One of my favorite things about the beginning of spring is the incredible smells that waft through the fresh air.
New tree blossoms, freshly cut grass, daffodils and tulips, and that wonderfully clean after-rain smell all provide a lift for our spirits and while calming our minds.
And while many of us appreciate and relish these natural aromas, their influence on our brains and bodies is often overlooked.
For example, did you know your sense of smell is 10,000 times more acute than your other senses?
Once you sense a smell, that information travels to your brain faster than light or sound.
This is one reason smells are associated with such powerful memories and emotions.
That smell of food from your high school cafeteria or the smell of the surf from summer vacations you experienced as a child become embedded in your memory, triggering strong emotions later in life.
Let’s explore how this works in the brain…
The Physiology Behind the Scent-Brain Connection
When you sense a smell, any smell, its molecules enter through your nose where they interact with olfactory cells, which then send an impulse across the blood-brain-barrier to the limbic system1.
Your limbic system is a complex and primitive part of the brain made up of nerves and structures, and is located very close to the cortex related to instincts and mood.
Two structures contained within the vast limbic system are the amygdala (which is also connected to the hypothalamus) and the hippocampus, both of which have been shown influential in terms of mediating our emotions and behavior impacting things like friendships, attachment, love, mood, and laughter.
Once those scents pass through the limbic system, they move on to olfactory cortex located near the back of the brain.
It is at this point you “recognize” or actually sense the smell, though it has already impacted your brain and emotions.
And all this happens faster than the speed of light or sound…pretty cool, huh?
Given that scents cross the blood brain barrier, it is essential we do our best to control what we inhale
I know this is hard—especially in a city like LA with our regular smog alerts and wildfires.
However, notice I said “do our best to control what we inhale”, because our best is all we can do and it can make a noticeable impact on your physical, mental, and emotional health.
The first step to controlling what goes into our nose and brain is to remove any toxic smells from our homes, cars, or work environments
To start, I highly highly recommend purging any artificial air fresheners and fragrances.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you these are one of the most disastrous inventions in human history. I could (and will) write a whole post on the health detriments of these, but for the purposes of today’s topic here are some quick-facts23:
- Air fresheners and artificial fragrances contain dozens of potentially toxic or proven-hazardous cancer-causing, allergen-producing, endocrine-disrupting, lung irritating ingredients
- Air freshers alone can emit over 100 different chemicals including formaldehyde, ethanol, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
- In a study of hazardous VOC emissions from air fresheners, all American air fresheners tested positive for at least one of these harmful substances
- Air freshener companies typically only disclose 10% (or less) of their ingredients on the label, and other companies can simply list the term “fragrance” to cover their bases
- Over 20% of Americans report adverse health effects to these poisons
- Even “green” or “organic” brands can emit potentially hazardous chemicals
So please, get rid of air fresheners/artificial fragrances in your homes, cars, offices, cleaning products, and personal care products (soaps, creams, perfumes, lotions, etc.) as soon as possible.
Next, make sure your indoor air is as clean as possible.
The best ways to accomplish this are:
- To clear the air in your home by open your windows at least once a day
- Have your air ducts cleaned every 3-5 years
- Replace your vent filters with brands that catch more indoor pollutants
- Have your carpets cleaned bu a non-toxic carpet cleaning company
- Vacuum and dust regularly
- And invest in a high-quality indoor air filter
There are many great brands of air filters to choose from, but I like the ones that filter out several types of pollutants (such as germs, allergens, pollen, etc.) and don’t require replacement filters.
Finally, create healthier air in your car
Many of us spend hours a day in our cars, without much awareness of the stinky exhaust and road pollutants we’re breathing in.
While we can’t control the smells of the road, there are three easy ways to remedy this:
- Get rid of car air fresheners
- Invest in a car air filter (here’s a list of Review Lab’s Top 6)
- Use pure essential oils in a car diffuser. There are a lot of brands to choose from, but Syntus is the top-selling model on Amazon and fits in your cupholder.
How to choose and use essential oils therapeutically
Pure essential oils made from non-synthetic ingredients are incredibly beneficial to your body and brain.
They’re also a perfect substitute for synthetic fragrances and air fresheners.
The key is to choose essential oils that are 100% pure with no synthetic ingredients or fillers, ideally organic.
Helpful tip: Some companies use the term: “therapeutic-grade” when describing their oils. This is a marketing term which is somewhat misleading, in my opinion, as all pure aromatherapy is therapeutic. So, while many reputable companies use this term it doesn’t necessarily mean their product is superior.
Essential oils impact your brain, mood, and physical health in many different ways. Some of my favorite healing essential oils include:
- Lavender, mandarin, or neroli are calming and help with sleep
- Rosemary helps stimulate memory and boost brain power
- Citrus oils. like orange or grapefruit, help improve your mood
- Thyme and tea tree have powerful antibacterial/antiviral properties
- And tree-based oils, like cedarwood and frankincense, are grounding and cleansing
Important note: If you live in an area affected by high ozone levels, it is recommended you avoid citrus and pine-based essential oils per
Insofar as how to use essential oils, I recommend using a steam diffuser for best therapeutic results. But even smelling them straight from the bottle, using a burner, or putting them in a carrier oil and applying them directly to your body will get the healing message to your brain.
I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the therapeutic benefits of essential oils, as they are truly one of nature’s most powerful mental, emotional, and spiritual healing tools.