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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hernacki

Sniff your way to a healthier brain.

Man sleeping with aroma therapy device nearby

We all know how powerful our sense of smell is. One whiff of fresh coffee in the morning gets your blood pumping. The scent of apple pie floods your brain with memories of your mom’s kitchen. A puff of perfume applied to a letter brings a loved one close, though they may be miles away. 

Well, today scientists are harnessing the power of smell to dramatically improve people’s brain health. 

For years, scientists have known that losing your sense of smell is associated with many neurological and psychiatric diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and alcoholism. But in a study conducted through the University of California Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, neuroscientists recorded a 226% increase in cognitive capacity when a fragrance was wafted through the bedrooms of older adults for two hours every night for six months. That’s a huge improvement, and doesn’t require anything more of you than just going to sleep. 

How does this therapy produce such dramatic results? Investigators note that all the other senses are routed through the thalamus before going to the brain. Smell, however, is connected directly to the brain’s memory circuits, so the effect is stronger and more immediate. While the effects are more dramatic in older people, the evidence suggests aromatherapy can have benefits for people of all ages.

You may be surprised to learn that your nose has over 400 smell receptors, capable of identifying billions — some scientists say trillions — of different aromas. Since most smells consist of many different components (as in the air of a busy restaurant), the challenge is to isolate which smells produce the best effects. For that reason, researchers diffused only seven different smells in the study. And it appears that inhaling the scents for as little as two hours a night produces the benefit without your having to take time out of your busy day.

If you’ve had COVID and experienced the brain fog it produces, or if you’ve noticed your memory slipping lately, you might want to look into trying a diffuser at home. There are plenty of products on the market, so it’s best to talk to your doctor or a psychologist before buying anything. 

Dr. Mark Moss, head of the Department of Psychology of Northumbria University in England, cautioned people to not expect a definite improvement soon. Of those who participated in the study, about half improved their memories after six months. Even so, Dr. Moss says “use of aromatherapy for a couple of hours a night is something worth trying, and it can help with sleep quality as well as potentially on memory.”

If all you have to do to get a healthier brain is sniff, why not give it a try? You could sleep better and wake up smarter!



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