In this episode, I am speaking with Jodi Sternoff Cohen, who is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist, functional practitioner, and founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. We will talk about the best essential oils for boosting your brain and mood.
Table of Contents
In this podcast, Jodi and I will discuss:
- Why Essential Oils are great for balancing the brain
- The little known benefit of rose oil
- The remarkable effect scents have on our body
- The best essential oils for anxiety and stress (and a fun tip for stopping an anxiety attack)
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Ari Whitten: Hey, there, this is Ari. Welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. With me now is my friend Jodi Cohen, who is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist, functional practitioner, and founder of Vibrant Blue Oils, where she’s combined her training in nutritional therapy and aromatherapy to create unique proprietary blends of organic and wildcrafted essential oils. She’s helped over 70,000 clients heal from brain-related challenges, including anxiety, insomnia, and autoimmunity.
Her website, vibrantblueoils.com is visited by over 500,000 natural health seekers every year. She’s rapidly become a top resource for essential oils education on the internet today. Her first book Healing with Essential Oils is available on amazon.com. Her new book, which is what we’re going to be talking about, the content of which we’re going to be talking about in this interview is called Essential Oils to Boost the Brain & Heal the Body will be released on March 16, 2021. Welcome back, Jodi. It’s such a pleasure to have you.
Jodi Cohen: Oh my gosh, thanks for having me.
Essential oils and how they interact with brain-related symptoms
Ari: Tell me about what led you to this whole interest in the brain and essential oils and how they interact with brain-related symptoms and brain function more broadly.
Jodi: I think necessity is the mother of invention. I had been working in nutritional therapy for a long time and recognized that certain things were really easy. Someone’s low in vitamin B, it’s pretty easy to megadose them. If they’re trying to get off antidepressants or support sleep or anything, calm mood, brain stuff was harder, because it was hard to get the right remedy into the right area of the brain. Then my own kind of rock bottom, I was so desperate that I would try anything.
I had been really high cortisol for a really long time. When I bottomed out, nothing was helping, and someone suggested oils. I think the fact that they can be assimilated topically as opposed to having to go through the digestive channel, it got into my system quickly. It helped me feel better immediately.
Then I was like, “Why is this working?” I started to back into the research and found that your sense of smell, your olfactory channel goes directly to the brain. Your skin, if something is fat-soluble, it can get into your system quickly. I thought, “Oh, that’s a nice workaround.” If you’re eating garbage and not exercising, it’s not going to fix everything. If you’re doing a lot right, it’s a nice adjunct to what you’re already doing.
Ari: Absolutely. Given that this is The Energy Blueprint podcast, we talk a lot about energy. Talk to me about how the areas of the brain or which areas of the brain tie into energy levels?
Jodi: I’ll talk about the parasympathetic nervous system, and then the amygdala, and the hypothalamus-pituitary axis. First off, as I’m sure your listeners know, your operating system is your autonomic nervous system. It allocates resources differently if it thinks that you’re in survival, and you need to fight or flee versus if it thinks you’re safe. When there’s the fear that there’s danger, you’re going to release cortisol and adrenaline and all of the energizing resources, but that’s not super sustainable over time. When you need it for a quick energy burst, it’s not necessarily available.
The more you can help gearshift yourself so that you’re not necessarily stuck in that stress state but able to feel safe, feel focused, the more you can allocate the resources how you want to. A really interesting fact, the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body really does serve as the gearshift between the fight or flight sympathetic branch of the nervous system and the parasympathetic rest and digest state. Anywhere that the vagus nerve wanders through the body like deep breathing can activate it, calming your heart rate, heart rate variability.
The vagus nerve also winds behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone and that’s where it’s the most accessible to the surface. It’s actually been approved by the FDA to do an electrical implant, a pacemaker-like device for epilepsy, depression, and migraines but it’s also a really good area if you have a stimulatory oil. Some oils are known as stimulatory because they make the skin feel red or warm, but you can use them to stimulate certain areas and help to activate the vagus nerve.
Ari: Excellent. How does that tie into energy levels specifically?
Jodi: When you’re able to shift into the parasympathetic state, you’re not expending your energy on danger, so you can expend it on what you want it to. It also helps with your focus, both physical energy and mental energy. When you’re in danger, it’s a little bit like you’re running around on a runaway train, you can’t really choose.
