The first summer I worked on an organic farm, I was surprised by unanticipated nostalgia while working in the tomato greenhouse. The sharp smell of sticky tomato vines as they stained my arms and shirt with their neon green resin sent me back to my childhood.
I had no idea I had encountered that unique, peppery odor before, but it instantly transported me to my grandmother’s garden, where she used to grow cherry tomatoes every year at her home in Seattle. I could feel the brick walls of the old house under my fingers, hear the metronome of the sprinkler on the dry summer grass, and taste those perfectly round little tomatoes, warmed by the sun.
What I didn’t know was that my olfactory system was at work, weaving odor chemicals in with forgotten memories. So, how does smell work? How are odors able to affect our moods and brains in such a way?
As it turns out, our sense of smell is the most sensitive of our five main senses. It’s the first sense we develop in infanthood, as it gives us important clues to what’s safe. Human noses have between five and six million odor detecting cells that can recognize perhaps up to one trillion different smells, even in minute quantities.
When an odor molecule binds to an olfactory receptor in our nose, it sends an electrical signal to the olfactory bulb, positioned at the base of the forebrain. From there it’s sent to the amygdala and hippocampus, considered the “primitive” parts of the brain.
These deep regions of the brain are part of the limbic system, areas critical for emotion and memory. Thus, the same part of our brain that processes smells also stores memories and drives our feelings and moods.
This is why scent can have a strong influence on the way we feel. In fact, studies have found that inhaling fragrances does indeed have psychophysiological impacts on us. We can use this to our advantage, working with herbs and fragrances as allies to help lift our spirits.
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INCENSE EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN:
People have burned incense in many customs around the world for centuries. Although the ritual of incense burning has long held a symbolic meaning, it has a physical component as well. Its impact is strong not only on the soul and spirit, but also for the brain and body.
Fragrance has an intrinsic ability to affect the central nervous system in addition to the limbic system. According to a 2016 study, pure essential oils are the most therapeutic agents we can inhale. Natural incense made with these oils may not have as strong a fragrance as incense made with synthetic fragrances, but the health benefits more than make up for that.
The essential oils used in natural incense sticks make that journey to the olfactory nerves and have the ability not only to conjure up positive memories, but to decrease stress levels and soothe anxiety.
What’s more, the effect is not just in our mood state, but also our physical bodies. A study put on by the International Flavors & Fragrances Inc (IFF) found that certain scents thought to be “relaxing” actually reduced stress-induced muscles tension in the shoulders and neck.
THE BEST ESSENTIAL OILS FOR ANXIETY AND RELAXATION:
Lavender essential oil is well known for having a soothing effect. It’s one of the most studied of essential oils. Proven to reduce stress and relieve anxiety, this gentle herb is easy to enjoy. In various trials, lavender was found to reduce Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HAMA) scores.
Lavender’s powers also make it a great treatment for insomnia as it’s sleep inducing. In one study, inhalation of lavender oil increased sleep quality and reduced anxiety.
Chamomile isn’t just for tea time. As a fragrance, it can create a feeling of being grounded, peaceful, and serene. Studies put on by the School of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in Korea found that inhaling chamomile made subjects feel comfortable and relaxed.
The smell of cinnamon evokes feelings of warmth, comfort, and coziness. The toasty spice is reminiscent of winter days spent inside by the fire, holidays, and freshly baked pies. Feelings and memories associated with cinnamon account for some of its relaxing capabilities.
In addition to its mood-enhancing qualities, cinnamon also has the power to reduce stress and relieve pain, and may even be effective for depression.
The fragrance of patchouli can relieve stress and create more space in the mind. It’s also helpful when recovering from burnout. Patchouli oil is used in Ayurvedic medicine to soothe stress and anxiety and promote a calm feeling.
Frankincense, an aromatic tree resin, is one of the oldest forms of incense. It has some incredible abilities to calm the central nervous system.
Researchers have found that it also activates ion channels in the brain to calm anxiety and depression. It has a significant impact on the limbic system as well as the nerve circuits that are affected by current anxiety and depression drugs.
The delightfully refreshing scent of orange may have some helpful aroma therapeutic benefits. According to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, inhaling orange essential oil may relieve anxiety.
It’s been found to alter activity in the prefrontal cortex, increasing oxyhemoglobin and leaving study participants feeling “relaxed” and “natural”.
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