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Cerebral circulation of Essential Oils

The olfactory nerve, via scent molecules and their receptors, is our direct connection to information about the “outside” world to the “inside” world in our brain.

The olfactory nerve is actually a collection of sensory nerve rootlets that extend down from the olfactory bulb and pass through the many openings of the cribriform plate in the ethmoid bone. These specialized sensory receptive parts of the olfactory nerve are then located in the olfactory mucosa of the upper parts of the nasal cavity.  During breathing, aromatic molecules attach to the olfactory mucosa and stimulate the olfactory receptors of the nerve, which then send information along the nerve tract to the bulb, and finally into the brain.

From the olfactory bulb, mitral cells send their axons through the olfactory tract toward two separate sets of targets.  One target is for perception/awareness of smell, and that is to the thalamus and then to the cortex.  The other target is more primitive — to input to our autonomic nervous system and limbic system (emotions) so that certain smells lead to particular responses (like to get out if you smell fire).  And remember, olfactory information doesn’t even have to go to the thalamus before heading on to its targets of the limbic system (some frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and other limbic targets).

For a long time, because of the location of the olfactory bulb and tract, many hours of mine have been spent trying to determine if in fact there is a relationship between essential oil circulation and cerebral spinal fluid circulation.

Olfactory mucosa demonstrating close proximity to brain emphaasizing the nsoe brain pathwayIf nasally administered medication contacts the olfactory mucosa, there is good evidence that suggests molecule transport can occur directly across this tissue and into the cerebral spinal fluid. The olfactory mucosa, as previously stated, is located in the upper nasal cavity, just below the cribriform plate of the skull. It contains olfactory cells which traverse the cribriform plate and extend up into the cranial cavity. When medication molecules come in contact with this specialized mucosa they are rapidly transported directly into the brain, skipping the blood-brain barrier, and achieving very rapid cerebrospinal fluid levels (often faster than if the drug is given intravenously). and extend up into the cranial cavity. This concept of transfer of molecules from the nose to the brain is referred to as the nose-brain pathway and has implications when centrally acting medications such as sedatives, anti-seizure drugs and opiates are delivered nasally. Multiple authors have demonstrated that the nose-brain pathway leads to nearly immediate delivery of some nasal medications to the cerebral spinal fluid, by-passing the blood brain barrier.

Literature related to Nose brain pathway:

Talegaonkar, IN delivery and BBB, Indian J Pharm 2004.pdf

Westin, Olfactory transfer of analgesic drugs after nasal administration, Thesis paper 2007

Nasal mucosa consists of a highly vascularized surface that easily absorbs many medications directly into the venous circulation. This medication is then transported to the heart and pumped out to the body where it can have its therapeutic effect. Because the absorptive surface is not the intestinal mucosa, the drug never enters the portal circulation and is not subjected to hepatic metabolism – thereby leading to far higher drug levels than oral or rectal medications. In addition, the nose brain pathway across the olfactory mucosal transports some of the nasally delivered medication directly into the CSF and brain – leading to early effects of centrally acting medications.

Unfortunately, there is no research that I can find related to essential oil inhalation absorption along the olfactory mucosal transport routes and cerebrospinal fluid circulation/absorption, but based on some of the most recent nasal drug administration research I have read, I would say as aromatherapists we can make the “leap of faith” here and apply these findings to essential oils. Which means not only do essential oils have a direct route to the brain via the limbic system, but there is a direct fluid transport of them via the CNS and the cerebrospinal fluid system.

How amazing to think that we humans are made up of somewhere between 70-85% water (based on age and other factors) and that cerebrospinal fluid, a blood by product and also made up of a high percentage of water and essential oils – another fluid albeit a hydrophobic one – but which requires water, in the form of steam to bring about its creation —  that all these fluids transport astounding amounts of information almost within a blink of an eye.  That our innate intelligence and our incredible bodies inherently “know what to do”,  is exactly why I love anatomy, and aromatherapy and craniosacral therapy!


