Biochemical Aromatherapy and Stress
Stress as defined in the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary is a hardship or a system of forces applied to the body leading to pressure from emotional, physical or mental influences: the insistent assigning of weight or importance. Stress could also be defined as our body’s response to what we encounter in life. Stress can be as small as stubbing your toe on a door or as large as suffering abuse. The brain will respond by sending biochemicals that help our body withstand the onslaught that we are doing to it. The brain is constantly trying to balance the chemical functions of the body. It is trying to make sure that enough oxygen is absorbed by the body so that biochemical processes fundamental to life can carry on.
The brain’s first preoccupation no matter what type of stress you are going through is to keep the main organs functioning so that you have a better chance of surviving whatever it is you are up against. The brain does not have a list of criteria that it uses to distinguish between different crisis so that it can adjust to the degree of stress accordingly. It behaves the same way whether you are facing someone with a gun or whether you have seen a spider in the bath. Your brain will produce the same response and this response is unique to each individual. The symptoms may seem the same from one person to the next but there will be different biochemical changes that will occur that gets them to that particular state.
Our bodies in the modern world are under much more pressure and strain than our ancestors were a hundred years ago. Our brains now have to respond constantly to stimuli all the time. This could be negotiating traffic, to breathing in polluted air, to the constant negative thought patterns that we feed ourselves with day after day (How do I look? Am I satisfied with my body? Am I proud of my achievements in life? Am I happy? Why isn’t anything going right in my life? Why don’t I have any money? Why am I alone? These are some of the examples of internal stress that we put upon ourselves), to eating refined food that does not nourish our bodies.
Our brains constantly have to respond, making biochemical changes within our body to keep our bodies functioning smoothly in the face of this onslaught. We can be stressed even when we do not consciously feel stressed, for example when we leave for work in the morning without eating breakfast. You may consciously not mind eating breakfast, in fact, you probably never eat breakfast, but your body has to therefore end up trying to obtain energy from wherever it can, enable you to walk down the street, get on the bus, and spend hours at work till you eat something at lunch. If that lunch comprises only a white bread sandwich, a chocolate bar and a can of coke, you can begin to see where the deficit is beginning to build up within your body. You come home tired from work at the end of the day, you might be frustrated at not being able to get problems solved and then you begin to feel stressed and blame it on work. All the time your brain works quietly in the background responding to every thought and stimulus and eventually the body becomes deluged and begins to be diseased with itself.
You do not have to suffer major stress for your body not to be stressed; in fact just living produces stress. So what is the stress response within us and how can essential oils help to alleviate it? The stress response was evolved from primitive times to help us cope with an imminent danger and was critical to humans survival but today with our constant worries over money, health, career, relationships etc., this response can be constantly triggered putting great pressure not only on the human body but on the mind as well.
In response to a given worry or perceived threat, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system is activated. The hypothalamus I see as being the CEO or chairman of our body, it is the emotional centre of our brain and where we transform our emotional responses into physical responses. It regulates and balances our whole system. It controls the Pituitary and the Adrenal glands, the automatic functioning of the heart, lungs, digestive and circulatory systems and appetite, body temperature and blood sugar levels. The pituitary is the body’s foreman. The HPA in relation to a given stress, triggers the production and release of neurotransmitters, hormones and proteins. Below are the various biochemicals the HPA triggers the production of and the essential oils that counteract it:
The HPA stimulates the release of the glucocorticoids. These give us our resistance to stress and make sure that enough energy is available to deal with that stress by converting non-carbohydrates to energy (hence why many people lose weight when they are worried and going through a traumatic time). There are three of them, cortisol, corticosterone and cortisone and are our bodies own steroids. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and organises systems like the skin, liver, heart, metabolism to deal with the stress quickly. Cortisol is released when ACTH is released from the anterior pituitary. ACTH acts upon the adrenal cortex. If overused through stress, then it is not available to fight allergies and other conditions. They use cortisol in autoimmune shots, but some people believe that they give a lifetime supply in one shot which impacts throughout the entire body and can help to set up an autoimmune condition because the underlying cause has not been resolved. Too much cortisol damages the brain, especially the hippocampus. Marjoram, Frankincense, Roman Chamomile, Juniper, Sandalwood, Rose and other sedative oils whose actions influence the adrenal glands all influence the glucocorticoids and should be our first choice in counteracting the stress response.