It’s great if you’re having an adrenaline rush at the end of a marathon and you’re going to cross the finish line quickly. It’s not so great if you’re in a hyper cortisol state all the time and you can’t really allocate your energy when you need to. It also helps with the muscle signaling and response time and also recovery time. As you know, recovery is really important to training and to energy. If you’re never able to drop into that recovery state, you’re never able to bounce back as quickly.
Ari: Chronic stress obviously ties into this because basically, that’s synonymous with what you were saying there a minute ago, as far as being in that sympathetic state, being in a hyper cortisol state all the time.
Jodi: Yes, and another thing that oils are especially good for, oxygen. You talk about oxygen a lot, making sure that oxygen actually gets to the extremities, the hands, the feet, the head. Part of that is helping to dilate the vasculature. There are a lot of oils like peppermint is known for this, black pepper. There are certain essential oils that you can apply right on the base of your brain or on the sides of your neck to help ensure better oxygen flow, which helps with focus, which helps with reaction time.
How essential oils can stimulate the vagus nerve
Ari: Basically, how do oils figure into these brain issues or this picture that you’re painting of chronic stress and sympathetic versus parasympathetic dominance?
Jodi: Yes, there are a couple of aspects of it. There’s the oil itself, which is the concentrated essence of plants. Plants have a lot of the chemical constituents that have been used to create drugs like white willow bark has been altered to make aspirin, valerian root has been altered to make valium. There’s the actual chemical constituent that moves the signals in our body or the neurotransmitters and the hormones. Some are stimulatory, some are sedative. Drugs are used to either– like GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
If you calm the inhibitory signal, you’re more active. If you stimulate the calming signal, you can basically use the chemical constituents of the oils to manipulate your energy level at any given state. You can also use them to enhance regions of the brain, for example, the hypothalamus, which is really critical in the endocrine system and just releasing different levels of hormones throughout the system.
It’s not only sending the signal to release hormones, but it’s monitoring the blood and the levels to make sure the right amount is there. It’s constantly sending and receiving signals. If the feedback that it’s getting is off, because it’s just overwhelmed or glitching, then the outgoing signal is not going to be as solid. The more you can help– I love that you call it The Energy Blueprint.
I actually think that all of our organ systems have a blueprint and I think sometimes they go out of balance with that blueprint. I think that’s what sunlight and plants and nature do is they help you to reset that natural blueprint. I think you can use the concentrated essence of plants in combination, in blends to reboot the regions of the brain, because you can actually get there by smelling things or topically applying to work in perfect harmony.
Ari: How do essential oils actually tie in some specific parts of the brain or do they? Are specific oils known to affect specific parts of the brain, or what’s the relationship?
Jodi: No, that’s a great question. There are two ways to look at it. There’s what you see in clinical practice and then what the research says. The research does a mediocre job because you can only look at what they’ve tested. One example, rose essential oil with balancing the response to predator odor.
Your sense of smell is really powerful and keeping you alive. You can smell food, you can smell water, you can smell predator odor, you can smell fire. There’s a Nobel Laureate named Linda Buck who started looking at the olfactory receptors to predator odor and what specifically stimulated them and what calmed them down. She found that–
Ari: Just to clarify, predator odor is literally smelling some predator animal?
Ari: Like if we smell a lion or a tiger or?
Jodi: A bear. [chuckles]
Ari: [unintelligible 00:15:40] you live in Washington.
Jodi: Yes, there are a lot of bears in Washington state but you can use rose oil to counterbalance that. All of those fear signals go to the part of your brain called the amygdala. What’s interesting is, of your four senses, your sense of smell goes directly to the amygdala. The other four senses are routed to the thalamus first.
There’s Joseph LeDoux, who’s a researcher out of NYU. He was the one who originally figured out that smell has direct access to the amygdala and he followed up. He just wrote a book in 2016 called Anxious where he really details how the amygdala is the first stage of sensing safety, which then unbeknownst to you almost automatically, sends fear signals and chemicals throughout your body.
When your body feels like it’s under threat, a lot of things shut down. Blood flow is routed away from digestion and detoxification to the arms and legs, focus narrows, your pupils get really big, the black circles, and you’re only able to take in certain information to help you survive in that moment. If you’re talking about oils and energy, because your sense of smell is so critical in both shifting how energy is allocated, you can use smell very strategically to shift the gear towards basically putting yourself back in control of the safety switch.
One of the interesting things, your amygdala works very closely with your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that serves as executive function. It’s supposed to be almost like a safety check like your amygdala starts to react. You’re hiking, you think you see a snake, you jump back, and then your prefrontal cortex checks in and says, “No, that’s a stick.”