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8 Responses to "Cerebral circulation of Essential Oils"

  • Gerri Pietromonaco
    March 31, 2017 - 1:38 pm Reply

    How would I get my 33 rd degree spinal oil to absorb into my brain?

    • Gina Flores
      April 2, 2017 - 3:30 pm Reply

      Hi Gerri,

      You would have to inhale your oil, as inhalation is the most direct route of absorption. As safe dosage would be 15-18 drops onto the cotton inside a blank inhaler stick (these can be purchased in many places online). As a word of caution I do not know what essential oil you are referring to, and some oils are toxic when inhaled or even diffused.
      As a point of reference I am also opposed to the use of undiluted oils directly on the skin, and there are many colleagues who have written many books on the subject – but I will reference Robert Tisserand’s “Essential Oil Safety”.

  • Vanessa
    July 17, 2017 - 8:46 pm Reply

    Hello. Are there any essential oils that can be used to reduce spinal fluid pressure and to help pseudo tumor in the brain?

    • Gina Flores
      July 20, 2017 - 6:00 pm Reply

      Hi Vanessa,
      Thank you for your question. It would be impossible for me to “diagnose” as this would be outside scope of practice, however fluid pressure usually has to do with cerebrospinal fluid “backing up” so to speak, and /or lymph fluid as well. There are many structures in the brain, spinal cord and body that deal with moving both cerebrospinal fluid and lymph. Depending on the cause/condition, and if altering fluid pressure is not medically contraindicated, you could get medical permission to receive either craniosacral therapy and/or lymphatic massage. That being said, and not knowing the cause of the spinal fluid pressure and “tumor”, I can suggest the following as SUPPORT via INHALATION of the following specific essential oils.
      You could make an inhaler stick with 15 drops TOTAL of the following essential oils:

      Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis)
      Grapefruit ( Citrus paradisi)
      Geranium ( Pelargonium graveolens)
      Helichrysum gymnocephalum
      Helichrysum bracteiferum
      Juniper (Juniperus communis)

      Best of Health to You!

  • Gaurav
    February 28, 2018 - 6:37 pm Reply

    Hi, my wife has been diagnosed with Lung cancer stage 4. Currently she is in ICU for persistent headache caused by raised CSF pressure due to probable mets in brain.

    Could you please advise if Frankincense oil could help her get some relief from headache and CSF pressure. Also, what would be the right way to get immediate relief.

    • Gina Flores
      March 5, 2018 - 4:58 pm Reply

      Hi Gaurav,
      Thank you for writing. Cancer is a very complicated systemic dis-ease. That being said, what would be most helpful is trying to locate a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist in your area. Very often cancer centers at hospitals have someone on staff. If not at your wife’s location, look at some other hospitals in your area.

      Frankincense sacra chemotype, and Rosemary verbenone chemotype would be good choices. Bergamot oil as well, this oil would offer emotional support, and anxiety relief whilst also providing headache relief too.

      Inhaling the oils would be the best route of application. You could simply put one or two drops on a tissue or cotton ball and have your wife inhale as often as needed. You could also purchase blank inhaler sticks and make your own “inhalers”.

      I recommend purchasing your oils from a reputable vendor. Aromatics International is company I often use. Blank inhaler sticks can be purchased there as well.

      All my best wishes to you and your wife.

  • Barbara zimmerman
    May 17, 2019 - 11:53 pm Reply

    I would like to use the oils for my husband, who is having issues with slow passage of csf. His ventricles are enlarged as a result. I intend to buy those listed.

    • Gina Flores
      May 28, 2019 - 6:02 pm Reply

      Best of luck. Please remember that essential oils are a supportive tool and not a cure all. I might suggest that you find someone in your local area that does Craniosacral Therapy, as another tool for support as well. Bear in mind that this would be indicated as long as your husband has no medical reason for it being contraindicated, for example CS fluid pressure changes being dangerous or not advised therefore contraindicated.

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