Stress, as defined by Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, is “A state of physiological or psychological strain caused by adverse stimuli, physical, mental, or emotional, internal or external, that tend to disturb the functioning of an organism and which the organism naturally desires to avoid. Stress Reactions are elicited but should these reactions be inappropriate or inadequate, they may lead to disease states. The term is also used to refer to the stimuli that elicit such a state or stress reactions. Just as a bridge is structurally capable of adjusting to certain physical stresses, the human body and mind are normally able to adapt to the stresses of new situations. However, this ability has definite limits beyond which continued stress may cause a breakdown, although this limit varies from person to person” (Miller-Keane Encyclopedia, 2016). Continuing research has proved that excessive stress in our lives does more than just upset us – it can ultimately cause serious health issues. Stress can weaken our immune system, affect our memory, increase anxiety, and can even aggravate the ends of chromosomes, resulting in accelerated cellular aging. On the other hand, we also need a little bit of “good” stress in our lives to help us survive, because without stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) wouldn’t kick into gear and allow us to react to situations that require the “fight or flight” reaction. We need to keep stress manageable and brief, and view things like running a race, asking for a raise at work, or even making ourselves get out of bed every morning as a healthy challenge rather than a threat. Constant excitement and tense situations can bring our stress level into an unhealthy range because our bodies are more focused on the “fight or flight” response. There are several behaviors that can help us minimize our stress levels. Exercise, good sleep, prayer/meditation, eating well, listening to music and aromatherapy are just a few ways we can reduce stress. This paper will define psychoneuroimmunology, the role it plays in our immune system and stress level, as well as examine how aromatherapy and the use of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) and Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) can mitigate our level of stress and support our immune system.
The study of psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, is the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of our bodies. The brain plays a major roll in this process. The hypothalamus in our brain regulates things like breathing, digestion, heart rate, secretion of hormones, etc. The portion of our brain that impacts the hypothalamus is the limbic system. This is known as the “seat of our emotions,” so when you are feeling stressed, happy, sad or excited, those emotions have an effect on the function of the hypothalamus. The nervous system, which includes the hypothalamus, communicates with our immune system cells and is able to regulate those cells by releasing hormones. If you have a relaxed, optimistic attitude your immune system is likely to be functioning at a more efficient level than if you are constantly anxious and pessimistic. Knowing this, the saying “laughter is the best medicine” makes a lot more sense! If your body is in tune with your SNS response, also known as your body’s “fight or flight” reaction, it is focused more on getting you out of a “dangerous” or stressful situation. It is increasing your heart rate, tightening your muscles, opening your airways, etc. and is not focused on supporting your immune system. In other words, when your body is concentrating on your sympathetic response, our macrophages (white blood cells) are being inhibited, which reduces our body’s defense against illness and disease. Managing stress in our life and keeping it to a minimum is the healthiest way to go about life. The American Psychological Association explains that, “Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic” (Tovian et al, 2016).
Prolonged or frequent stress also increases the strain on our circulatory system by increasing our heart rate. In turn, this could increase our chance of developing disorders of the heart and circulation such as coronary heart disease, stroke or heart attack. Stress can also have an effect on our digestive system because in the middle of stressful situations our digestion is inhibited and if our digestive system does not process regularly it could increase our chances of getting gastric ulcers. People who suffer from chronic stress also experience symptoms like anxiety, depression and sleep issues. Even the perception of a threat like the memory of a past freighting experience can kick our SNS into motion (Black and Butje, 2016).
Understanding the results of chronic stress helps us understand that the actual stressor itself is not what matters – it is the way we perceive that stress or event and how we respond to it both physically and emotionally. Do you see it as a threat or a healthy challenge? We all have different ways of reacting to the same situation. You experience good stress when you feel a sense of control over the events in question. No matter how your body may respond at the time, you know you are going to come out fine on the other side. A roller coaster ride may send your stress-hormone levels soaring, but you know the ride will be over in a couple minutes (Singer, 2012). Without these experiences, we wouldn’t be engaged in life or experience higher levels of joy and excitement. In addition to training our minds to view sympathetic physical reactions like a rise in heartbeat and faster breathing as a challenge rather than a threat in most situations, we can also turn to aromatherapy as an aid to calm our nerves. There are a number of particular oils that are proven to relax our minds and bodies with energetic properties. Many of these have been used for thousands of years.
