Grandma’s cookie recipe is baking in ovens all over Central New York. Evergreen boughs or whole trees go in houses. Maybe you make a fire in the fireplace or burn scented candles. However you celebrate the holidays, chances are the scents of the season will bring a flashback of emotions and memories.
All of our senses are awake during the holidays. Our eyes feast on a visible banquet of colored balls and twinkling lights. Malls and stores are packed full of holiday decorations and gift possibilities, and local radio stations are playing the songs of the season. Most likely, there will be treats for our taste buds, and our sense of touch will be employed wrapping presents, hugging family and friends, and maybe even making snowballs. But it is the smells of the season that speak to one of the most primal parts of our brain. The aromas of the holidays stay with us the longest and can bring back a flood of feelings.
Just how does our sense of smell work? Are there natural oil aromas that may benefit wellness? And why might you want to know more about aromatherapy? According to scientific research, smells and memory are intricately linked. A familiar perfume or food cooking on the stove can momentarily whisk you away to re-live past events. But why does this happen?
When we smell something, the odorants stimulate olfactory (smelling) receptor cells in our noses. These receptor cells can respond to a wide range of odors and send messages to our brain’s amygdala, which is involved in emotional learning (pairing events with emotion), and the entorhinal cortex, related to the hippocampus, involved in memory and associative learning. Recollections tied to smell can be stronger than memories elicited by other cues. Most visual memories hark back to when people were in their teens and early 20s, but the greatest number of odor-related recollections come from when we were 6 to 10 years old.
A memory triggered by smell can produce an array of emotions and entangled experiences. In this way, the smell of Christmas cutout cookies baking in the oven can remind me of our mom, her smile, how she made the same cookies with my kids, rolling out the dough, cutting out the stars, trees and candy cane shapes, and frosting them hot from the oven. All that from one whiff of cookies in the oven.
Because of the power of smells to affect us mentally and emotionally, and the physical properties of essential oils, some practitioners of integrative medicine use aromas as a form of therapy. Aromatherapy is actually herbal medicine but instead of using the entire herb, it employs the fragrant “essential oil” that is released when a fresh herb is compressed or subjected to chemical extraction. When employed medicinally, essential oils are often evaporated into the air through the use of a humidifier. The famous Vicks VapoRub is a gel form of the essential oils of peppermint, eucalyptus and camphor.
Certain essential oils may also be applied directly to the skin or clothes so they will release their odor near the patient. Researchers have studied aromatherapy as a potential treatment for cognitive (memory) impairment, tension headaches, anxiety, muscle pain, and respiratory and digestive problems.
The best way to find a qualified integrative care practitioner is to seek a referral from a health care professional. We turned to two health care providers and supplement specialists:
Joyce Appel, R.N., reiki master and reiki coordinator at Crouse Hospital, uses aromatic oils in her reiki practice. “I have found basic oils such as lavender help clients relax and be less stressed. It also has been known to help with insomnia. Citrus oils such as lemon, orange or tangerine in a diffuser can be mood elevating, which may help with the holiday mood swings. Peppermint is very versatile. It can help with pain such as headaches, muscle aches and sinus congestion.”
Cathie Aber is an R.N. and instructor at Crouse College of Nursing and certified Raindrop practitioner through the Natural Therapies Certification Board. “I typically use the oils when I do the Raindrop technique, which is a combination of Swedish massage, reflexology and some Native American practices,” she says. “I also incorporate the oils with my reiki practice and have found that they enhance the experience.”
Along with many of the aforementioned aromas, Aber cites wintergreen as having “great anti-inflammatory properties.” Essential oils can be inhaled or applied topically using various techniques and applied to different points such as temples, wrists, back of the neck and the bottom of the feet.
“They get absorbed quickly into the circulation, as they are lipid soluble,” she says. “The oils have an affinity for specific tissues and organs.”
While reiki is offered at Crouse Hospital, oils are not used unless supplied by the patient and others in the room agree to their use.
Sam Derbyshire, supplement educator at Natur-Tyme, in DeWitt, says the best-selling oils are “Young Living’s thieves oil blend. It’s antimicrobial and just plain old smells good. Lavender for stress, sleeplessness, and burn or wound healing. Rosehip seed oil to treat scars.”
Beyond the medical aspects of scents, Derbyshire says, “People love scents, and love the idea of scenting their homes without using toxic chemicals. Essential oils have always been popular to one degree or another, and I would not be surprised to have essential oils continue to pick up momentum as people become more and more aware of the ingredients in the things they use every day on their bodies and their environments.”
The next time you get a whiff of the season, thank those aroma receptors in your nose, the direct route they have to your brain and all the memories and emotions that come pouring out. Then remember that you can make great-smelling memories every day. Have a very merry, memory-packed holiday!
Marnie Blount-Gowan is a mind/body health practitioner and member of the Crouse Hospital Integrative Health Alliance.