The Connection Between Scent and Mental Health

Mental Health and ScentImmersion in Relaxing Scents Can Improve the Feeling of Wellbeing

Scent is one of our most powerful senses. It’s the only sense linked to our brain’s memory system. It also plays a role in our motivation, behavior, and emotion. In fact, according to research, we have about 300 olfactory receptor genes that are able to detect thousands of different fragrance molecules. As a result, scent has the ability to influence our mental health. 

How Olfaction Is Connected to Mental Health 

Olfactory effects on mood are immediate. They elicit emotions and associations immediately and that then activates the downstream physiological and behavioral reactions of those emotions. For example, if a scent triggers feelings of invigoration, heart rate will increase and physical exertion may be boosted. 

“Scent is the only one of our senses directly linked to the limbic system of the brain, where memory and emotions are also processed,” says Aaron Wisniewski of Inhale by OVR Technology. 

Aromatherapy Versus Olfaction-Based Intervention 

You’ve heard of aromatherapy. Break that word down to its literal meaning and that’s inhaling or applying to your body an essential oil for therapeutic services. Aromatherapy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine, according to the National Institutes of Health

Olfaction-based intervention is also a type of complementary and alternative medicine (aka holistic treatment), however it’s more of an “Aromatherapy 2.0.” It’s best described as “the evidence-based interruption or augmentation of psychological or physiological processes through olfactory stimulation,” says Aaron Wisniewski of Inhale by OVR Technology.

5 Ways Olfaction-Based Intervention Supports Mental Health

How powerful and helpful scent can be in managing different conditions has been shown to be relative to how scent can be used. With some conditions, olfaction-based intervention has the potential to be used as a treatment, whereas with other conditions it’s most appropriate to harness olfaction-based intervention as a supplement to another treatment plan. 

Here, we break down where olfaction-based intervention is helpful and outline how (supplement or treatment) it was successfully used.  

  1.     Improves sleep. 

A recent meta-analysis (aka a study of studies) looked at sleep quality with and without aromatherapy and found that using aromatherapy improved sleep quality—and subjects got an extra boost if aromatherapy was combined with massage. Published in August 2021 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, the findings were most significant in elderly subjects and also those who were hospitalized. 

  1.     Influences depression. 

Depression is among the most common mental health condition in the U.S. and your ability to smell, or not, plays a significant role in your risk of depression. People who have depression have been shown to potentially have a reduced olfactory performance compared to those without depression. And also, almost as expected particularly as a result of our experiences in the COVID pandemic, those with olfactory dysfunction seem to have more depression symptoms than those with lesser (or no) olfactory dysfunction. 

  1.     Lessens pain. 

Chronic pain impacts up to 40 percent of Americans, and has also been linked to mental conditions, says the CDC. Research suggests that combining aromatherapy with conventional treatments may help to lessen pain. But also, per a study published in 2016, aromatherapy alone may be more effective when it comes to acute pain (compared to inflammatory or chronic pain).  

  1.     Boosts happiness. 

In a recent study that combined virtual reality (VR) with aromatherapy, adding a pleasant aroma tincture boosted happiness, lowered perceived stress, and improved life satisfaction. 

  1.     Quells anxiety. 

Aromatherapy has also been shown to have the potential to alleviate anxiety in the short term. And of the scents tested, lavender may be the most effective. 

Overall, despite all of the potential perks of scent as it relates to mental health, other research indicates that there is value in different smells at different times (per a study published in 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology). In other words, one scent may be needed first thing in the morning to help us perk up and stay awake; another is valuable mid-morning for concentration; and at lunch, something non-descript is key so as not to take away from the smells of a yummy, filling lunch. The point being—overall—is that different scents are potentially needed for different moods, conditions, times of day or tasks. 




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