Emily is a clinical herbalist trained at the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and under master herbalist Michael Tierra
My mother has anxiety attacks that lead to spikes of high blood pressure, headaches and rapid heartbeat, also known as tachycardia. She refuses to take internal anti-anxiety medications or supplements.
Could aromatherapy, the mere scent of a plant, help?
As an herbalist, I witness the healing power of plants on a daily basis, but I am often skeptical of claims regarding essential oils. Oils have always had a place in traditional plant medicine, but since becoming so wildly popular (and profitable), their uses have, in my opinion, been exaggerated.
But with the potential for harm quite low, I decided to give it a shot. My first choice was ylang ylang, a strong, heavy scent that stops you in your tracks. Could its heaviness metaphorically pull an anxiously spiraling mind back to earth and thereby normalize physiological function?
Of course, ylang ylang is not a true treatment for anxiety or any related medical conditions like tachycardia or hypertension. It has not been studied and is not a replacement for medical evaluation and treatment. Do not experiment with natural remedies without consulting your medical provider.
Ylang Ylang, Flower of Flowers
Ylang ylang is a tropical, flowering tree with a heady, intoxicating fragrance. It is best known as one of the main ingredients of Chanel No. 5.
The name ylang ylang is Tagalog for “flower of flowers.” If you have ever had the pleasure of walking under a ylang ylang tree, you would not question this appellation. The scent stops you in your tracks and commands attention.
The beauty of its scent is undeniable. But a quick review of its chemistry and effect on human physiology reveals that this flower has more to offer than sensory pleasure.
Ylang Ylang's Action on the Circulatory System
Distilled into an essential oil, ylang ylang has a laundry list of traditional health care uses, mostly revolving around its ability to relieve nervous tension. It is perhaps most noted for its ability to calm the heart, bringing down blood pressure and heart rate at times of extreme stress.
Kurt Schnaublet, PhD, in his book Advanced Aromatherapy, notes that even in minute amounts, ylang ylang has a marked and immediate effect on heart palpitations.
For spikes of hypertension from stress, Dr. James Howenstein MD recommends rubbing a single drop of ylang ylang oil between the fingertips and inhaling for one minute. This should be repeated as needed.
It is unclear if ylang ylang helps with all types of high blood pressure, but it certainly seems to have an effect on symptoms that are anxiety-induced. In my mother’s case, her headache (a symptom of hypertension) goes away within a few minutes of dabbing a drop of essential oil on her collar.
Related Uses of Ylang Ylang
In addition to treating cardiovascular symptoms, ylang ylang essential oil may be helpful for any type of anxiety, restlessness, or agitation. It has a mild antidepressant effect and helps promote sleep.
Ylang ylang is great in a bath after a stressful day at work. I often take advantage of sample bottles on display at my grocery store, when I find that I am rushing and stressed about the day's to-do list. I take a whiff and instantly find myself breathing more deeply and relaxing my shoulders. If I could describe the feeling that ylang ylang imparts in one word, it would be peace.
Ylang ylang is also considered to be an aphrodisiac and is a traditional supportive treatment for impotence and lack of desire in both men and women. This is likely why Chanel No. 5 has been a top-selling perfume for generations.
I believe this association with feminine sexuality is why ylang ylang is often overlooked for more mundane uses like stress and tension headaches and is often regarded as a perfume oil versus an therapeutic one. This is unfortunate because, in my estimation, ylang ylang is unique among the calming essential oils--its effects are strong and instantaneous and wonderful for instances when the mind seems to be spiraling with worry.
How Aromatherapy Works
Many plants produce substances called essential oils, which are usually associated with the plant's fragrance. Aromatherapy is the practice of using these oils to produce physiological effect.
Essential oils can be used medicinally in several ways. For plants like ylang ylang, inhalation is the primary mechanism. The volatile oils evaporate, releasing scent, and traveling up the nose to the olfactory nerve. The olfactory nerve has influence over the limbic system of the brain, and produces a calming effect on the entire body. Heart rate slows and breathing deepens, supporting healthy blood pressure.
Interestingly, aromatherapy only requires trace amounts of fragrant oils to work. In fact, too much scent can overpower the olfactory nerve and change the effect on the brain and body. Many classical aromatherapists suggest using amounts that are barely perceptible. Since the dawn of multi-level marketing of essential oils, a "more is better" approach has been popularized, but this has no biochemical basis and contradicts the long history of aromatherapy.
How to Use Ylang Ylang
Be warned, ylang ylang is a very strong-smelling oil. Even though beautiful, it can quickly become overpowering. Generally, ylang ylang should only be used one drop at a time. Too much can be overly cloying, producing an uncomfortable feeling of stupor or even nausea.
Ylang ylang, like most essential oils, should never be taken internally. It is best applied, by the drop, to fingertips, clothing, or a tissue for inhalation. It can also be diffused through a vaporizer or diluted into a relaxing massage oil or lotion.
Because essential oils evaporate quickly, frequent reapplication can become expensive. You might consider placing a cotton ball in a small jar. Put a drop of ylang ylang on the cottonball and keep the tightly-sealed jar with you so that you can inhale as needed.
You might also dilute the ylang ylang in a neutral oil and fill a bottle with a roller applicator tip. Use as a medicinal perfume.
Consult Your Doctor
Remember that high blood pressure and uncontrolled heart rate are serious health conditions that should always be evaluated by a physician. Ylang ylang may help complement medical treatment when symptoms but will not replace necessary medication.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Emily L Snelling
Rachel Calvert on July 18, 2014:
Actually, if you use CPTG Ylang Ylang from doTerra, it can be taken internally. doTerra is the ONLY company that uses CPTG oils. Only about 4-5 oils should not be taken internally. Having said that, let me say that I've recently begun using Ylang Ylang for my Tachycardia with great success. Any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Emily L Snelling (author) from Lake Tahoe, Nevada USA on August 16, 2012:
It definitely has a noticeable effect--at least for me. I remember staying at a hotel in Dominica where I had to pass under a blooming ylang ylang tree to get to my room. Each time I walked down that path, I stopped in my tracks without even realizing it, took deep breaths, and smiled. Changed my mood instantly.
LetitiaFT from Paris via California on August 16, 2012:
Fascinating. I certainly feel divine whenever I use a few drops of Chanel no. 5 bought duty-free on a plane. I thought it was the high of using such a classic but it appears from your article that its success is based on the high rather than the contrary!