In the same way that high stress can cause health issues, it has been proven that relaxation can improve our health. In 1971, Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, published his first study on transcendental meditation and it’s physiological effects of decreasing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. He termed it the Relaxation Response. The Relaxation Response has been found to combat many of the negative physiological effects of stress and anxiety as well as to enhance immune system function and the body’s capacity for healing. Joie Power, a retired board certified neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, states that aromatherapy has been shown to have significant effects on mood and emotions. These effects are believed to arise from stimulation of the olfactory nerve which then sends signals into the limbic system – the area of the brain involved in the regulation of mood and emotions. Because the olfactory connections to the limbic system are direct, inhalation of scents can affect brain function, mood, and mental state almost instantly. “In fact, an inhaled aroma affects the brain and its electrochemical signaling activity more quickly than an IV injection and one way in which essential oils may help to support healthy, balanced immune function is indirectly through the fairly rapid situational induction of the relaxation response and the reduction of anxiety and stress. Used consistently over time, essential oils may promote lasting improvements in mood and reduction of stress levels, thereby aiding in the restoration of healthy immune system function” (Power, 2010). The shape of an essential oil molecule resembles a key that opens lock-like structures in the olfactory nerve receptors in our nostrils. The impression of the aroma is sent directly to the limbic system where memories are stored and pleasure and emotions are experienced. The limbic system then releases serotonin and endorphins which affect our central nervous system. Serotonin counteracts anxiety and endorphins reduce pain.
Aromatherapy is defined simply as the controlled use of essential oils to maintain and
promote physical, psychological and spiritual well-being (Mojay, 1997). There are many essential oils in aromatherapy that can provide relaxation, stress relief and facilitate a more uplifted spirit. In fact, there are many studies that prove aromatherapy has an effect on sympathetic activity. For example in 2002, researchers reported in the Japanese Journal of Pharmacology that the simple inhalation of patchouli and rose oil reduced sympathetic nervous activity by 40%, with rose oil reducing adrenaline concentrations by 30% (Haze et al, 2002). Each essential oil is comprised of different chemical components that can affect our mental and physical state. In many cases, those chemical components can be enhanced by combining several oils to create a blend that may enrich the effects it has on the human body. Since human bodies are different in many ways, it is important to note that one oil may produce noticeable effects for one person but may not for another. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) and Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) are three oils that are particularly known for being very calming and soothing.
The most commonly used oil to reduce stress is Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Lavender is an essential oil that can be used to help promote relaxation and relieve stress. A typical Lavender essential oil has a fresh, light, sweet-herbal aroma and its energetic properties can be described as calming, soothing, nurturing, and reducing anxiety or fear (Black and Butje, 2016). The two main chemical components in Lavender are linalyl acetate and linalool. Both of these components have a sedative property that promotes stress reduction and relaxes our bodies. There have been many studies on Lavender and its effects. One interesting study shows that the use of Lavender in an oxygen mask before the use of vaccines reduces stress as well as pain (Kim et al, 2011). There was also a study showing that the use of Lavender on patients with dementia can have positive results on their emotions and aggressive behaviors (Lee, 2005). Many times our sleep pattern can be affected by our stress level. Either we do not get enough sleep because we are stressed or we are stressed because we cannot sleep. One study that was done involving Lavender in Turkey studied the effects of Lavender on sleep and anxiety. It concluded that Lavender decreased the level of anxiety in patients as well as improved their quality of sleep (Bakir, 2015). It’s worth noting that in studies involving sleep or stress reduction, the subjects being studied use the aromatherapy for at least two weeks before evaluating the effects. In some cases, people feel that they should see results from aromatherapy right away, but in reality, depending on the circumstances, it may take a little time to see a sleep pattern change or reduced stress levels.
