The Brain and Aromatherapy – 5 essential oils for Alzheimer’s symptoms



Essential aroma oil
Peppermint aroma oil  is an energizer, and can be used to stimulate the mind and calm nerves at the same time.

I had learned that patchouli oil can be utilized as an insect repellant, so one afternoon I put a few drops in some coconut oil and used it on my face and arms and legs before going outside.  On my way to the park I stopped at Walmart for some water. I was standing in line when a middle aged man came up to me and said, “You smell good! What fragrance are you wearing?  It takes me back to my hippie days.” He began to describe in vivid detail where he was in his ‘hippie days’ and his experiences.   I was somewhat embarrassed that after smelling me –  he was enthusiastically  recounting his memories of the 1960’s and 1970’s in front of a long line of people!

The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.  Those with full olfactory function may be able to just ‘think’ of smells that evoke particular memories such as the gentleman in Walmart – conjuring up recollections of a whole lifetime before.  This can often happen spontaneously, with a smell acting as a trigger in recalling a long-forgotten event or experience.

After a smell enters the nose, it travels through the cranial nerve through the olfactory bulb, which helps the brain process smells. The Female Limbic System - Anatomy Brainolfactory bulb is part of the limbic system –  the emotional center of the brain.

When your olfactory receptors are stimulated, they transmit impulses to your brain. This pathway is directly connected to your limbic system in the center of your brain.   That’s why your reactions to smell are rarely neutral – you usually either like or dislike a smell. Smells also leave long-lasting impressions and are strongly linked to your memories. That’s why it is worth exploring how aromas may impact the brain and memory of those living with cognitive loss.

As noted in the Journal of Quality Research in Dementia, a limited number of clinical trials have concluded that aromatherapy provides a potentially effective and safe treatment for Alzheimer’s symptoms and related dementias.

While research on the effectiveness of essential oils is somewhat limited, some studies have shown aromatherapy can:

  • Ease symptoms of anxiety
  • Offer relief from symptoms of depression
  • Improve the quality of life for people living with chronic health conditions

In addition to the therapeutic benefits of the oils themselves, sensory stimulation   can decrease agitation, improve sleep and improve the overall quality of life for those living with memory loss.

In our community settings, we have experimented with 5 major essential oils.  We do not apply the oil directly on the skin. It is not ingested.   It is strictly used as aromatherapy, utilized through a diffuser or a few drops on a cotton ball, or in water sprayed on linens or in a basin of water with warm washcloths.

Below are the oils known to be effective for those with symptoms of dementia:

  1. LavenderLavender is thought to be calming and balance strong emotions. It has also been used to help with depression, anger and irritability, and can help in some cases of insomnia. Lavender can be directly inhaled or sprayed on linens.
  2. PeppermintPeppermint is an energizer and can be used to stimulate the mind and calm nerves at the same time. Best used in the morning, peppermint oil can be inhaled directly, diffused in a room, or  sprayed in the air.  We fill a basin with hot water and washcloths and a few drops of peppermint in the mornings, and give the warm, scented washcloths to our elders before breakfast.  It is a great start to the day!
  3. RosemarySimilar to peppermint, Rosemary is an uplifting oil.  It may even improve cognitive performance and mood. Rosemary has also been known to ease constipation, symptoms of depression and also reinvigorate the appetite. Rosemary oil can be directly inhaled, diffused through a room or as a spray.
  4. BergamotBergamot can be used to relieve anxiety, agitation, mild depression, and stress.  This mood elevating and calming oil can also be used to relieve insomnia. To use bergamot oil,  diffuse through a room or as a spray on clothing or linens.
  5. Lemon BalmWhile lemon oil may be among the more expensive oils, it is also one of the most studied and more effective oils. It has been shown to help  calm and relax those dealing with anxiety and insomnia, improve memory and ease indigestion. Lemon oil can be  inhaled directly, diffused, or  as a spray on clothing or linens.

The Faculty of Nursing, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia did an 18 month study utilizing essential oils in the following ways– Bath, Inhalation, Diffusion, Massage, Spritzer.  Their findings: ” The specific improvements for clients included increased alertness, self-hygiene, contentment, initiation of toileting, sleeping at night and reduced levels of agitation, withdrawal and wandering. Family carers have reported less distress, improved sleeping patterns and feelings of calm.”

We have not conducted our own studies yet. Some of us are in the process of becoming certified aromatherapists.  We have anecdotal evidence that indicates aromatherapy is effective.

But I wonder –   Is it effective because of the oils alone? – or could it have something to do with the intentional and empathetic manner in which the aromatherapy is introduced?   Our care teams are studying and seeking  solutions. They are noticing when an elder is demonstrating an unmet need, and responding by being present, eye contact, validating language, respect, and tender care.

Whether it is the aromatherapy or the intentional person-centered approach and empathetic communication – or both,  the results matter.  We know we are making connections. We are in relationship with elders in our care, and we are inspired by the opportunity to learn the lessons the elders are teaching us every day. And some beautiful aromas make the day happier for all of us!

About the Author:    Jean Garboden is the Director of Education and Innovation at Compass Senior Living 11062337_10206528118188840_645394201235573404_n, located in Eugene Oregon. Jean is an Elder Advocate and Eden Alternative Educator with over 30 years experience in not-for-profit and for profit health care organizations. She is honored to lead the mission and values culture development for Compass Senior Living.


One thought on “The Brain and Aromatherapy – 5 essential oils for Alzheimer’s symptoms

  1. It was only the day before this blog was posted, that I had met with a rep from ScentAir—a company that specializes in bringing scents into a variety of environments. Of coarse after reading this timely and relevant post – I felt even more convicted and excited about bringing this new and innovative experience into my very own community. As my rep and I met the second and third time to explore and determine what scent was just “right” for my community, he shared many of his own personal experiences with other Assisted Living communities where he had witnessed the awesome results of stimulating the residents through their sense of smell.
    In one instance he had returned to remove a unit he had left for one month as a sample in an Assisted Living. As he came in the door he saw a large group of residents at one end of the room all huddled around a small space in their wheelchairs. He thought it a bit out of the ordinary, but continued on to where he had left his unit. As he walked toward that area, he realized these residents were all huddled around the very unit he was coming to remove….they were all drawn to the mere scent that was being emitted from that unit as it was somehow speaking to them and at some level taking them to a very special and desirous place…they only knew that whatever it was…they wanted to be near it! He literally had to work his way through the group to get to the unit.
    In another assisted living he serviced, there was a woman who could have a clear and “normal” conversation with you, but who had no memory whatsoever of the past…not even what may have occurred just hours or minutes ago. The scent that was being broadcast through this community on this visit was “fresh cut grass.” With this scent now in the air, this woman began to speak of her grandfather on the farm….over the next few minutes and in great detail she shared all her memories that were elicited by the mere scent of this fresh cut grass. He noted the care givers had tears in their eyes as this was the very first time she every had a true memory she was able to share.
    This is why I am so excited that our very own ScentAir units were just put in place on Friday. After a couple hours of test “smelling”…we chose “A walk in the Woods” as our signature scent. I will be secretly observing and noting any changes in the overall mood and feel in the coming weeks.
    It is not only a pleasant, first impression scent I hope to achieve–More importantly, I want to build a bridge between the present moment and those long forgotten memories of the elders in my care and bring joy into their days.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s