Have you ever caught a whiff of some smell that immediately brought you back to your childhood? It may be the smell of bread or cookies baking, the scent of a plant that grew near your childhood home, or the familiar smell of a building where you spent a lot of time as a kid. For me, the smell of fresh lavender immediately reminds me of my grandmother who treasured her tiny garden of this fragrant herb. The smell of balsam also evokes memories of my childhood in New England; the woods of New Hampshire, balsam scented incense, and eating maple sugar candy.
Your sense of smell is one of the most powerful triggers for memory that exists. This distinct connection between your sense of smell and memories makes it apparent that what you smell affects your brain. I have to admit that I used to be very skeptical of the ability of scented essential oils to have any effect on your health. However, I’m now convinced that there are a number of ways that your sense of smell can be used to heal. Here are a few examples:
-The smell of Eucalyptus may trigger memories of when you were sick as a kid–I know it does for me. It’s the smell of Vicks Vaporub and Mentholatum—stuff that was only used when I was sick. There’s a reason for this. The camphor, minty, and gum scents are stimulating and open up your respiratory tract and ease breathing. Whether it’s applied to your chest or in a steam mist, the scent of Eucalyptus is a non-toxic and non-irritating way to treat the common cold.
-In Chinese medicine, the use of heat has long been considered to be an important healing tool. Centuries before electricity was discovered, the Chinese used something called moxabustion to warm achy joints, sore muscles, and acupuncture points for the purpose of healing. Moxabustion (or moxa) involves the herb Artemesia Vulgarius, which is rolled into small cones, a long stick or even used loose. When lit, this herb burns very hot and can effectively warm areas on your body that have become cold, stiff, or need more circulation. The reason why Artemesia is used in this way is that while the heat is very penetrating, the smell of the burning herb is also incredibly dense and penetrating, which is an important part of its healing properties.
-Did you know that what you smell when you walk in the woods or other natural settings can actually be good for your well-being? The health benefits of walking in the woods was originally discovered by Japanese researchers, who called the activity Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing. They found that Forest Bathing can have positive benefits such as reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, decreasing depression, and improving immunity. What does this have to do with the healing power of smell? It seems that the healthy benefits of forest bathing comes from something called phytoncides, which are strong smelling chemicals that are given off by trees and other plants for the purpose of protection. So when you stand in a grove of pine trees and take a deep breath, not only does it smell good; it’s also good for your health.
-When I first discovered aromatherapy, I thought it was a lot of nonsense, relegated to the status of mood rings and Pyramid Power. Over time, however, I have come to realize that essential oils can be useful, but they have been used throughout history for religious practices, cultural traditions, and healing purposes. Aromatherapy is based on the fact that different scents have different energetics and affect your brain’s ability to heal based on the properties of the scent. For example, some of the floral scents like rose, ylang ylang, or jasmine are relaxing and can be used for calming or as a gentle sleep aid. In contrast, the scent of conifers, citrus, or eucalyptus can be invigorating and are best used to boost energy.
The potential of using scent shouldn’t be overlooked in the healing process. I work with a great number of patients who are using a combination of acupuncture, herbs, diet, work/rest balance, and visualization to heal. Some are looking for more ways to be healthy. So why not add the power of smell into the healing mix?