What’s interesting about this is that if you think about where your nostrils travel, they actually are brain cells and they go directly to your forehead. Smelling things, peppermint is a good example, rosemary, not only do they enhance focus, but they bring energy and blood flow to your forehead, to your prefrontal cortex so that you’re better able to assess different potential safety aspects and allocate your resources and your energy wisely.
Ari: Just to clarify, so when you’re saying forehead, you mean like the sinus cavity in the brain, or do you mean in the brain?
Jodi: In the brain.
Ari: [unintelligible 00:18:25] the sinus cavity, like in front of the brain or you’re talking that there’s a direct connection between the nostrils and the brain itself?
Jodi: The nostrils and the brain itself, it travels through the cribriform plate, so up past the sinuses to actually access the forehead.
Ari: What is the purpose of that from an evolutionary perspective? Is there some consensus on why that’s wired it’s because we need to have scent wired into the fear center of our brains to be able to detect, maybe from an ancestral lineage of our ancestors having a much more sophisticated sense of smell than modern humans do, where they actually really used that sense of smell almost like a dog?
Like a dog can pick up pheromones of another dog that’s in heat. It can pick up the sense of whatever animals that might be prey that it can eat. Obviously, modern humans don’t have as developed of a sense of smell that we really use in that way, but it seems like we have that connection that maybe would allow us to still do that in some way.
Jodi: Yes, I think that’s probably true. As we’ve moved into industrial environments, I think a lot of our– use it or lose it. Yes, I do think that’s true. I think that we probably needed a lot more when we had to scavenge for food and forage.
Ari: Yes, it would be interesting. I wonder if anybody has actually done any research on modern industrialized humans living in cities. For example, the United States or Europe or something like that versus traditional hunter-gatherers that still exist in Africa or South America or the South Pacific or something and done some analysis to see how much those traditional peoples actually really use their sense of smell in a way that’s beyond what modern industrialized humans do. I would guess that they do, but to what extent, I don’t know.
Jodi: I would tend to agree. I can look into that. That would be fun.
Ari: Yes, interesting. Quick aside, as you know I recently moved to Costa Rica almost three months ago. Just 50 feet outside this window from where I’m sitting right now, we have a huge ylang-ylang’s tree, and it’s filled with ylang-ylang flowers and just to take one of these flowers and smell it is you feel almost instantly within a matter of seconds, like a sensation of relaxation and pleasure.
I’ve experimented with this over the last couple of months, because I’m like, “Man, is this just placebo, is this just the sensation of liking the smell of something pleasurable, or is there some deeper reaction going on in my body?” I’ve really questioned that and tried to tease that out as much as I can and from a subjective level, but it does genuinely seem to me that there is a full-body visceral reaction, positive reaction, visceral reaction of relaxation that happens within seconds of getting that scent.
It seems so noticeable, so strong that it’s really remarkable. That’s why I questioned it because it’s like, “Man, is this just my mind playing tricks on me with some kind of placebo effect, or is this actually creating, just the scent of smelling the flower, creating such a profound relaxation of my entire body?” It’s just remarkable what an effect a scent can have on you.
Ari: You do a lot of research on sunlight and how it doesn’t just go in through the eyes, every cell in the skin is a receptor. I do think that our senses have been dulled down and we can assimilate things far better than we realize. Also, anything that connects us to nature I think it’s almost like hitting the reboot to factory settings button. It just grounds us and stabilizes us.
How to use essential oils for stress and anxiety
Ari: Yes, interesting. Okay. Let’s talk about stress and anxiety. These are absolute energy destroyers. I’m sure everybody knows this, but from personal experience, I can definitely say that during times of any extreme stress that I’m under, whether it’s kid-related or business-related or something like that, I absolutely get wiped out within two days of extreme stress will destroy my energy levels. Anxiety is the same thing, any kind of extreme anxiety will do that. What are the best essential oils for anxiety and stress?
Jodi: Yes, all the research points to all of the citrus oils as being really great for anxiety. The most research has been done on Bergamot Neroli, which are a little bit expensive. I find that orange and actually lime are great as well. One of the interesting strategies, there’s a whole branch of chiropractic called functional neurology, where they’re looking at different ways to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, both through smelling through particular nostrils, eye tracking, listening to different devices.
One of the things that I learned from our colleague Titus Chiu is that when you’re having any kind of anxiety attack or panic attack, that tends to be the right frontal hemisphere of the brain that’s overstimulated. He shared that the best way to calm that is to stimulate the left frontal lobe of the brain. The easiest way to do that is to smell through the left nostril, literally plug the right nostril, smell something through the left nostril. There is a sense of smell satiety, after between three to seven breaths, you usually can’t smell anymore.
