When I was learning acupuncture I heard about a phenomenon called “needle shock” (AKA “vasovagal response”) where someone suddenly feels lightheaded, nauseous, or passes out when a needle is stuck in their body. It’s rare and usually harmless but pretty unpleasant for the person experiencing it. So all interns were instructed in ways to alleviate it – have them lie down, take the needle out, press on certain points, etc.
During my internship I was paired with another intern who was rather eccentric but full of good ideas. As we were stepping into a treatment room, I mentioned that the woman we were about to treat had a history of needle shock. He smiled at me and said, “I saw that in her chart.” Then he pointed to the pocket of his lab coat which seemed to contain a small ball. I didn’t have a chance to ask what it was as we greeted the patient.
We made sure the woman was lying down and relaxed before inserting any needles, but as soon as the first one went in her face turned pale and her skin became cold and clammy. As she told us, “I’m going to faint,” and I scrambled to remember what to do, my partner pulled out a small orange and tore open the peel right beneath her nose.
She looked a bit shocked but also awake and clear. Immediately the color came back to her face and she appeared more grounded. “Is that an orange?,” she asked, “I feel better.” We proceeded to insert another dozen-or-so needles and she did fine.
This kindled my interest in aromatherapy, a field that was rather small at the time but has exploded in the decades since. Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that inhaling citrus oils can have positive effects on mood.1 In one, patients in a dental office who were exposed to orange oil felt less anxious.2 In others, inhalation of bergamot oil (the bitter orange that gives Earl Grey tea its characteristic flavor) has demonstrated benefits against anxiety and depression.3
For what it’s worth, I think it wasn’t just the biological effect of orange oil that produced the dramatic shift in this patient, but also the role of the unexpected, the value of distraction, the intense stimulus of the release of orange oil beneath her nose, and perhaps her own positive associations with the scent. But these factors are part of what makes aromatherapy fascinating. It’s not just a matter of physiological impact, but also the roles of memory, association, and pleasure.
Generally speaking, all the citrus peel oils – orange, bergamot, lemon, lime, grapefruit, and tangerine –have these calming/uplifting effects when inhaled, with slight nuances between them. (I think of tangerine as the most uplifting and lime as the most calming, but you can experiment and see for yourself.) Diffusing a combination of a few – or using citrus peel or essential oil around the house, in homemade cleaners, as a spritz for laundry, or in your drinking water – is often most effective.
Despite my love of essential oils, I don’t feel altogether great about the aromatherapy field today. As a medical system, it’s in its infancy. There’s very little historical use and literature on essential oils and not much of a scientific framework for when and how to use which oils. They’re often overused, taken internally without good evidence of safety, and touted as panaceas. Much of this trend has been promoted by the manufacturers and multi-level-marketers of the oils. Essential oil production can also be rather wasteful. In many cases it takes vast amounts of dry plant matter to produce a minuscule amount of essential oil, which is really something of a luxury.
So I recommend treating these oils as the precious and potent substances they are. But I have less concern with citrus oils because they’re cheap, abundant, and generally very safe. Squeeze (the orange side of) an orange peel at a candle flame and you’ll see it flare – that’s orange oil, and there’s lots of it. The citrus oils are easily cold-pressed or distilled from peels, which are often left over from juice producers anyway. The main constituent of these oils, a compound called d-limonene, is used as a cleaner and degreaser and is also taken internally in capsules for alleviating heartburn, dissolving gallstones, and may have some value in cancer treatment.
Two caveats though: (1) citrus oils on the skin can sometimes cause irritation or make it easier to get a sunburn (this is probably more common with cold pressed citrus oils and less common in steam distilled citrus oils), (2) citrus and many other essential oils may be toxic to cats, so be safe if you have feline companions.
Enjoy the spring weather with the bright scent and uplifting effect of these amazing peels!
- Agatonovic-Kustrin, S. Anxiolytic Terpenoids and Aromatherapy for Anxiety and Depression, Springer, 18 Apr. 2020, link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-030-42667-5_11.
- Lehrner J;Marwinski G;Lehr S;Johren P;Deecke L; “Ambient Odors of Orange and Lavender Reduce Anxiety and Improve Mood in a Dental Office.” Physiology & Behavior, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16095639/.
- Watanabe E;Kuchta K;Kimura M;Rauwald HW;Kamei T;Imanishi J; “Effects of Bergamot ( Citrus Bergamia (Risso) Wright & Arn.) Essential Oil Aromatherapy on Mood States, Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity, and Salivary Cortisol Levels in 41 Healthy Females.” Forschende Komplementarmedizin (2006), U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25824404/.