Your sense of smell is your most primal sense and exerts surprising influence over your thoughts, emotions, moods, memories, and behaviors. Scents are experienced long before words.
This is why it’s nearly impossible to describe them with language. Olfaction is different from your other senses, processed through different pathways in your brain.
For other sensations such as sounds and visual images, sensory input is delivered straight to your thalamus, which you can think of as “the big switchboard” in your head. From there, data goes out to your primary sensory cortices.
But smells are different. Before reaching your thalamus, they first wind their way through other regions of your brain, including areas controlling memory and emotion. So with scents, you have all this extra processing even before you have conscious awareness of the scent.1
For this reason, scents can have a powerful influence over how you think, feel, and behave. Aromatherapy allows you to harness the olfactory power of plants for healing, or simply to enhance your state of well-being.
Essential oils carry biologically active volatile compounds in a highly concentrated form that can provide therapeutic benefits in very small amounts. Please understand that I am referring to pure, therapeutic grade essential oils from plants, NOT synthetic fragrances and perfumes, which can be toxic and are typically loaded with allergenic compounds.
Aromatherapy Was Used to Treat the Plague
The use of fragrances has been around for thousands of years, although traditions and methodologies have changed through the ages. According to “The Smell Report,”2 the process of extracting and preserving a flower’s scent using alcohol distillation was discovered by Avicenna.
Avicenna was an 11th century Arabian alchemist and physician, who sort of stumbled upon it while “trying to isolate for Islam the soul of its holy rose.” Before this, perfumes consisted only of thick resins, gums, and gooey unguents.
Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, physicians promoted the therapeutic use of scents, including Hippocrates, Galen, and Crito. Even the plague was treated with fragrances!3
It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the medicinal use of aromatics was largely discredited by scientists who favored drugs. Fortunately, aromatherapy is now making a strong comeback, moving steadily in the direction of mainstream.
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How Essential Oils Can Help with Several Common Maladies
There are probably as many uses for aromatherapy as there are essential oils, but research shows particular promise in relieving stress, stabilizing your mood, improving sleep, pain, and nausea relief, and improving your memory and energy level.
An important element of aromatherapy is synergy, which is why using a combination of oils often creates a much more powerful effect than any one particular oil. With a skilled aromatherapist, the possibilities are nearly endless!
In order to give you an idea of the versatility of aromatherapy, the following table lists some of the therapeutic uses of several oils for a few of today’s most common complaints. As you can see, there are some real “multitaskers,” like lavender and peppermint—oils that treat more than one problem.4
Many of these are discussed in an excellent article in The Huffington Post5 about scents that can enhance your well-being. For further information, refer to the resource section at the bottom of this article.
|Stress||Lavender, lemon, bergamot, peppermint, vetiver, pine, and ylang ylang|
|Insomnia||Lavender,6 chamomile, jasmine, benzoin, neroli, rose, sandalwood oil, sweet marjoram, and ylang ylang; lemon can wake you up7|
|Anxiety||Lavender, bergamot, rose, clary sage, lemon, Roman chamomile, orange, sandalwood, rose-scented geranium, and pine8|
|Depressed mood||Peppermint, chamomile, lavender, and jasmine9|
|Pain||Lavender, chamomile, clary sage, juniper, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, lavender, and green apple (especially for migraines)|
|Nausea and vomiting||Mint, ginger, lemon, orange, ginger, dill, fennel, chamomile, clary sage, and lavender|
|Memory and attention||Sage, peppermint,10 and cinnamon|
|Low energy||Black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, angelica, jasmine, tea tree, rosemary, sage, and citrus|
The Science of Smell
Why does the fishy scent of a beach make one person retch while evoking feelings of expansiveness and joy in another? These variations in responses to scents tie into the special brain pathways of your olfactory system. Olfactory information is stored or encoded with all sorts of memories and associations in your brain.
The neurological substrates of olfaction are especially geared for associative learning (in your hippocampus) and emotional processing (in your amygdala).11Kate Fox explains it well in “The Smell Report”:12
“Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the seat of emotion. Smell sensations are relayed to the cortex, where ‘cognitive’ recognition occurs, only after the deepest parts of our brains have been stimulated. Thus, by the time we correctly name a particular scent as, for example, ‘vanilla,’ the scent has already activated the limbic system, triggering more deep-seated emotional responses.”
A number of studies have shown that odor learning begins before birth. A fetus detects flavor/odor compounds in its amniotic fluid, from the mother’s diet. In studies where a mothers’ consumption of distinctive smelling substances such as garlic, alcohol, or cigarette smoke were monitored during pregnancy, their infants were found to prefer these scents more than infants who had not been exposed to them.13
After birth, newborns locate their mothers’ nipples by smell. Breastfeeding also influences scent preferences; babies will associate breastfeeding smells with maternal bonding and the comfort of their mothers’ arms. According to a recent study14, babies can even smell their mothers’ fears and learn the dangers of the world, just days after birth. When mothers experience stress, their body releases a scent that their baby detects and responds to.
Scent preferences change along with developmental stages. Studies show that three-year-olds have essentially the same likes and dislikes as adults. Children do not develop sensitivity to certain odors until they reach puberty. Researchers have also found that olfactory receptors differ by as much as 30 percent between any two individuals.15 On tests of smelling ability, women consistently score higher than men, and this gender difference holds true even for newborns!16
In summary, your responses to scents are largely “learned” as a function of the emotional context in which they were first experienced, and then the association influences your mood and behavior later in life. Naturally, there are genetic differences as well. Do you LOVE the smell of cilantro—or do you think it smells like soap? If the latter is true, you may be an olfactory mutant… literally.17
We Are MUCH Better Smellers Than We Thought
Since the 1920s, scientists have believed that the human nose was capable of detecting about 10,000 odors, but a new study published in the journal Science shows this estimate is way off the mark. In the first empirical study ever done, researchers at Rockefeller University discovered the human nose can discriminate more than one trillionolfactory stimuli!18 The least successful smeller is now thought to be capable of smelling about 80 million unique scents, but if you’re a super-sniffer, you can detect a spectacular one thousand trillion scents.19
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This article was republished from Mercola.com.
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