Too often, aromatic plants and incense are dismissed merely as pleasant fragrances. Yet, the volatile oils released when burning natural aromatic plants, or using them in other ways, possess remarkable potency, capable of permeating every aspect of the human body. They not only impact physical health but also profoundly influence our emotional and mental well-being. 

This notion isn’t just a fanciful idea; it's substantiated by modern scientific research. In a study titled, “Burning Incense is Psychoactive: A New Class of Antidepressants Might be Right Under our Noses,” the effects of volatile oils on mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, were investigated. The study discovered that Frankincense resin had anxiety-reducing and antidepressant-like effects in mice [1], highlighting the fact that many types of aromatic plants and incense have psychoactive effects. 

Now, let's clarify - we're not suggesting that incense makes you feel high. First, let’s define the term “psychoactive.” Typically associated with psychedelic substances, it actually denotes something more subtle and scientific. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a psychoactive substance affects the mind or behavior [to any degree], altering perception, mood, cognition, and behavior. Indeed, incense and aromatic compounds can influence all of these factors.

Numerous aromatic plants have demonstrated their ability to positively impact the mind, enhancing mental clarity, cognition, concentration, and memory. On top of that, various aromatics have been associated with mood enhancement, promoting mental well-being, uplifting spirits, and alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. When the potent volatile oils of these plants are released into the atmosphere, they travel through our nostrils, reaching different parts of the body where they exert their influence on our mental and emotional states.

In this article, we’ll unpack the science behind this phenomenon and how you can use aromatic plants and incense for depression, anxiety, and mental health support. You’ll also learn about specific aromatic plants that can positively influence mental health and different ways you can easily incorporate them into your daily routine.

How Aroma Affects the Mind

The sense of smell is deeply connected to our emotions and memories. When we inhale the aroma of a plant, its volatile compounds travel through our nasal passages to the olfactory bulb, which is part of the limbic system – the brain's emotional center. Smells can trigger emotional responses and memories due to this close connection between the olfactory and limbic systems, which are involved in both emotions and memory processing. This direct connection between scent and emotion is what makes aromatherapy so effective in influencing our mental state.

Aromatherapy is often used as a complementary therapy for managing stress, anxiety, and mental health struggles. Research has shown that certain aromatic compounds can modulate neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, which are closely linked to mood regulation. For example, volatile oils in Lavender have been found to have calming effects, reducing stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms [2]. Similarly, many aromatics can uplift mood and improve overall well-being. For example, studies have shown that exposure to Citrus scents like Orange can promote feelings of happiness and contentment, and alleviate symptoms of emotional stress [3]. 

Smells are closely linked to memory, and certain scents can evoke vivid memories and improve cognitive function. For individuals with conditions like dementia or Alzheimer's disease, aromatherapy and exposure to familiar scents can help trigger memories and potentially improve cognitive function. A recent research study found that when mice with Alzheimer's disease inhaled the aromatic compound menthol, their cognitive abilities improved [4]. The study also highlights the interesting fact that diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and schizophrenia are often accompanied by a loss of smell, suggesting that aromatics can potentially be used as therapies for Alzheimer's.

Aromatics & Incense for Depression, Anxiety, and More


Frankincense is one of the oldest and most widely used incense in the world and is revered for its therapeutic effects on our physical, emotional, and mental health. For ages, Frankincense has been traditionally used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan Medicine, Ayurveda, and other cultural systems to relieve nervous tension, stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other mental health struggles. Frankincense is commonly used in meditation and spiritual ceremonies for its ability to calm the mind, soothe the nervous system, and promote mental clarity.

As previously mentioned, one scientific study found that an aromatic compound in Frankincense called incensole acetate can help lower feelings of anxiety and depression. This compound impacts neural pathways and areas in our brain associated with emotions, similar to the effects of current anxiety and depression pharmaceutical drugs [1]. This study suggests that using Frankincense as incense for depression symptoms may offer relief and help balance emotional stress.


Rosemary is recognized for its stimulating and cognitive-enhancing qualities. It can help improve focus, concentration, and mental clarity, and has been shown to support memory recall in scientific studies [5]. Rosemary also contains compounds known as terpenes, which have been shown to have neuroprotective properties and may help protect against age-related cognitive decline. Some preliminary research suggests that the rosmarinic acid in Rosemary could potentially be helpful in patients with Alzheimer’s disease [6]. Overall, Rosemary can help combat mental fatigue, improve mood, and promote a sense of vitality and well-being.

Menthol Plants

As mentioned previously, menthol’s stimulating properties can help improve focus, concentration, and mental clarity, supporting cognitive function and mental health [4]. Some common aromatic plants that contain menthol include Peppermint and Spearmint. These plants have invigorating and energizing qualities known to boost brain health. For a more gentle approach, keep in mind that Spearmint has a much lower content of menthol compared to Peppermint. Peppermint boasts a substantial 40% menthol content, whereas Spearmint contains only approximately 0.5% menthol.

To learn more about aromatic plants that have been linked with mental clarity and cognition, read our blog post about it here.


