Essential oils are bottled plant extracts. They’re made by steaming or pressing plants to trap the compounds responsible for their fragrance, according to John Hopkins Medicine. More importantly, their unique aromas have been employed in healing practices for thousands of years and may have healing properties.

“One way they work is through our sense of smell,” says Michelle Davila, ND, a naturopathic doctor with the integrative medicine department of Beaumont Health in Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak, Michigan. When you breathe in an essential oil, the scent molecules travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain. Here, they interact with a region known as the limbic system, which regulates emotions, memories, and sensations, Dr. Davila says.

The scent molecules can also be absorbed into the bloodstream when applied to the skin. Once in the bloodstream, essential oils distribute throughout the body to potentially enhance different aspects of overall health, according to Davila.

In other words, essential oils may be a helpful complementary approach for many health concerns, from stress and insomnia to pain and nausea.

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