Anatomy and Physiology: Aromatherapy and the Digestive System

You body gets its energy and nutrients through eating, but the food that you eat is very different to what's used by your cells. Ingested food must go through the process of digestion. There are two stages of digestion: mechanical, which starts in the mouth with chewing and swallowing; and chemical, which involves enzymes breaking down food into soluble substances that can be absorbed into your circulatory system.

Digestive disorders

When the functions of assimilation (absorption of food) and elimination (excretion of food) are impaired, your body's ability to process nutrients and to get rid of waste is affected. It can cause unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea, stomach cramps, constipation and headaches. Essential oils, though they are not to be taken internally, can provide many remedies for these kind of problems.

Essential Oils for your Digestive System

Essential oils that are warming and drying support digestion and herb and spice oils are particularly useful.

Black pepper
Roman chamomile
Sweet fennel
Sweet orange
all relax the intestines

Aromatherapy black pepper

Essential oils that are carminative help settle your digestive system and relieve flatulence. These include basil, black pepper, carrot seed, cardamom, roman and german chamomile, coriander, peppermint, sweet fennel, ginger, sweet orange and rose.

lemon aromatherapy

As the name suggests, hepatic oils aid the liver.
These oils include:
Both chamomiles

Treating the Digestive System

Your digestive system is very sensitive to the rest of your body systems and can be upset not just by what you put into your body but by how you feel and react to things.


Constipation occurs when the bowel experiences difficulty eliminating stools. It may be caused by a diet too rich in refined foods and lacking wholegrains or it can be stress-related. Frequent use of laxatives can make the problem worse. The best option is a change in diet. If the constipation is chronic then your entire dietary choices may need a radical overhaul, for which it's best to contact a qualified nutritionist for advice. Therapies to relieve stress will also help where this is the underlying cause and regular exercise will get your bowels moving again. Also remember to drink two litres of water a day.

  • Aromatherapy massage of the abdomen is an effective treatment when combined with stimulating oils of black pepper, rosemary and sweet fennel.
  • Note that if you notice any blood in your stools or pain when passing bowel motions, you should inform your GP.


The unpleasant condition of diarrhoea is characterised by frequent passing of watery stools. It may be acute (occurs suddenly and is short-term) or chronic (continues over a long period). Symptoms of diarrhoea include stomach pains an cramps, flatulence, nausea and vomiting and in some cases headaches an piles. Travellers diarrhoea can also cause the sufferer to become dehydrated. It is recommended you rink a salt and sugar water solution every couple of hours to replenish the body of its lost minerals. Common causes of diarrhoea, aside from 'traveller's tummy', include food poisoning, anxiety, excess alcohol and the side effects of some prescription drugs such as antibiotics.

  • Essential oils that have the most antispasmodic effect on the intestinal tract, and which also calm the nervous system, include the chamomiles, ginger, sweet fennel and peppermint. The calming effects of lavender and neroli can also help.

Nausea and Vomiting

Vomiting is when the contents of the stomach are forcibly expelled up the oesophagus and out of the mouth. It's often preceded by a feeling of nausea. Nausea can be present without vomiting or this unpleasant feeling can induce it. There are a wide variety of causes of nausea and vomiting including the early stages of pregnancy, certain foods, excess alcohol, gastointestinal diseases and illnesses such as diabetes.

Massage and/or compresses are good methods to use for soothing the stomach, which the most helpful essential oils being sweet fennel, ginger and peppermint.

stomach massage

These oils can also help dispel feelings of nausea when you inhale them, for example, as a dry inhalation on a tissue. Pregnant women are often advised to sniff a couple of drops of ginger or peppermint oils to help with morning sickness. Burning rosemary and peppermint oils is also effective.

Indigestion and flatulence

Flatulence is the build-up of gas in the stomach and intestinal tract. This excessive wind is released orally or anally. Gas enters the intestine when air is swallowed as you eat or drink or from released gases of digesting foods (beans are often a common culprit). There can be other causes such as the fermentation of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which may be the result of a number of conditions such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or food intolerance.

  • Any essential oil that has carminative properties, such as black pepper, carrot seed and cardamom, will help to relieve flatulence. Blend one or two of the recommended oils in a 3% dilution in carrier oil, for example sweet almond, and massage in a clockwise circular motion on the abdomen.