Smell is an often overlooked sense, yet it is one of our most powerful. Many studies link a strong sense of smell with a better memory. And with stats showing that one person in the US develops dementia every three minutes, smell is more important than you may think.
Sitting in a Starbucks drive-thru recently, a huge cloud of freshly roasted coffee aroma enveloped my nose. Inhaling the rich, warm scent was something of a wake-up call to the brain. This reminded me of the power of our sense of smell and how it affects how we feel.
We are surrounded by odors, but unless one is particularly noxious, we tend to ignore the effects of the scents we are inhaling. And we tend to underestimate the power of certain scents to help us heal.
Let’s use coffee as an example. In experiments with laboratory rats, researchers have found that coffee aroma orchestrates the expression of more than a dozen genes and some changes in protein expressions, in ways that help reduce the stress of sleep deprivation.
We all know that feeling of having a bad taste in our mouth, or the way a stuffy nose makes even the most fragrant garlic pasta taste like cardboard. But did you know that our sense of smell and taste naturally declines as we age?
Often the change is so gradual you barely notice it. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that it can affect your health — studies find people with impaired ability to smell and taste tend to follow less healthful diets. It also puts you in danger: Your sense of smell serves as an early warning system for things like rotten food and gas leaks.
Humans detect smells because odor molecules interact with nerves in the nose that send impulses to the olfactory bulb, a structure beneath the frontal cortex at the front of the brain. The olfactory bulb also connects directly with other parts of the brain such as the amygdala that controls emotions, and higher-order regions like the prefrontal cortex, the seat of important “executive functions” like planning, thinking, organizing, and making choices.
A failing sense of smell is linked with diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and even normal aging, but why this happens is somewhat of a mystery.
Nurture your sense of smell. Let it come alive. Use the power of natural scents such as mint, lavender, lemon, chocolate and fresh apples to help you heal and connect you to memory, to emotion and to the environment around you.