have a direct link to the brain, via the olfactory bulbs.

Essential Oils for Neurotransmitters

Adrenaline (epinephrine): Your excitatory neurotransmitter Adrenaline stimulates your “fight or flight” state of the nervous system in response to stressful or exciting situations. It increases your heart rate and helps heighten your awareness. A surplus of adrenaline can be linked with manic behaviors, paranoia, ADHD and cardiac arrest.   A deficit of adrenaline can be linked with low energy and depression. Essential oils that calm the fight or flight response like Parasympathetic® and Adrenal® can help calm the excitatory neurotransmitter Adrenaline. Black pepper, rose, and grapefruit essential oils have been shown to stimulate epinephrine.  In fact, inhalation of rose essential oil resulted in a 30% decrease of epinephrine levels.  Black pepper essential oil has also been shown to significantly increase epinephrine levels on inhalation.

Noradrenaline (norepinephrine): Your concentration neurotransmitter Noradrenaline affects attention and responding actions in your brain, in response to your fight or flight response. Noradrenaline helps to contract blood vessels and increasing blood flow. A surplus of noradrenaline contributes to anxiety.  A deficit of noradrenaline can be linked with mental disorders, like depression. Essential oils that calm the fight or flight response like Parasympathetic and support brain function like Focus can help calm the excitatory neurotransmitter Noradrenaline.

Dopamine: Your pleasure neurotransmitter Dopamine is an important modulatory neurotransmitter in the brain, meaning that it is both excitatory and inhibitory.  It supports feelings of pleasure, movement and motivation. As you are likely to repeat behaviors that lead to dopamine release, it can also play a role in addictive behaviors.

In fact, addictive substances like amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates potentiate the actions of dopamine by inhibiting dopamine reuptake or increasing the activity of dopamine neurons.  A surplus of Dopamine can be correlated with drug addiction and personality disorders like schizophrenia.  A deficit of Dopamine  leads to issues with movement and plays a role in parkinson’s disease.  Essential oils which help to balance the dopaminergic system include immune modulating essential oils such as oregano, thyme, lavender, rosemary, and lemon which are contained in Immune Support™ blend. Research found Lemon™ oil to reduce anxiety and boosts both serotonin and dopamine. Other essential oils that positively impact dopamine and/or serotonin include clary sage, cedarwood, eucalyptus globulus, roman chamomile and orange.

Serotonin: Your mood transmitter serotonin has a modulatory function and contributes to happiness and positive mood, enhancing your brain activity over many cognitive, emotional, physiological and metabolic systems. Serotonin supports and helps to regulate your mood, sleep and wakefulness, appetite, level of aggression, body temperature, and neuroendocrine function.  Serotonin levels are enhanced with exercise and light exposure.  A deficit of serotonin contributes to mood disorders like depression.

Research discovered that Lavender™ and linalool, a major constituent of Lavender™, were able to bind to the serotonin transporter which may have an inhibitory effect on serotonin reuptake.

Limiting serotonin reuptake helps maintain proper serotonin activity, and proper serotonin activity promotes feelings of happiness and helps regulate appetite and sleep and support important processes such as learning and memory.

Research found that prolonged inhalation of Rose™ oil revealed an anti-anxiety effect that was described as being similar to “some serotonergic agents” (i.e. substances that increase serotonin). It’s interesting that studies correlate your sense of smell with depression, noting that reduced olfactory sensitivity is often associated with clinical depression.

GABA: Your calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain, meaning that it blocks, or inhibits, certain brain signals that can lead to anxiety and decreases excitatory and anxious activity in your nervous system.  You might consider GABA to be “the brakes of the brain”, helping to shift your brain into a lower, and calmer gear and improving focus and concentration.  This calming, inhibitory effect of GABA is what helps you calm mental and physical stress, lower anxiety, improve mood, relax and sleep.  More specifically, Linalool, an active ingredient of lavender oil, has been shown to modulate the transmission of GABA in your brain by activating GABA receptors, which helps to enhance the inhibitory tone of your brain, basically blocking brain signals that activate your stress response and calming your nervous system. A deficit of GABA contributes to anxiety and insomnia.

Calm™ and Uplift™ help to modulate your GABA response, along with Lavender™Rose™ and Frankincense™.  Read more about regulating your GABA response HERE.

Acetylcholine: Your anti-inflammatory and learning neurotransmitter, Acetylcholine is an important chemical messenger released by your vagus nerve that facilitates communication between your body and your brain.  For example, acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter used to signal the communication between your nerves and your muscle, activating muscle action and trigger muscles to contract so you can move.

In your brain, acetylcholine activates and inhibits communication between different brain regions to properly store information.  It is involved in thought, learning. For example, it is acetylcholine that tells your hippocampus to store a memory. Acetylcholine is so essential to memory, in fact, that acetylcholine deficits are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  Acetylcholine helps your forebrain communicate with your limbic system. Degeneration of this communicate pathway is linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Acetylcholine can both excite and inhibit brain function, by speeding up or slowing down nerve signals.  In your central nervous system (i.e. your brain), acetylcholine is mainly excitatory, allowing your neurons to communicate so you can think clearly, learn new information and form new memories.  Without optimal acetylcholine levels in your brain, your focus becomes sluggish causing brain fog and mental fatigue.

Your vagus nerve releases acetylcholine and stimulating your vagus nerve helps to stimulate the release of acetylcholine.  You can naturally stimulate your vagus nerve by topically applying our stimulatory Parasympathetic® behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone where the vagus nerve is closest to the surface of your body – Learn more HERE.

Glutamate: Your main excitatory neurotransmitter in your brain, also known as your memory neurotransmitter. Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is involved in virtually every major excitatory brain function. It supports cognitive function, emotions, sensory information, and motor coordination, and is linked to other neurotransmitter activity. Glutamate release needs to be modulated.  More is not necessarily better. Too much glutamate can damage neurons and neural networks while too little glutamate excitation can result in difficulty concentrating or mental exhaustion.

Essential oils can help support the release of the right concentrations of glutamate at the right time.  For example, research found that Lavender™ essential oil may help modulate Glutamate receptors.

Endorphins: Your  “feel-good” neurotransmitters, Endorphins are opiate chemicals released during exercise, or in response to stressful situations or sources of pain or stress, to help reduce pain and a sort of “bliss,” providing a sense of well-being and euphoria. Certain aromas, actions and foods can lift your mood by influencing the production of endorphins.

For example, research found that the scent of vanilla helps reduce anxiety. A study at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, found that patients undergoing MRIs who breathed vanilla-scented air reported 63 per cent less anxiety than those who breathed unscented air. Ylang Ylang also stimulates the part of the brain that releases endorphins.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.