How Essential Oils Regulate Your Mood

by Jodi Cohen

essential oils for mood

For years I knew that essential oils helped me feel calmer, happier and less anxious.  Just smelling an oil, like Lavender or Rose would immediately calm a panic attack. While I could feel the oil work on myself and witness its effect on others, I could never tell you why it worked.

Until now.

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 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.


What is GABA?

GABA 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.  This calming, inhibitory effect of GABA is what helps you calm mental and physical stress, lower anxiety, improve mood, relax and sleep.  GABA also helps support your immune and endocrine systems, regulate your appetite, metabolism and muscle tension.

Several pharmaceutical drugs designed to support emotional and psychological concerns like anxiety and depression — including Barbiturates, anesthetics, benzodiazepines, anti-depressants and anti-seizure medications  — target GABA receptors in the brain, altering their function to help modulate your mood, support relaxation, stress and anxiety reduction, pain relief, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.

For example, local anesthetics and analgesics alter the transmission of nerve impulses by binding to these receptor sites.  That said, supplemental GABA and pharmaceutical drugs can struggle to cross the blood-brain barrier, impeding the ability of these remedies to access your brain and modulate your GABA response.

Symptoms of low levels of GABA may present as:

  • Anxiety
  • Chronic stress
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating and memory problems
  • Muscle pain and headaches
  • Insomnia and other sleep problems
  • Substance use disorders.

How Essential Oils Modulate Your GABA Response

Essential oils are lipophilic (fat-friendly) and super small, allowing them to access and bind to cell membranes, which are also comprised primarily of fat.  This compatibility of chemical composition allows essential oils to bind to and modulate cell receptors and transporters,

Research is demonstrating that when essential oils interact with the receptor sites on your cellular membranes, they can influence the excitatory and inhibitory effects on your brains chemical messengers, like hormones and neurotransmitters.

Your cellular membranes serve as a semi permeable, protective barrier, regulating what enters and leaves your cell. Surface receptors that line the outside of your cell membranes allow your cells to receive chemical signals from your brain and your body.

When the appropriate chemical messenger binds with these receptors, it initiates a cascade of chemical changes inside your cellular membrane, triggering modifications in the function of the cell.   For example, GABA receptor activity inhibits over-excitation of your brain and nervous system and is important in processes like sleep and relaxation.

Essential oils can bind to these receptor sites and block, activate or modulate the impact of calming neurotransmitters like GABA, Acetylcholine and Serotonin which helps explain the relaxing effect of several essential oils.

Several drugs like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and anesthetics therapeutically target GABA receptors to enhance the inhibiting action of GABA to block overstimulation of your body and your brain and maintain your body’s balance between neuronal excitation and inhibition which is vital for normal brain function, mood and behavior.

Much like the blood-brain barrier and gut lining, your cellular membrane serves to block most substances from accessing the cell, while selectively allowing nutrients and oxygen to pass through and waste material to be released.  The selectively permeable nature of the cellular membrane relies on specialized transport mechanisms to help permeate your cell membrane and move into the cell without being limited by the cell’s transport machinery. This process is known as passive diffusion and only a few substances – including gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide, alcohol, some drugs, anesthetics, and essential oils — are capable of moving in this way.   This is because, like your brain cells, your cellular membranes are composed of lipids. Essential oils are lipid soluble and small, allowing them to directly traverse your cellular membrane.

This makes essential oils for mood especially helpful when your cells are compromised and their ability to efficiently pass substances across its membrane, due to conditions of chronic illness or cancer.  When your cells can’t repair itself without the proper exchange of nutrients, but it can’t get the proper nutrients to repair itself and heal because membrane transport mechanisms are suboptimal. Essential oils have the ability to influence cells even when there is physiologic compromise such as during times of poor nutrition or environmental threats.

Essential Oils for Mood

Research found that Linalool, a key constituent in essential oils like LavenderClary SageBasilCilantro, and Coriander, helped modulate GABA receptors and enhance the inhibitory tone of your nervous system

1. Lavender™

Lavender – Known for its the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects, Lavender is a great oil for general overall calm.  It can help balance the nervous system, alleviate panic attacks, general nervous stress and tension.  Many research studies confirm lavender’s effectiveness for reducing stress and promoting calmness. In fact, researchers have concluded Lavender can help decrease anxiety and stress, including reducing anxiety prior to medical treatments like surgery. In addition, lavender may improve mood and reduce anxiety as well as reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.  For best results, inhale  Lavender through the left nostril to stimulate the left frontal lobe and balance the over-activity of the right frontal lobe.

2. Rose™

Rose™ – The best recipe for instant joy when rubbed over the heart.  Rose™ is known for alleviation of anxiety, stress, and depression. It also helps ease grief, panic attacks, and shock.  You can also apply in conjunction with an Epsom salt bath which help activate the parasympathetic nervous system.  In a clinical study, simply smelling Rose™ oil triggered the brain for relaxation.

3. Frankincense™

Frankincense™ – is known to help enhance mood and combat anxiety.  The sequiterpenes in Frankincense™ help to carry oxygen to the brain and stimulate the the area of the brain responsible for emotions, known as the limbic system, which in turn calms anxious thoughts and feelings.    Frankincense™ can be applied on the nape of the neck or over the heart.

3. Uplift™

Uplift™ was specifically formulated with oils that assist in building courage, confidence, self-esteem and returning a sense of calm, joy and peace to our lives.  It inspires hope in those who have temporarily lost their optimism and helps users to overcome their fear and reclaim their potential.  When we have more courage to take on new things and/or change, we are better able to release old patterns that are not working for us.  It can also align the physical, mental and emotional energies of the body when applied to shoulders and/and feet.

Formulated with calming oils like Frankincense, Blue Tansy, Roman Chamomile, Ylang Ylang, Lime, Mandarin, Lavender, and Rose, Uplift™ can help calm your physical, mental and emotional energy.  Apply  2 -3 drops of Uplift™ to the vagal nerve (behind earlobe, on mastoid bone) over heart, wrists, temples and forehead. To keep balanced and confident during the day rub 3 to 6 drops on the bottom of your feet each morning.

4. Calm™

Calm™ – This gentle blend helps to calm anxiety and reduce panic, especially with kids.  Formulated with calming oils known to quell anxiety, like Tangerine, Orange, Ylang Ylang, Blue Tansy, Patchouli, Calm™, when smelled or applied over the heart, may help alleviate anxiety, panic, racing heartbeat, feelings of overwhelm and promote calm and relaxation.



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About The Author

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.

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Subscribe to Vibrant Blue Oils and receive weekly information on oils and how to use them. As a bonus, we’ll send out Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils to your inbox immediately!