Citrus such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, and Grapefruit are renowned for their bright and invigorating scents, which can have a profound impact on mood and mental well-being. The zesty aroma of Citrus is known for its ability to uplift the spirits, promote feelings of positivity, and instill a sense of energy and vitality. The stimulating effects of Citrus can help sharpen the mind and promote mental acuity, making them valuable tools for enhancing focus, alertness, and concentration. The cheerful aroma of Citrus can also help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, promoting a sense of calm and relaxation in times of tension or overwhelm.

Nervine Plants

A nervine is a type of herbal action that is traditionally used to support and promote the health and function of the nervous system. Nervine plants are commonly used to help calm the nerves, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote relaxation. Herbal plants that are categorized as nervines are known for their calming and antidepressant properties and ability to promote emotional balance and well-being.

Countless aromatic plants are considered to have relaxing effects on the nervous system, including Lavender, Clary Sage, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Ylang Ylang, Rose, and many others. Any of these plants can be used in aromatic medicine applications to soothe the nervous system, and in turn, alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Ways to Use Aromatics for Mental Health

There are tons of fun ways to incorporate aromatic plants and incense into your daily routine to support mental health:

Incense: Burn incense made from natural aromatic plants to create a calming atmosphere and promote mental well-being. It’s important to make sure the incense you’re burning contains raw, all-natural plant material and no artificial ingredients – always be sure to check the ingredient list.

Diffusion: Use an essential oil diffuser to disperse the scent of your favorite soothing aromatic oils throughout your environment. Essential oils are potent, concentrated substances, so you only need to use 2-3 drops at a time in your diffuser to experience their health benefits. 

Topical Application: Dilute essential oils with a carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba oil, and massage them into the skin for a mood-boosting effect. Applying diluted essential oils topically serves a dual purpose, allowing your body to absorb the volatile oils both through the skin and via inhalation.

Herbal Steaming: Submerge natural aromatic plant material in a hot water bath on your kitchen stove or add 2-3 drops of essential oil to a pot of hot water to create an herbal atmospheric steam in your home. To learn more, read our blog post about how to practice herbal steaming here.

Herbal Bathing: Add aromatic plants to your next bath to create a relaxing and rejuvenating herbal bath experience. Alternatively, you can add a few drops of essential oil to your bath by diluting it in a carrier oil or oil-based soap like Castille soap, then adding it to your bath water. Don’t have a bathtub? Prepare yourself a foot soak instead! Click here to read more about the importance of diluting essential oil and the art of herbal bathing.

Aromatic Plants & Beyond

Mental health is a complex, nuanced, and delicate aspect of our well-being. When we experience mental distress, it can cast a shadow over every facet of our existence, clouding our thoughts, actions, and everyday moments. Finding relief from mental health challenges involves embracing diverse strategies, including holistic options, tailored to each individual's needs and preferences. It's a journey that varies for each person, shaped by what resonates with you and what methods prove most effective in your unique circumstances.

Natural aromatic remedies possess a remarkable potency capable of permeating every aspect of the human body. Their impact extends beyond the physical realm, profoundly influencing our emotional and mental well-being. With its deep connection to the limbic system and emotional processing, aromatic medicine offers a holistic approach to mental health support. By harnessing the power of nature's plants, we can support our mental well-being and cultivate a sense of balance and tranquility in our lives.

While aromatic medicine and holistic approaches are powerful, it’s crucial to seek the support of health professionals when you need it. Remember, you are not alone – if you are in crisis or contemplating suicide, there are options available to help you cope.

Article Written By Melissa Szaro


1. Burning Incense is Psychoactive: New Class of Antidepressants Might be Right Under Our Noses. (2008). Science Daily.

2. Koulivand, P.H., Khaleghi Ghadiri, M., & Gorji, A. (2013). Lavender and the Nervous System. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med.

3. Matsumoto, T., Asakura, H., & Hayashi, T. (2014). Effects of Olfactory Stimulation from the Fragrance of the Japanese Citrus Fruit Yuzu (Citrus junos Sieb. ex Tanaka) on Mood States and Salivary Chromogranin A as an Endocrinologic Stress Marker. J Altern Complement Med.

4. Nield, David. (2023). Mouse Study Reveals Unexpected Connection Between Menthol And Alzheimer's. Science Alert. 

5. Filiptsova, O.V., Gazzavi-Rogozina, L.V., Timoshyna, I.A., Naboka, O.I., Dyomina, Ye.V., & Ochkur, A.V. (2017). The Essential Oil of Rosemary and its Effect on the Human Image and Numerical Short-term Memory. Science Direct.

6. Hase, T., Shishido, S., Yamamoto, S., Yamashita, R., Nukima, H., Taira, S., Toyoda, T., Abe, K., Hamaguchi, T., Ono, K., Yamada, M., & Kobayashi, S. (2019). Rosmarinic acid Suppresses Alzheimer’s Disease Development by Reducing Amyloid β Aggregation by Increasing Monoamine Secretion. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1-13.

© 2024 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.

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