Another oil that helps promote less anxiety and stress is Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara). Neroli’s energetic properties can help calm the nerves as well as calm and soothe the heart (Black and Butje, 2016). It is a light and uplifting aroma with a little floral and a little sweet citrus scent. Its major chemical component is a monoterpenol called linalool. Linalool contains therapeutic components that bring antianxiety and sedative effects. A study in 2014 showed Neroli may have potential as an effective intervention to reduce stress and improve the endocrine system. Researchers explored the effects of Neroli inhalation on menopausal symptoms, stress and estrogen in postmenopausal women. The study found that inhalation of neroli oil helps relieve menopausal symptoms, increases sexual desire and reduces blood pressure in postmenopausal women. (Choi et al, 2014). Neroli has been known to help with anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and hypertension. It helps ease mental and emotional tension, nervous depression and both chronic and acute anxiety (Mojay, 1997). It can help those that have become emotionally exhausted as it introduces both comfort and strength. There was a study on swimming gerbils in which they compared gerbils given Xanax, gerbils that inhaled Neroli vapor and had a couple of drops in their swimming water and a control group. They studied and measured the swimming times of these three groups. They measured anxiety and depression to be immobility (Gerbils were judged to be immobile when they floated passively with the head above water) signifying a lower state of mood and this passive behavior was seen as an adoptive response in an inescapable situation. They found that the group that inhaled Neroli swam longer than the control group and in some cases longer than the Xanax group. This study shows the potential for Neroli to be a potential treatment of anxiety (Spink et al, 2008).
The third essential oil, one that provides an earthy, warm and resinous scent and helps reduce stress and anxiety, is Frankincense (Boswellia carterii). Frankincense carries energetic properties for reflection and introspection, encourages emotional healing on all levels, quiets the mind and supports focused attention and tranquility (Black and Butje, 2016). It is ideal during meditation and prayer, helps cease mental chatter, calms the mind and strengthens the immune system. Frankincense can relax the mind, and at the same time, refresh your mental outlook – which makes it ideal for helping both nervous tension and nervous exhaustion. It can help both deepen the breath and relieve tightness in the chest. It can help us break free (Mojay, 1997). In addition to these energetic properties, Frankincense is also very high in monoterpenes, specifically d- limonene and α-pinene. D-limonene contains immunostimulants and activates white blood cells so while you are feeling the energetic properties that are encouraging tranquility and single-pointed concentration, you are also supporting your immune system. A study done on mice with boswelia carterii resin discovered that a component present in the resin of Frankincense, incensole acetate (IA), may represent an anxiolytic and antidepressive agent through transient receptor potential vanilloid (TRPV) 3 channels of the brain. Also noted, but not studied, “It is possible that IA augments the euphoric feeling produced during religious functions, due to both positive, presumably mild, emotional effects and the sensation of warmth. Thus the neurobehavioral effect of IA may provide a biochemical basis for the millennial and widespread use of Boswellia- containing incense. However, only direct human trials including the investigation of human dosage and dosage forms may give final, concrete proof” (Moussaieff et al, 2008). Frankincense has traditionally been used during meditation and for religious ceremonies…and probably not as a coincidence!
Within the realm of aromatherapy, there are numerous essential oils for stress and anxiety relief that can be utilized – Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Frankincense (boswellia carterii) and Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) are only a few of the options. By raising our awareness of the damage that stress can have on our immune and nervous systems, it helps people understand that we need tools to regulate our stress and make sure it does not become a constant burden on our bodies. With this knowledge people would be more willing to utilize combinations of the tools we are given – exercise, healthy eating, councilors, prayer/meditation and aromatherapy. It is my hope that researchers continue to study the effects essential oils have on our overall health, and that the knowledge gained can be of benefit as it contributes to a healthy and happier life for all of us.
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