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The Nose Knows: How Scents Are Being Used in Medical Settings

people doing smell therapy

For thousands of years, our sense of smell has helped the human race survive. Think about it: bad smells alert us to spoiled foods, contaminated materials, and even dangerous chemicals. At the same time, we use our sense of smell to seek out food and nutrition. We even rely on smells when looking for a romantic partner. It should therefore not be too surprising that smells and smell therapy might have some benefits in medical settings. As it turns out, researchers are increasingly finding that using essential oils and various smells have a number of advantages. In addition to helping reduce stress and anxiety, aromatherapy for mental health conditions now seems to have merit as well. And it also has now been found to improve dementia symptoms also.

someone trying aromatherapy for mental health
Aromatherapy for mental health? It’s worth a shot.

(We need a mental health industry disruptor–read why in this Bold story.)

Based on some recent research, clinicians are gradually beginning to include smell therapy as part of routine medical care. This has been used in some conditions for years, but the use of aromatherapy for mental health conditions has been limited. This may soon change based on increasing evidence that smells can be used to positively impact moods and even memory function. Understanding that these areas of the brain may be affected in mental health disorders, smell therapy offers a less invasive strategy of care. And in most cases, benefits can be gained without unwanted side effects that accompany many medications. Given this, exploring this new area of patient care deserves a closer look.

The Nose-Brain Connection

In order to appreciate the potential that aromatherapy for mental health care offers, a little brain anatomy is helpful. It’s certainly common knowledge that our nose has thousands of sensory nerve endings designed to detect various smells. But the level where these smell sensations are interpreted are farther up in the brain. These sensory nerve endings travel to the olfactory bulb where various smells are cataloged. But what’s interesting is where this all takes place. Olfaction, or the ability to decipher smells, occurs immediately next to the brain’s emotion and memory areas. This is why a certain smell might trigger a powerful memory from the past. Or it might even cause one to feel a certain way based on past experiences with that smell. This configuration is why many scientists and clinicians believe smell therapy can be useful.

One of the key areas in the emotional and memory circuits of the brain involve the amygdala. The amygdala has direct connections with the olfactory bulb. It also is important in directing our attention and the things on which we choose to focus. It also plays a big part in the memories we might recall in a certain situation. And naturally, these memories are often linked to specific emotions that have been stored in this deep part of our brains. According to researchers, smell therapy is thought to stimulate the amygdala, causing specific memories, emotions, and feelings to resurface. If this can be better defined, they also believe aromatherapy for mental health conditions could be quite effective. Some research is already suggesting this is the case.

Recent Research Into Smell Therapy

Earlier this year, a scientific study was reported out of the University of Pittsburgh exploring smell therapy. The study enrolled patients with known depression to see if various smells enhanced their memory. In depression, there is a tendency for patients to recall things less accurately than they actually happened. Instead of perceiving things occurring as they were, there is a tendency to focus more on the negative aspects. As a result, researchers wondered if aromatherapy for mental health depression might improve this tendency. If effective, smells might be used to enhance not only mood but memory, mental clarity, and social functioning. And this could be achieved without the negative side effects that many depression medicines have.

a doctor sniffing some stuff up
The nose knows more than we give it credit for… at least when it comes to medical benefits.

In the study, participants were exposed to 12 different smells and asked what memories the smells triggered. These smells included things like coffee, shoe polish, and even Vick’s vapor rub. This was then compared with several written cue cards that were used to prompt memories as well. What the researchers found was that the smell therapy significantly increased the number of positive memories recalled. The aromatherapy for mental health improvement also generated much more specific and detailed memories. In contrast, the written clues tended to be more negative and general in nature. Presumably, they concluded that the scents were much better at stimulating the amygdala. This could explain the enhanced results when the participants were exposed to various smells.

Moving Beyond Mental Health Conditions

some doctors exploring smell therapy
Smell therapy is showing promise for certain patients–would you try it?

While aromatherapy for mental health conditions like depression show promise, smell therapy could have wide applications. It’s not uncommon for many to use lavender essential oils for sleep and relaxation. Coriander can similarly help reduce worries and stress. Rosemary scents has been used to boost attention and concentration. And some report memory improvements with peppermint. Most notably, essential oils and smell therapy is being used in cancer and terminally ill patients. Symptoms like fatigue, nausea, and insomnia are often improved with nighttime inhaler sticks and aromatic baths. Smell therapy is even being employed to treat aggression among dementia patients. Because essential oils and aromatic molecules readily cross into the brain, many have positive benefits in these conditions.

(Certain scents can boost memory–read this Bold story to learn more.)

While these findings and uses of smell therapy are exciting, more studies are needed. The next phase of research at the University of Pittsburgh will involve brain scanning with aromatherapy. Determining if enhanced amygdala activity is seen when participants are administered various scents would be revealing. Certainly, more longer-term clinical studies testing aromatherapy for mental health problems would support its ongoing use. For now, however, smell therapy for depression and other brain-related conditions looks promising. This is not only because of the reported benefits but also the lower cost and lack of side effects of these products. This is why exploring smell therapy as a viable medical treatment is worthwhile.


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