What that does is it then stimulates the left frontal hemisphere, balances the two regions of the brain and the anxiety dissipates. I’m very prone to anxiety attacks and anything that you do, the benefits are additive and cumulative. I have noticed that since I’ve started doing that, if I were to have an anxiety moment, it calms very quickly and they’re much more few and far between.
Ari: Very interesting. Okay. Citrus oils in particular and specifically plugging the right nostril and breathing those oils in through the left nostril.
Jodi: Yes, exactly. Different application points I think have different potency. I’ve noticed frankincense is another one that’s really good for calming anxiety, but what I would recommend, I’ve heard people say like, “Oh, if it smells revolting to you, you need it.” I think the opposite is true. I really am a believer in intuitive eating and going with what smells good to you.
Orange is a pretty affordable one. It works pretty well for kids. Grapefruit is another one, most kids like lemon, really just smell what you like and go in that direction. Roses, I mentioned can be very calming. If you apply it over the heart, that’s a really nice natural way to put it. If you don’t want to put it on your skin, you can put it in a cotton ball and carry it in your bra or in your pocket. There are a lot of accessible ways that you can use oil without smelling like you’re wearing perfumer or dispensary.
Ari: Okay, two things. One is, you’ve mentioned a couple of times using oils topically in certain areas, for example, the heart, or you mentioned the base of the brain. The way your framing that is as though the oil penetrates directly into that. My understanding of that would be more that the oil gets absorbed topically into surface capillaries and goes systemic pretty quickly rather than penetrating deeply. What’s your take on that?
Jodi: Yes, I think fat like [unintelligible], and oils are fat and some membranes are fat, I think that that’s actually right. I think that it gets through the cell membranes and then is carried into the capillaries and the vascular system.
Ari: The other thing I wanted to ask you is, “Oh, so speaking of applying things topically, I’ve heard some essential oils experts say that you should never apply raw oils or pure oils topically, but that they should always be diluted in some carrier oil. What’s your take on that?
Jodi: I think that there are certain situations like if you burn yourself, I think it’s good to put lavender directly on it. I don’t think you need to dilute it. I think that certain oils are known as hot, like Oregano, thyme, cinnamon, clove, those you would always want to dilute. What that means is combine them with a carrier oil. It can be a vegetable oil in your kitchen, like coconut oil or olive oil.
Different oils have different components. For example, Jojoba oil is thicker and is more of a time delay. Say you were using frankincense on your skin. Jojoba oil would be a good one to dilute it with. There’s a version of coconut oil. Coconut oil, when it’s cold out, it can basically solidify like ice. If you fractionate it, modify it a little bit, it’s thinner.
That’s a good one because it dilutes the oil so that it doesn’t feel hot, but also helps to carry it into the cells and the bloodstream more quickly. If your body is heated, like after a shower, blood flow is increased, then it’s more likely to get into your system faster. Pulse points like the wrist or behind the ears, there’s a lot of blood flow so it gets into the system faster. You would never want to put oil I think on a cut or a burn directly. You want to be really careful because then it will absorb more quickly. Does that answer your question?
The best essential oils for sleep
Ari: Yes. One of the other ways that anxiety and stress destroy our energy as I can personally attest to is by destroying our sleep. In times of extreme stress or anxiety, I am sure most people find it very difficult to sleep well which compounds the whole fatiguing effect of those brain and emotional states. Are there any essential oils that you found particularly effective for improving sleep, either helping to fall asleep faster or sleeping more deeply?
Jodi: Yes, there definitely are. I find that there are different reasons that people struggle with sleep, either falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. Lavender, a lot of research has been beneficial for sleep, but I find it’s kind of like Benadryl, it either knocks you out or it doesn’t depending on what else is going on.
The one way that I found that lavender seems to help almost everyone is when it’s combined in an Epsom salt bath. There’s something about the combination of the magnesium and the Epsom salt and the heat and carrying it into the system through the skin seems to be very relaxing. My favorite recipe is two cups of Epsom salt, one cup of baking soda. Then I actually use the bathtub as a mixing bowl and add the oil into the tub and mix it into the salt before adding water so that it doesn’t float on the top.
Then getting into sleep, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, that usually has to do with the sleep hormone melatonin, which can be thrown off by high levels of cortisol during the day. It’s your pineal gland in the middle of the brain that releases melatonin because the blood-brain barrier doesn’t necessarily protect the pineal gland. It’s very sensitive to environmental toxins like aluminum, fluoride in the water, glyphosate, and there’s a lot of research.
