Because your sense of smell is linked to the areas of the brain where emotion and memories are processed, you can use scents and fragrant plants to give yourself an emotional boost, relieve pain, and conjure up pleasant memories.
“Aromatherapy is effective because it works directly on the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center,” says Mehmet Oz, MD, director of integrative medicine center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “This has important consequences because the thinking part of the brain can’t inhibit the effects of the scent, meaning you feel them instantaneously.” Of the many uses of aromatherapy, pain relief is only one; anxiety reduction and rejuvenation are other common objectives.
“Aromas can heal by enhancing our memory and changing emotions that affect the body’s stress response,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, a rheumatologist and author of Healing Spaces. “If you can identify a fragrance that reminds you of a peaceful, pleasant place and puts you in the mood to say, meditate, it can have a very positive effect.”
Scents That Heal
Dr. Oz, a cardiovascular surgeon, studied aromatherapy to find alternative methods to expedite recovery time and reduce anxiety in heart patients. Dr. Oz and his collaborator, clinical aromatherapist Jane Buckle, PhD, recommend using 15 drops of an essential oil, such as lavender, chamomile or eucalyptus, diluted with 1 oz. (2 Tbsp.) of a “carrier” or neutral oil, such as almond, avocado or jojoba, dabbed directly on the skin. This means you literally have scented relief on you when you need it, says Dr. Oz.
Alan Hirsch, MD, neurologist at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, says you should limit the length of your exposure to certain aromas to ensure they remain effective. “Short-term exposure is key because people stop responding to scents after a few minutes.
To use aromatherapy for pain, relaxation, and rejuvenation, Drs. Hirsch and Oz recommend trying these scents.
Vanilla for relaxation. In the Columbia University Medical Center study, subjects who smelled vanilla while completing stress tests had more stable heart rates and blood pressure readings than those who took the tests in an unscented environment. Place a few drops of vanilla extract onto a handkerchief and carry it with you throughout the day.
Peppermint, jasmine, and citrus for recharging. These scents make you feel more awake. “Even though these scents are pleasant, they act as mild irritants and the effect is similar to that of smelling salts,” explains Dr. Hirsch. Sprinkle a few drops of the essential oil of your choice in a candle diffuser, or dilute two drops in 1 tsp. of avocado or almond oil, then rub it onto the back of your hand.
Plant a Fragrant Garden
A garden or even a window box full of fragrant plants that conjure pleasant memories can be healing, explains Naomi Sachs, a landscape architect who specializes in designing restorative landscapes and gardens that promote health and well-being.
Sachs recommends making your garden a multi-tasker by planting a fragrant tree that also bears fruit, or herbs that smell great and can be used to add flavor to your meals. Try these five garden starters to get your nose and health revving:
Basil. This popular herb has a sweet aroma that can uplift moods. Feeling foggy? Basil oil also is used to sharpen concentration and relieve headaches. Add a few basil leaves to any sautéed vegetable.
Lavender. A blue-purple flower known for its calming qualities, and can encourage restful sleep. “Lavender is a multi-sensory experience,” says Sachs. “It’s a beautiful blossom, the fragrance is wonderful and it has tremendous medicinal properties to help you relax.” Place a few blossoms in a nightstand vase.
Rosemary. An herb with highly aromatic needles, rosemary has been shown in studies to increase alertness and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Add a few sprigs to a flower arrangement in the kitchen, and use it to season anything from salmon to potatoes.
Mint. Of about 600 plants in the mint family, spearmint and peppermint may be the most popular. A whiff of peppermint can increase alertness and performance. Brew a cup of minty tea to kick mid-afternoon drowsiness.
- Aromatherapy for Pain Relief
- Use Music to Get You Through Pain
- 11 Drug-Free Ways to Feel Better
- Gardening with Arthritis: Tips for Preventing Joint Pain