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Take a Sniff to Access the power of smell for better health

The astonishing health evidence behind our sense of smell and its impact on wellbeing

Exercise, diet, sleep – we’ve done it all to get our health back on track. Now, scientists have added a new health hack to our list – aroma!


A new research report ‘THE SCIENCE OF ESSENTIAL OILS: WHY IT MAKES SCENTS’, commissioned by Puressentiel – makers of clinically proven essential oils – has found that simply enjoying the aroma of natural plant oils can have a marked improvement on health. And the science explains how it works.

Leading medical Herbalist, Dr Chris Etheridge, says, “We all know from personal experience that scents can trigger powerful responses. Whether it’s the smell of freshly baked bread, newly cut grass or the heavy scent of honeysuckle on a summer evening — smells can transport us to another time and place.

“Now the science tells us that scents generally, and particularly powerful aromas such as essential oils, provide a unique pathway from the outside world to the brain — where they activate the release of chemical messengers including serotonin, noradrenaline and endorphins, which can have a huge impact on both our physical and emotional wellbeing”.

And we are actually a lot better at detecting scents than we realise. Scientists at the Rockefeller University in New York calculate the human nose and brain is capable of distinguishing around one trillion different smells[1].

GP, Gill Jenkins comments, “There is increasing interest in the use of aromatherapy to manage cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer, but they are also incredibly useful for chronic and often complex conditions such as sleep, stress and mood disorders, respiratory problems and muscle and joint pain.

“In one UK study[2], 72 NHS patients with severe dementia were randomly assigned to twice daily hand and face treatments using either lemon balm essential oil (Melissa officinalis) or a placebo vegetable oil. After four weeks, more people in the group receiving the essential oil treatment experienced a significant reduction in agitation – an unpleasant symptom of dementia – and had a better quality of life, measured as improvements in social interaction and less social withdrawal”.

Making scents of the past

The use of essential oils to support optimal health has been going on for much longer than we imagine. Cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, suggest that aromatic plants were used as far back as 18,000 BC. The ancient Egyptians used oils such as cedar and myrrh in medicines, cosmetics and embalming from around 4500 BC. And in China and India the use of aromatic plants dates from between 3000 and 2000 BC[3].

In the 18th and 19th centuries European chemists began documenting the active constituents of many medicinal plants, and identified substances such as quinine, morphine and atropine which are still in use today[4].

Aromatherapy as we now know it resulted from a stroke of luck following an unfortunate laboratory accident. Chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, sustained severe burns to his hands and discovered that lavender oil accelerated health and reduced scarring.

According to his own shocking account published in 1937[5]: “In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day.”

More recently, the focus has shifted to the chemical properties of essential oils and the different biological and neurological mechanisms they appear to influence. Advanced tools such as chromatography and mass spectrometry are also helping to explain and unlock their potential.

Modern science unlocks the secret of essential oils

Brain scans using functional Magnetic Resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that, when inhaled, essential oils bind to receptors in olfactory bulbs in the nasal cavity where they are translated into a signal which is then transmitted to the amygdala — the area of the brain which processes emotions — as well as the hypothalamus, hippocampus and frontal cortex[6],[7],[8]. This, in turn, can prompt the brain to release neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline and endorphins.

Similarly, electroencephalographs (EEG) have revealed that fragrances activate a range of spontaneous brain activities and cognitive functions[9]. Lavender oil, for instance, increases theta and alpha wave activity. Alpha waves are important for neural networking and are associated with cognitive performance, calmness and mental coordination, while theta activity often occurs when we are daydreaming or letting our imagination wander and are typically in a very positive state[10].

As a paper published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine[11] explains, “Inhalation of essential oils has given rise to olfactory aromatherapy, where simple inhalation has resulted in enhanced emotional wellness, calmness, relaxation or rejuvenation of the human body.”

Natural health specialist and chemist, Dr Tim Bond says: “Using modern techniques, scientist have been able to map the way different scents activate different parts of the brain, and that our body odours often reflect our emotions. For instance, when volunteers sniffed sweat taken from first-time parachute jumpers fMRI scans showed it lit up the brain’s left amygdala, the area which processes basic emotions such as fear[12].

These scientific findings – as summarised in the report: ‘THE SCIENCE OF ESSENTIAL OILS: WHY IT MAKES SCENTS’ – are clearly having an impact on the way people are now managing their health and wellbeing. A UK survey for Puressentiel found that almost one in five people (18%) have already switched to plant-based solutions to reduce stress and a further 50% would consider switching.

Similarly, 18% were already using plant-based approaches to improve their sleep patterns and another 54% are open to doing so. Consumers also value plant-based approaches for respiratory health. Almost one in five (19%) had already switched to natural remedies for symptoms such as respiratory congestion, colds.

In conclusion, Dr Bond says: “There is now a lot of evidence that combinations of essential oils are far more potent than the sum total of each constituent oil, and Puressentiel leads the way in research to identify the combinations of essential oils which are most beneficial for commonplace challenges around sleep, respiratory health, stress and muscles and joints.”

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