Smell is a prehistoric sense and an essential one for humans and animals as we all navigate our world. It lets us know whether our food is safe to eat and alerts us to the smell of fire. We encounter innumerable scents in our daily life, and our sense of smell plays a vital role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity. It also affects our sex lives: the area of the brain through which we experience smells is the olfactory lobe, part of the limbic system, the emotional brain, the area in which sexual thoughts and desires are processed. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a rapid rise in those reporting losses of smell. An article in Nature* reported that of 8,438 people with COVID-19 surveyed, 41% had reported experiencing loss of their sense of smell, with 8% experiencing a total loss (otherwise known as anosmia).
Each of us has many visual and emotional associations to certain smells and aromas. Certain fragrances evoke the memories of significant moments in time. Supermarkets channel the scent of the bakery throughout the store to trigger hunger, while certain food aromas can transport you back to a moment on holiday. Each of us will have our personal favourites, those scents which trigger memories and conjure images in our minds.
Due to the vital importance of smell, all sorts of folkloric tales speak of the remarkable medicinal properties of everyday herbs and flowers. As sleep is a sensory process, it follows that our sense of smell can have broad-ranging effects. The efficacy of using certain essential oils to improve sleep and well-being continues to be researched, and the beneficial effects of a few specific scents have already been validated by clinical research.
Lavender has a long history of medicinal use and has been proven to provide a sedative and calming effect. In a small hospital study in which lavender was used as aromatherapy, patients were shown to experience reduced daytime drowsiness and enjoyed more consistent sleep at night. It’s not just lavender; in another study, a mixture of essential oils including lavender, basil, juniper and sweet marjoram was shown to reduce sleep disturbance and improve a sense of overall well-being in older patients.
If you are not a fan of lavender but want to enjoy the same effects, try using bergamot or ylang-ylang. All three scents were shown to improve the quality of sleep for patients recovering from heart problems.
While research is needed into a wide range of other fragrances to determine their effectiveness in treating clinical conditions, aromatics have been used for mental, spiritual and physical healing since the beginning of recorded history. If a good night’s sleep is all about relaxation, soothing the senses with an aroma that evokes happiness and relaxation can only be good. Which particular scent you use is a personal choice.
Koulivand, P. H., Khaleghi Ghadiri, M., & Gorji, A., 2013. Lavender and the nervous system, Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, 2013, pp.1-10.
Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612440/#:~:text=A%20mixture%20of%20essential%20oils,in%20older%20patients%20%5B78%5D [Accessed 11 March 2021]
McDonnell, B. and Newcomb, P., 2019. Trial of Essential Oils to Improve Sleep for Patients in Cardiac Rehabilitation. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 25(12), pp.1193-1199. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31556690/ [Accessed 11 March 2021]
Chang, S. and Chen, C., 2015. Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomised controlled trial. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(2), pp.306-315. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26483209/ [Accessed 11 March 2021].
Marshall, M., 2021. COVID’s toll on smell and taste: what scientists do and don’t know. Nature, [online] Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00055-6#:~:text=How%20many%20people%20with%20COVID,had%20reported%20experiencing%20smell%20loss [Accessed 11 March 2021].