Your nose is a hub of activity. We all have millions of smell receptors that, as soon as they detect a scent, shoot the information to the olfactory bulb-a pea-size cluster in the brain that sorts the signals and sends them to the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that governs many memories and emotion. Because of their close proximity, the neurological controls for these behaviors often become entangled. That's why, for instance, during the early stages of attraction, dinner is often a prelude to romance.
It also explains how odor can help lower stress levels, improve mental and physical performance, ease pain, end insomnia, and even help us lose weight, research shows. Here's how to use your sense of smell to your advantage.
1) Sniff green apple (or another pleasant scent) to resist a snack attack
A fragrance you love can help manage cravings, according Alan Hirsch, MD, founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. In one study, Hirsch gave overweight people banana, green apple, and peppermint to sniff when they felt a craving; they lost more weight than non-sniffers.
Try this: Keep a bottle of a favorite scent handy throughout the day and try sniffing instead of snacking.
2) Sniff orange or lavender to get calm
In an Austrian study, researchers wafted the smell of oranges before some participants and lavender before others. The two groups felt less anxious, more positive, and calmer, compared with participants who were exposed to no fragrance at all.
Try this: Add a few drops of either oil to a room diffuser and use in your office on stressful days.
3) Sniff rosemary to learn something new
Next time a presentation or new software program drives you crazy, think of Shakespeare's poor Ophelia. After Hamlet made her nuts, she toddled around the castle picking rosemary, muttering, "That's for remembrance." Researchers at the University of Northumbria in the United Kingdom found she was on to something. After exposure to rosemary oil, 48 college students outperformed a control group on memory tests and felt more alert throughout.
Try this: Buy a plant or two for your windowsill, so you can pluck a branch to smell while you're studying or memorizing something for work.
4) Sniff essential oils to soothe menstrual cramps
A 2006 study in Korea divided women with intense menstrual cramps into three groups. One group received a daily 15-minute abdominal massage with essential oils for 1 week before their periods, another group got the same massages without fragrance, and the last group received no therapy. Those in the aromatherapy group reported that their discomfort decreased by half.
Try this: Add 2 drops of lavender oil, 1 drop of clary sage oil, and 1 drop of rose oil to an almond oil base and massage into your abdomen once a day for a week before your period.
5) Sniff peppermint to crank up your workout
In a study at Wheeling Jesuit University, peppermint vapors gave college basketball players more motivation, energy, speed, and confidence. Some athletes use peppermint inhalers, and at one time Reebok even built a peppermint smell into some sports bras.
Try this: When you're flagging during your power walk, take an invigorating hit from the Peak Performance Sports Inhaler with peppermint vapors. ($10; sportsinhaler.com)
6) Sniff lavender to sleep more deeply
There's a reason people have been filling pillows with lavender flowers for centuries: Earlier research demonstrated that lavender increases deep slow-wave sleep, and recent studies from England and Korea show that the flower also helps people with mild insomnia.
Try this: Spritz your bedpost with lavender essence just before bed.
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