A wildly underrated member of the five senses, your sense of smell has a powerful effect on your brain's many functions. Any odor you breathe in affects your limbic system, which governs emotional processing, motivation, fear, and pleasure, including your hippocampus and amygdala, all three of which impact learning and memory. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "Imaging studies in humans help show the effects of smells on the limbic system and its emotional pathways." That means they can actually see smells affecting people via brain scans.
According to PubMed, "Aromatherapy uses plant materials and aromatic plant oils, including essential oils, and other aromatic compounds for the purpose of altering one's mood, cognitive, psychological, or physical well-being." It is currently being studied as a natural treatment for stress, anxiety, and even for symptom management in cancer patients.
If you're not familiar with essential oils and aromatherapy, or you want a quick refresher, read this. It explains what essential oils are and how to determine whether the essential oil is of a high or low quality. (The better the quality, the better your results will be.) Now that you're all caught up, let's get to the good stuff.
First, I'll give you the science, and then I'll give you some quick and easy tips so you can start smelling up your office (ha-ha).
The science: how essential oils help mental focus, clarity, and memory.
A study in 1990 showed that smelling peppermint essential oil enhanced alertness, focus, and concentration. (It should be noted, later research showed that eating peppermint did not have the same effect as smelling it did in the previous study.)
Another study confirmed that smelling peppermint enhanced accuracy of memory.
An English study that found that rosemary essential oil increased memory and alertness.
This Japanese study found that inhaling lavender essential oil while on breaks actually increased concentration when going back to work.
This British study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that inhaling lavender essential oil before doing math problems helped subjects complete the problems faster and more accurately than the control group, while inhaling rosemary essential oil helped subjects be more alert and therefore they completed the problems faster than the control group.
A study on children with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) found that inhaling vetiver and cedarwood essential oils improved brain patterns and decreased ADHD symptoms (inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity).
This Japanese study found that diffusing lemon and rosemary essential oils in the morning and lavender and orange essential oils in the evening improved cognitive function in Alzheimer's patients.
Lemon was shown to increase typing accuracy in another Japanese study. Workers made 54 percent fewer errors while smelling lemon, 33 percent fewer errors while smelling jasmine, and 20 percent fewer errors while smelling lavender.
As a nice bonus during flu season, it should be noted that many essential oils have potent germ-killing benefits; this study found that vapor of bergamot and eucalyptus killed the influenza virus after 10 minutes, while the vapors of cinnamon, lemongrass lavender, and geranium killed the flu virus after 30 minutes of exposure. Applied as liquids, cinnamon, bergamot, and thyme were also shown to kill the flu virus, even when highly diluted.
For more research on aromatherapy and essential oils from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, click here.
I know that's a lot of science, so let me boil it down for you. Essential oils have been shown to increase your alertness, memory, accuracy, and mental clarity--all of which will improve your productivity. And as we all know, improving productivity can increase revenues.
There are several oils mentioned above: peppermint, rosemary, lavender, vetiver, cedarwood, lemon, orange, and jasmine. How do you decide? Well, you can choose based on what the research says above, or you can also choose based on your personal preference. If you really hate the smell of a specific plant, that oil probably will not make you more productive.
Quick and easy tips: how to use essential oils for increased productivity.
Essential oils can be applied to the skin (topically), inhaled, and sometimes (if you see a nutrition label on the bottle) ingested. The easiest way to use them in the office is via inhalation, and that is the method used in most of the studies mentioned above.
First, make sure your essential oils are high-quality for best results.
Place a few drops of your chosen oil on a cotton ball or sniff directly from the bottle.
After looking into safety data, consider wearing one drop of the oil on your wrists or over your heart instead of perfume or cologne (for example, citrus oils make your skin extra-sensitive to sunlight, so don't wear those on exposed skin).
When you need a break, massage a drop of peppermint or rosemary into your temples to wake you up or lavender, vetiver, or jasmine to de-stress your mind and relax your body.
Purchase a diffuser (not heat-based, as heat can damage the delicate compounds within the oils) and run it periodically throughout the day for long-term benefits.