I am fascinated by the growing science that demonstrates the positive aromatherapeutical, topical therapeutic and internal supplemental benefits of essential oils on neurotransmitters associated with feelings of stress, anxiousness, aggression and numerous behavioural disorders in dogs.
There really is so much more going on inside the body of dogs than just what we see in their behaviour. Behaviour is after all the response to stimuli that can be seen in observable behaviour, or unseen as in the automatic physiological responses that happen within the body (increased heart rate, increase respiratory rate, pupil dilation etc).
But the great thing is, we can really help them and support them through the adaptation of a wellness lifestyle that doesn’t just focus on merely the absence of disease and extreme behaviour challenges, but really emphasizes feeling good and enjoying a great quality of life.
An approach that is single focused, either through behaviour management, pharmaceutical interventions or neutraceutical diet changes only, will probably not change your dog’s behaviour. However, a combined, multi-layered effort involving an adapted and species appropriate diet, devoid of contaminants and including specific neutraceutacal supplementation, the application of essential oils and carefully created and executed behaviour intervention therapies, may help to improve quality of life of dogs and potentially improve behaviour as well.
Since animals (and humans) are carbon-based like plants, the extracted essential oils are compatible and beneficial to their cells. Another unique quality of Essential Oils is their molecular size. Essential Oil molecules are measured in atomic mass units and most are under 300amu in size. Since they are so terrifically tiny and they are lipid soluble, they have the ability to easily pass through the dermal layers of skin, are absorbed right into the bloodstream, cross the blood-brain barrier and penetrate the cell membrane.
The global recognition of essential oils as powerful promoters of physical, mental and emotional health and wellness is rapidly expanding and backed by scientific validation. But this is not new, essential oils have been used traditionally for thousands of years, rather this is a rediscovery of holistic, self-care practices with essential oils.
Over the next several days I am going to share information on different neurotransmitters and how they influence mood and behaviour in dogs and what you may observe in your dog if there is an imbalance in the nervous system. And I am going to share about the Essential Oils indicated for support and stimulate the balance and production of each neurotransmitter.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that carry signals between brain cells. These signals contain a lot of important information for our daily behaviours and our dogs as well. The understanding of how neurotransmitters affect behaviour and mood will help you understand why your dog does some of the things she does. Every thought and feeling has its own chemical signature, which will then affect one or more of our organ systems for better or for worse.
The nervous system is made up of individual nerve cells called neurons. They serve as the body's wiring. Nerve signals are transmitted through the length of a neuron as an electrical impulse. When a nerve impulse reaches the end of the neuron it can jump over to the next cell using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. In the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, neurotransmitters pass from neuron to neuron.
Neurotransmitters are stored at the end of each neuron. When they reach a neighbouring neuron, the neurotransmitter clicks into a specialized receptor site much as a key fits into a lock. When enough neurotransmitters attach to the receptors, the neuron “fires,” sending an electrical impulse down its length.
So let's talk about some of these neurotransmitters and what they do to the brain and how they affect behaviour and mood. I want to start by talking about GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid) and Glutamate, these two are kind of a pair that work together. GABA tells the nerves not to fire, so it’s a neurotransmitter that calms the nervous system. Whereas Glutamate encourages nerves to fire and send impulses. An imbalance of these two neurotransmitter mechanisms may induce alterations in moods, and as a result behaviour.
During those stressful events that your dog experiences (which, for some dogs, could just be a walk through the neighbourhood), their brain becomes very excited and normally their body would respond by producing GABA to bring their nervous system back to a state of calm. Without GABA, an individual would increasingly become agitated, restless and anxious, and might even experience seizures.
GABA is an amino acid which acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. GABA’s natural function is to reduce the activity of the neurons to which it binds. It inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, calming nervous activity. This can make an individual feel more tranquil and give him or her sense of wellbeing.
In the brain, about 60-70% of all synapses use glutamate, and only 30-40% use GABA but both neurotransmitters work together to control many processes including an overall level of arousal in the brain.
GABA is inhibitory, whereas glutamate is excitatory. Without GABA, nerve cells fire too often and too easily. Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, seizure disorders, and numerous other conditions including addiction, headaches, Parkinson's syndrome, and cognitive impairment are all related to low GABA activity.
Too much glutamate can lead to ADD/ADHD symptoms, restlessness and anxiety among other things. And the proper production of Glutamate is needed for memory forming and cognitive function which is important for those of us on a behaviour modification journey with our dogs.
A good example to help understand this effect is caffeine. Caffeine inhibits GABA release. The less GABA, the more nerve transmissions occur, which can cause feelings of restlessness, high arousal, anxiety or excitability.
So now imagine for a moment what it feels like if you have had too much coffee to drink: that is the sensation of glutamate without enough GABA! Now you can imagine what it feels like to be a dog with an imbalance in these neurotransmitters.
So how can essential oils help your anxious, aroused and excitable dogs?
It's well known and one of the most researched areas of aroma study that our sense of smell can effect emotions and mood. There is a lot of convincing evidence that demonstrates that simply inhaling the scent of an essential oil, like bergamot, is effective for calming nervous or anxious feelings in a variety of different settings.
The olfactory receptors found in the nasal cavity are a direct link with the limbic system of the brain, an area that governs emotional responses. When a particular scent triggers a memory or feeling, you are experiencing this link and the powerful effects on emotions.
But there is intriguing new research that recognizes the benefits of aromatherapy extend far beyond just emotional and mood regulation. In addition to activating the limbic system of the brain, olfactory nerves are also intricately linked with the central nervous system and can communicate to the brain and affect neurological function.
Essential Oils that promote GABA production for an overall calming effect and reduction in feelings of excitability, stress and anxiousness include: Clary Sage, Bergamot, Geranium, Lavender, Magnolia, Lavender, Rose, Sandalwood and Wild Orange and Melissa (Lemon Balm).
For Glutamate regulation, there is an Essential Oil that may protect the brain from glutamate-induced cytotoxicity, a cannabinoid called Copaiba. Also Bergamot prevents glutamate accumulation, Curcumin inhibits glutamate release and Turmeric EO helps with curcumin absorption, Frankincense can help with neuroinflammation and protect from glutamate cytotoxicity, Ginger is also neuroprotective and Lavender may have a direct interaction with the glutamatergic subrecptor as well as GABA receptors.
One of the most amazing things about essential oils is that no matter what is going on, whether the imbalance is too much, or too little, they will correct that imbalance in the body and bring it back into homeostasis. I recommend consistent daily use of CPTG essential oils through aroma, topical and internal use combined with positive reinforcement based applied behaviour techniques for best results in behaviour modification.
My daily doggy wellness routine can be found here and my favourite kit to get started with can be found here.
When you join my community and get started with Essential Oils, you also get a wellness consult with me so I can teach you how to incorporate oils into your daily routine for yourself as well as your dog. You're not on your own, as your educator I am always here for you.
Feel free to reach out and ask questions as well. I am always happy to teach about natural plant based health options. Here's to happy and healthy brain function for us all!
I have spent the past 15+ years learning the science of how all things learn and mastering my art as an animal trainer, behaviour consultant and transformative coach. With my specialty in canine reactivity, fear, aggression and canine communication, I have many insights to share into understanding, preventing, predicting and changing canine behaviour.