Lately, my sense of smell has been fooling me. I’ve been haunted by a scent that’s not actually there. It’s kind of funky, but not awful, kind of like what I imagine a cold sweat would be.
This smell that doesn’t actually exist first appeared about a year and a half ago during a very stressful time in my life. At first, I thought it was me, but sometimes I would smell it right after I’d had a shower. I asked the people around me if they smelled what I was smelling, and no one did. Ultimately, I realized that was I was experiencing phantosmia or olfactory hallucinations.
When I realized that I was the only one detecting this smell, it kind of freaked me out. But over time I’ve come to realize that it’s a weird response to stress. I only smell it when I’m acutely stressed. When all is good, the smell is gone. Go figure.
I’m telling you about my phantom smell because it’s easy to forget that your sense of smell and your brain are connected. This connection can be a powerful tool for healing, and is the foundation of aromatherapy. In the same way that guided visualization or music supports healing through sound, and massage heals through touch, the use of scents can be therapeutic as well.
Scent can affect your brain in a variety of ways. In fact, research has shown that one of the most powerful triggers for memories is through your sense of smell. When you detect a scent, those molecules stimulate the nerves in your nose, which trigger electrical impulses in the olfactory area of your brain. Those impulses are then transmitted to the amygdala, an area of your brain where memories are stored.
In Chinese medicine, the sense of smell is used in a number of ways. Odors can be a helpful diagnostic tool. If a patient has a strong smell, it can be a tip-off to a number of conditions. If they’re sweating, the smell and nature of when and how they sweat offers up clues. If a patient’s breath has an odor, it’s up to the practitioner to determine if the smell is coming from dental problems, lung issues, or poor digestion.
Here’s a short list of some of the ways that scent, or aromatherapy, is used for healing:
- Moxibustion is a Chinese therapy that uses burning herbs to warm and increase circulation. The herb, artemisia, that’s used in moxibustion has a strong and penetrating smell, which is part of its therapeutic purpose; to warm, penetrate, and circulate.
- In Chinese herbal medicine, both the taste and scent of the herbs used are a part of the healing effect. This is most notable in the class of aromatic herbs that are prescribed to alleviate dampness, a condition of poor water metabolism.
- Mint, eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor are used in the clinic to help treat a cold or the flu. In addition, these scents are especially effective for nasal stuffiness, and may also be used in treating patients with allergies.
- Floral scents, such as rose or ylang-ylang are considered to be calming and relaxing. Lavender is well-known for its relaxing properties and ability to promote sleep.
- Citrus scents, such as orange or lemon are considered to be energizing and may be helpful in treating fatigue.
The bottom line is that what you smell can have an effect on your brain in a number of ways. While the effect of scents may be subtle they can be used to evoke strong memories, instill calm, promote sleep, energize, and support the healing process.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com