Beta Endorphins: released by the brain during stress, beta-endorphins act as a narcotic to protect from pain—"feel-good" chemicals for "fight-flight" so we won't feel it. But if we use up all the Beta Endorphins in "virtual" battles, there won't be any available for real ones. If we're under a lot of stress, we won't have a reserve to draw from, so that the chronic release not only reduces the ability to deal with pain, it actually increases the possibility of migraines and backache, etc. Frankincense (boswellia carterri), Lavender, Ylang Ylang (cananga odorata) and Roman Chamomile (anthemis nobilis) calm the release of beta-endorphins.
Prostaglandins: released during an inflammatory response. But if there's chronic stress, they become less able to help as anti-inflammatories.
The HPA is also involved in the release of certain neurotransmitters during stressful situations such as a group of chemicals called the catecholamines. These are epinephrine (adrenalin), norepinephrine and dopamine. The release of epinephrine/norepinephrine helps to fight enemies and allergens also. But the chronic and repeated release of these damages the immune system and reduces one's ability to fight infection and cancer. Chronic elevated levels of these hormones impact other organs and body systems as well. The catecholamines activate the amygdala; an area of the brain alongside the hippocampus which is associated with memory. In order for a person to react quickly to a given stress, the catecholamines inhibit rational thought, heighten concentration and awareness while storing the stressful experience in the long term memory so that the person can avoid such threats in future by remembering it. This is the crux of the matter, during research, scientists discovered that during stress, nerve cells in the brain interpret chemical signals incorrectly telling them to switch on instead of off so the brain cannot switch off from the worry or perceived threat long after the threat is no longer viable. This response in some people can carry on interminably making them feel that they are always in danger. Frankincense, Melissa, Juniper, Cedarwood, Lavender, Ylang Ylang and Sandalwood all influence epinephrine. Under research on head injury patients, Benzoin, Black Pepper, Camphor, Clary Sage, Damiana, Lemongrass and Rosemary influence the production of dopamine. Rosemary, lemon, Black Pepper and Basil influence the amygdala and help let go of unwanted and un-needed memories.
Serotonin: Is a neurotransmitter that is key to coherence and cellular communication. It puts every cell in the body on the same communication pattern. It takes about 60 days to rest from a high-stress event, so if there is too much or long-term stress, the communication runs dry and cells can't communicate. 70% is in the bowel, so Prozac and other anti-depressants can lead to constipation. It is involved in controlling states of consciousness and mood. Lavender, Benzoin, Clary Sage, Rosewood and Ylang Ylang help the body recuperate and recover well after a stressful event far quicker than other oils.
2-phenylethylamine/ PEA. This neuro-hormone plays a critical role in the limbic system and is known to give a feeling of bliss. 60% of depressed patients have a PEA deficit and anti-depressants increase concentrations of this in the brain. Geranium, Clary Sage and Cypress increase concentrations of this in the body.
Neuropeptide S is a small protein produced by the brain which increases alertness, awareness and concentration whilst decreasing sleep. This gives the person a sense of urgency and a need to run from the given threat. It plays a major role in the eradication of fear and reduces anxiety. Benzoin, Bergamot, Jasmine, Rose, Frankincense, Sandalwood and Chamomile all influence Neuropeptide S.
The conventional view is that if a threat to well-being is perceived – the hypothalmus is activated releasing adrenocorticotropic releasing hormone which is carried to the anterior pituitary facilitating the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH acts upon the adrenal cortex releasing cortisol and other steroids which help militate against the release of ACTH which is connected with feelings of fear. Stimulation of the hypothalamus also affects the sympathetic nerve system and in turn the adrenal medulla, releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine, which produce a chain of further reactions. This could mean not processing a certain food like in the case of an allergen or it might mean that you feel the need to urinate all the time or it might mean having heartburn. Whatever the symptom, it has arisen out of stress that the body is experiencing. Stress doesn’t go away if not dealt with adequately either. Cells have a capacity to remember stress in the form of chemical imprints. This means that given the right trigger, the person can develop symptoms sometimes years after the original stress was going on.
Essential oils enable us to help change, influence and reduce these negative imprints, reduce the stress response and help us recover from the stress quickly and effectively.
by Josie Donaldson, IFA Member
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