Stephanie Seneff does a great job of talking about how those factors combine to cause what’s called pineal calcification, which makes it more challenging for the pineal gland to release melatonin. It’s really interesting. There are certain essential oils and some significant research that oils can help to detoxify metals. You can put oils, I wouldn’t put anything on your forehead before sleep, but that point on your skin right above the top of your ear on the skin is a really good point to apply a blend of oils.
I give the best [unintelligible 00:32:40] in the book, but it’s basically a combination of grapefruit, rose geranium, lavender, myrrh, and a few others. That can help to reset the pineal gland, detoxify it, and naturally release melatonin. If you’re waking up at 1:00 AM and you’re wide awake, that’s often because of nocturnal hypoglycemia. Your blood sugar dips too low and then your adrenals release cortisol or adrenaline, and then it’s your pancreas that releases insulin to carry the blood back into the cells.
Rose geranium is a really good one to smell or put over your pancreas that helps the pancreas better release insulin, and it carries the sugar back into the cells faster so that you’re not as wide awake. If you wake up around three in the morning, that’s usually when your organs of detoxification like your liver and your gallbladder are working the hardest.
Anything you can do either before bed or during your nighttime wake-up to support those organs like Helichrysum, white grapefruit, German chamomile are all great ones to put over the gallbladder. That seems to give it more vitality and energy to do its job so that you do not wake up as much or if you do, go back to sleep immediately.
Ari: Is this book that is about to come out in a few weeks, is this only for let’s say, essential oil newbies? Is there stuff in here that people who have been using essential oils for many years, who maybe have read other books about essential oils and various online articles and videos, and so on, are they going to find anything of value in this book that’s novel, or is it more of a guide for newbies?
Jodi: It’s not a guide for newbies at all. Actually, it’s really designed for health practitioners that are already doing a lot of other protocols that want to enhance their game a little bit more. It really focuses on the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, sleep and what can go wrong, drainage and circulation, and then immune modulation and energy. It’s more of a medical book with here’s how you can use oils to support these systems. I don’t think it’s like anything that’s already been out, I really tried to take a different angle.
Ari: What are some of your favorite and maybe most surprising or impressive, or your personal favorite most interesting research findings in all the studying of the literature on essential oils that you’ve done?
Jodi: I think it’s really interesting how they work on cell membranes. There’s actually a lot of research that– like thymol, in particular, from thyme can go directly through the membrane. There’s this idea that reboot is the wrong word, but I can’t think of a better one, that you can use oils almost like to clean house.
The other thing that I really loved is this idea of how combinations– There’s some kitchen supplements that it’s like they read, “This is good for that. Let’s do everything together.” Then there are some that actually look at the synergy, and how different combinations enhance oils or digestion. I did a lot of research on black pepper, and how that can really enhance digestion and improve vasodilation. It almost makes everything that you’re already doing work better, even if that’s just adding pepper to your food, or using pepper essential oil.
I also tried to throw in, there are certain acupuncture points that seemed to be more effective. For example, people think you need to drink oils for digestive concerns, it’s actually more effective to put them on specific acupuncture points that I tried to detail. What I’m really trying to do is, it’s kind of like parenting, this is what worked for me, this is what I noticed in clinical practice, this is the research to back up why it’s working. It’s a different way to think about it or enhance what you’re already doing.
Ari: Are there any concluding words that you want to leave people with, or do you want to tell them where they can grab your new book that’s going to come out shortly?
Jodi: They can grab my new book anywhere books are sold. They can go to boostthebrainbook.com/gift for a free download of everything, like 25 ways to activate the vagus nerve.
Ari: Say that link one more time.
Jodi: boostthebrainbook.com/gift. My parting words are that I think oils can be used in a lot of ways that have not been thought about before. I hope that this book expands people’s perspectives on different ways that they can use oils, not for everything obviously but it can really enhance what you’re already doing like biking with your back to the wind downhill as opposed to uphill on the strong.
Ari: Yes. I like that analogy. Jodi, thank you so much. It was a pleasure connecting with you as always, and best of luck to you with your new book. I hope it’s a huge success.
Jodi: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Ari: Yes, my pleasure.
Essential oils and how they interact with brain-related symptoms (06:44)
How essential oils can stimulate the vagus nerve (12:18)
How to use essential oils for stress and anxiety (23:11)
The best essential oils for sleep (29:57)