How Aromatherapy Can Enhance Your Recovery

How Aromatherapy Can Enhance Your Recovery

Living in Portland, OR, brings many benefits. As well as the beautiful tree-lined horizon, we’re pretty tuned into nature, and we favor anything holistic for our health and well-being. The same applies to our recovery offerings.

The Alano Club of Portland offers a Recovery Toolkit Series, which features a series of workshops hosted throughout the year – including everything from Recovery CrossFit, yoga, Creative Writing Workshops to Mindfulness-Based Recovery Support – giving you everything you need for a holistic self-directed recovery. I recently attended their workshop Aromatherapy and the Recovering Brain, led by JoDee Anderson, and I was blown away. JoDee is a physician located in Portland OR. She is certified in aromatherapy and is an essential oil coach.

I’ve used essential oils for a few years – in the bath, to treat acne, or as part of my bedtime routine – but didn’t realize the extent of their power. I’d always considered them as complementary rather than therapeutic. Yet, I came away from this workshop with an entirely different perspective.

Learning About Essential Oils

I immediately connected with JoDee to find out more. She tells me that essential oils can be used as instruments to stimulate and support lasting changes in the following areas: behavior, thoughts, habits, patterns, and in self-regard; the well-worn autonomic track of sympathetic response; and neurotransmitter release, uptake, and availability.

She explains, “Essential oils are volatile, therapeutic compounds derived from plants.” By inhaling them, “They stimulate the neurons in our olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the limbic system. Our limbic system is responsible for memory, learning, and emotions and is under the control of various neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters most profoundly affected by addiction include, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, GABA, and acetylcholine,” JoDee says.

So powerful are oils, that they can “affect the release, uptake, and availability of these neurotransmitters, thereby restoring physiologic balance in the limbic system,” explains JoDee.

While it is clear that improving mental and psychological health is crucial to recovery, I asked JoDee how else essential oils can help us. Here’s what she had to say:

Liv: How can the use of essential oils help reduce withdrawal symptoms and improve motivation to overcome addiction?

JoDee: Withdrawal can manifest in physical, mental, and emotional symptoms and depending on the substance one is withdrawing from; as such, managing withdrawal requires a multifaceted approach. Essential oils cannot replace medical care in the acute phase of withdrawal, but they have been used to assist with symptoms. Restoring balance in the neurotransmitter systems can aid in motivation.

Nicotine exerts its effects in the brain by acting on a specific type of receptor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Beta-caryophyllene, found in black pepper essential oil, blocks the acetylcholine receptor and has been used to reduce cravings when withdrawing from cigarette smoking.

Multiple neurotransmitter systems play a role in mediating the behavioral effects of alcohol that have been linked to its abuse and dependence. Essential oils are best used to aid management of symptoms including depression and anxiety. The essential oils used include lavender, bergamot, lemon, and rosemary.

From a biochemical perspective, the major mechanism by which the amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates potentiate the actions of dopamine within the mesolimbic system is by inhibiting dopamine reuptake or increasing the activity of dopamine neurons. Essential oils which help to balance the dopaminergic system include clary sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, rosemary, roman chamomile and lemon.

Black pepper, jasmine, rose, and grapefruit essential oils have been shown to stimulate epinephrine which can increase motivation and help overcome the lethargy often experience in withdrawal and recovery.

 

Liv: Essential oils are known to reduce stress. How can they be used as part of a daily self-care ritual in one’s recovery? 

JoDee: Chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous (chronic stress) results in anxiety, insomnia, inflammation, weight gain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system; managing stress is paramount to restoring and maintaining health.

Vetiver, frankincense, and lavender can be used to promote relaxation, alleviate anxiety, improve insomnia, reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, and lessen inflammation.

Recovery-based daily self-care routines may include meditation, exercise, spot-check inventories, gratitude lists, and spiritual connection.

Pairing such activities with essential oils helps to reinforce new habits in the limbic system; when dopamine is released, the mind associates a reward with the new habit.

 

Liv: What might be the benefits of using oils regularly?

JoDee: Addiction is a form of self-harm, healing involves learning to practice regular self-care and compassion. Re-establishing restorative sleep through self-care habits is among the most important habits to address as sleep deprivation is comprehensively detrimental to health. Lavender, passion flower, roman chamomile, and vetiver essential oils have been shown to reduce the time to fall asleep, improve the architecture of sleep, and limit early wakening. Paired with sleep hygiene habits, regular use of essential oils can help to improve the quality and quantity of sleep.

 

Liv: If you could pick three oils to help with specific challenges those in recovery face, what would they be and why? 

JoDee: Generally speaking, lavender, lemon and peppermint are the first line defense against stress, anxiety, insomnia, depressed mood, and lethargy.

 

Liv: How might oils help with past trauma?

JoDee: Trauma is stored and encoded in our limbic system, essential oils can aid in assessing trauma via olfaction. Whether one using EMDR, narrative, therapy, EFT, or psychodynamic therapy (to name just a few of the many approaches to processing trauma) essential oils can be used to assist with recall, grounding, and processing. Trauma can also be triggered by various cues; essential oils can be used to break the connection between trigger and response.

 

Liv: Addiction transfer is common problem most face in recovery, with many of us turning to food to release pleasure. How could essential oils help combat cravings and help with feelings of well-being?

JoDee: From a physiologic perspective, addiction transfer and craving indicate an imbalance in neurotransmitters and can be managed by using essential oils to increase dopamine (reward) and serotonin (feel good). From an emotional, behavioral, and spiritual perspective addiction transfer suggests more complex issues.

 

For more information, JoDee runs a Facebook group, The Essential Self. She can also be contacted directly by email.

 

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