Mental health through your nose and skin
Updated: May 18
While writing my one and only novel so far, I dove into the world of aromatherapy. It became an important part of my plot, and I learned through writing how important the sense of smell can be in forming memories and recalling them.
I had originally thought of aromatherapy as pseudoscience, a new age way to sell essential oils and therapeutic treatments that may or may not work. What I found is that it's an ancient art form, going back many centuries, and that there's some good evidence to back it up.
There is something called the Proust effect, named after the Frenchman who wrote about it, in which aromas of the present can cause vivid recollections of the past. It turns out that the way we smell, through our olfactory nerves, goes straight from those receptors to our amygdala, the gatekeeper of all our emotions. That means smells can bypass many of the other barriers that sights and sounds must pass through before we actually notice them.
Smells have been known to trigger PTSD episodes of traumatic experiences from the past. They can also trigger warm, happy memories from childhood through such aromas as baked apple pie or Christmas cookie. Both therapists and advertisers are discovering the powers of the olfactory senses and making use of them.
Advertisers use smells to make us want to buy, and the subconscious triggers that aromas activate have been proven to work. Starbucks doesn't let its employees wear perfume or lotions that would counteract the strong coffee odors of its stores and counteract its sales. Casinos, department stores, hotels, theme parks, electronic stores, and more have used the emotional powers of smell to drive sales without the awareness of their customers. There's even a term for this- scent marketing.
This brings us back to aromatherapy, which is a fascinating field in which essential oils (the smelly essence of various plants) can be used to help with both physical and mental ailments. Because essential oils are natural and can't be patented, there's been little use for them from Big Pharma. Few large, definitive studies have been performed on them, and most of the evidence for the benefits of aromatherapy is anecdotal. But to me, the documented power of aromas in stimulating the emotions and memories without us knowing it, combined with the long and detailed history of the many different types of smells presents an intriguing case.
In order to be activated, most essential oils need to be heated up, which requires either fire or electricity. A simple candle can be used for some aromatherapy, but an electric diffuser seems to be the instrument of choice for many. Essential oils can also be rubbed on the skin and occasionally ingested, and there are dozens and dozens of oils that have been recognized through the ages for their healing properties.
Here are some of the most popular essential oils used in aromatherapy.* (*Claims of benefits here are not guaranteed. They are taken from other websites and have been handed down from other users of these products)
1- Lavender. A fragrant oil known for its relaxing qualities. Treats anxiety, fungal infections, allergies, depression, insomnia, eczema, nausea, and menstrual cramps.
2- Lemon. A popular citrus fruit known for its energetic properties. Reduces anxiety and depression, helps with morning sickness, improves skin, relieves pain, increases energy, heals wounds, treats acne.
3- Rose. From the fragrant flowers. Eases pain, relieves menstrual discomfort, decreases anxiety and stress, eases depressive symptoms, stimulates sex drive.
4- Tea Tree. From leaves of the Australian tea tree. Commonly used on the skin as an antibacterial agent. Can help with acne, athlete's foot, lice, nail fungus, insect bites, dandruff, dental plaque, and bad breath.
5- Peppermint. From the mint family. Used as aromatherapy, boosts energy, clears respiratory tract, stimulates circulation, improves stress and soothes feelings of irritation. Used on the skin it can relieve fatigue, muscle spasms, tension, flatulence, and fever.
6- Ylang Ylang. From an herbal flower. In aromatherapy, said to help with memory and thinking, as well as anxiety, depression, insomnia, sinus infections and headaches. Applied to the skin it is said to promote relaxation, increase libido, and lower blood pressure.
7- Jasmine. From the Jasmine flower and very popular in perfumes. Fragrant smell said to help with stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms.
8- Rosemary. A popular spice, also used to make medicine. Claims to help with brain function and memory. Also eases stress, relieves pain, increases energy, reduces joint inflammation.
9- Patchouli. From the patchouli plant. Topically used for skin conditions like dermatitis and acne. Aromatherapy uses include relief from depression, stress, anxiety, insomnia, and headaches.
10- Eucalyptus. From the Australian Eucalyptus tree's leaves. This oil is used extensively in cold medicines because of its powers in relieving cold symptoms- congestion, coughs, muscle pain, and asthma. It's also supposed to help mental energy by boosting circulation to the brain and rejuvenating the mind and spirit.
There are many more essential oils that aromatherapy claims can help with a variety of symptoms, but before anyone goes down the rabbit hole of all these claims they should remember that:
- Some people will have allergic reactions to essential oils, especially in strong concentrations, and so care and research is required before trying them out.
- There are few high-quality clinical trials involving aromatherapies, and it's unlikely any will happen soon. They fall into the field of alternative medicine where the money is more scarce and the information is much harder to come by. This is a shame because obviously there is some benefit to some of them. Take every claim made about them with a grain of salt. (The same can be said of most prescription drugs as well.)
- Aromatherapy only treats the symptoms- not the causes of diseases and distress. They should only be used in conjunction with a plan that addresses the root causes of any disorder or illness.
That being said, this is another intriguing tool for the mental health toolbox. Bypassing your noisy brain to get some good feelings into your amygdala sounds like a great way to combat stress, anxiety, and depression. We are constantly being bombarded with negativity from the media and the outside world, and we need as many defenses as we can find to keep an even keel and a positive mental attitude.
The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.