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The Nose Knows: The Power of Scents and Essential Oils

The sense of smell, often underrated, plays a pivotal role in our daily lives—influencing emotions, memories, and overall wellbeing. The impact of scents, particularly when harnessed through essential oils, offers a natural pathway to enhance various aspects of our lives.

The Potent Influence of Scents

Scents exert their influence through a direct connection to the olfactory bulb in the brain, which is linked to the limbic system, the centre for emotions and memory processing. This connection allows scents to evoke immediate emotional responses and vivid memories. Essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant extracts, use these natural fragrances to influence mood, mental state, and even physical wellbeing.

Many studies have shown that the inhalation of lavender and other essential oils before surgeries have eased patient anxiety and even reduced pain levels. A specific study revealed a reduction in post–C‑section anxiety when participants were exposed to lavender essential oil, while pain levels decreased in response to the scent of rose. Lemon, orange, bergamot, and chamomile are additional essential oils known for their ability to induce a calming effect on the central nervous system, contributing to the reduction of anxiety. Clary sage can also be beneficial for balancing hormones and reducing stress in women.

From an immune perspective, eucalyptus, oregano, and clove have been shown to be antibacterial and antiviral, proving to be useful adjuncts during cold-and-flu season.

Scents and Memory: A Deep Connection

The ability of scents to trigger memories is deeply ingrained in us. The olfactory bulb has direct pathways to the amygdala and hippocampus, areas in the brain integral to emotional processing and memory formation. This is why certain scents can instantly transport us back in time or cause emotional responses. For instance, the smell of geranium might remind someone of their grandmother’s garden, triggering a sense of nostalgia and comfort. Essential oils like rosemary and sage are being increasingly studied for their potential to aid memory recall and cognitive function, making them not just tools to reminisce but also for cognitive health.

The volatile (airborne) oils from peppermint and rosemary have both been shown to increase memory and cognitive performance and to reduce headaches in adults and children. This is believed to occur through the activation of calming GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, while maintaining sharp mental focus. Frankincense, another notable essential oil, is believed to have properties that promote healing in brain cells, potentially aiding in recovery from traumatic brain injuries and neurodegenerative disorders. Any of the previously mentioned oils may also be helpful in managing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Enhanced Living through Aromatherapy

Integrating scents into daily routines can significantly enhance quality of life. Aromatherapy, which involves using essential oils for therapeutic purposes, can help in promoting relaxation, alleviating stress, improving sleep, and boosting energy levels. Different scents have different effects. For example, lavender is used for its relaxing and sleep-inducing properties, while citrus scents like lemon and orange are known more for their uplifting and energizing effects. By mindfully choosing scents, we can create a more balanced and harmonious living environment which caters to our emotional and physical needs. Many health-care practitioners also choose to use aromatherapy in their practice for their enhancing effects.

A simple way to integrate oils into your day-to-day life is to diffuse them or create a natural room spritzer. You could try using an earthy scent like cedarwood or wintergreen as a room freshener. Another way is to add them to a carrier oil such as almond or grapeseed and make your personalized “roll-on.” You can also be creative with leftover lemon peels to both disinfect the kitchen sink and produce an energizing scent while cleaning.

Purity and Absorption: Why It Matters

The purity of scents is crucial, especially when they are absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Our skin, being highly permeable, can absorb substances directly into the bloodstream.

This makes it imperative to choose high-quality, 100% pure and clean essential oils, which are free from synthetic fragrances, additives, and contaminants. Pure oils ensure that the natural benefits of the plants are received without any harmful side effects. Moreover, the therapeutic properties of essential oils are most effective when they are in their purest, completely unadulterated form. This purity is not only beneficial for personal health but also for the environment, as it encourages sustainable and chemical-free farming practices.

Conclusion: Embracing the Power of Scents

The power of scents, especially through the use of essential oils, is an underappreciated aspect of our sensory experience. By understanding and utilizing this power, we can impact our mental and emotional health, enhance our living spaces, and adopt a healthier lifestyle. The purity of the scents we choose to surround ourselves with is essential for maximizing their therapeutic benefits. The world of scents offers a unique and natural way to improve our quality of life, making it an important element to explore and integrate into our daily routines.

Dr. Kaitlyn Zorn, HBSc, ND

A Guelph naturopathic doctor who uses a blend of modern science and traditional healing therapies to treat the whole person. Her journey has helped her develop an interest in brain health, pain management, and critical illness relief.

Further Reading

Abbasijahromi, A., H. Hojati, S. Nikooei, H.K. Jahromi, H.R. Dowlatkhah, V. Zarean, M. Farzaneh, and A. Kalavani. “Compare the effect of aromatherapy using lavender and Damask rose essential oils on the level of anxiety and severity of pain following C‑section: A double-blinded randomized clinical trial.” Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Vol. 17, No. 3 (2020): 20190141.

Setzer, W.N. “Essential oils and anxiolytic aromatherapy.” Natural Product Communications, Vol. 4, No. 9 (2009): 1305–1316.

Kennedy, D., E. Okello, P. Chazot, M.‑J. Howes, S. Ohiomokhare, P. Jackson, C. Haskell‑Ramsay, J. Khan, J. Forster, and E. Wightman. “Volatile Terpenes and Brain Function: Investigation of the Cognitive and Mood Effects of Mentha × piperita L. Essential Oil with In Vitro Properties Relevant to Central Nervous System Function.” Nutrients, Vol. 10, No. 8 (2018): 1029.