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August 05, 2016
Our ability to smell is one of our most overlooked senses. Most humans process the world primarily through sight, but smell plays a more important role in our perception than most people realize. For example, our sense of smell is a critical part of our ability to taste. Fragrance can also have a powerful effect on our emotional state. Some scents that are particularly relaxing might even help you sleep better.
When we sniff, our olfactory receptors (the five million or so cells inside our nasal passages that “receive” scent molecules) communicate with our limbic system. The limbic system is widely believed to be responsible for our emotions, and it plays a crucial role in memory. That’s why a fleeting whiff of a scent can instantly take you back to childhood. For example, the scent of pine trees and red clay baking in the sun might call up memories of playing at your grandparents’ cabin by the lake. After triggering the limbic system, the “messages” relayed by scent molecules then travel to the cortex, where we identify and cognitively process the smell.
While the term “aromatherapy” didn’t emerge until the dawn of the 20th century, the concept of using scent to treat an array of ills and problems has been around for much of recorded history. Incense and resins were widely used in ancient Egyptian culture. Today, spas and fragrance oil companies often claim that essential oils have medicinal effects, but they are not regulated by the FDA and cannot be officially labeled for medicinal use in the US. However, in other countries, including France, certain essential oils are treated as prescription drugs.
Aromatherapy for sleep primarily leans on calming fragrances, like lavender and vanilla. Stimulating scents, such as those in the citrus and mint families, are not a good choice for bedtime, as they can leave you feeling wide awake. However, much of scent is subjective and the effects of a fragrance depend on your personal associations with it. This means that almost any scent that you find pleasing can have a relaxing effect.
Lavender is, by far, the fragrance most closely associated with sleep. In recent years, several studies have provided evidence to support the theory that lavender can induce and improve sleep. A 2005 study found that people who used lavender experienced deeper sleep than those who didn’t. In 2006, another study showed that lavender helped relieve insomnia, and in 2008, researchers found that a bath with lavender oil promoted better sleep in infants.
The scent of vanilla is almost universally appealing. Studies have shown that it can reduce stress and anxiety and evoke a feeling of calm, which makes it a great scent to help you wind down before bed. Another study found that participants who inhaled vanilla had healthier blood pressure and heart rates during a stress test.
Once you’ve chosen a nice, calming fragrance, there are numerous ways to diffuse the scent and reap its sleepy-time benefits. Scented candles are a good way to fragrance a room; just make sure you remember to blow them out before falling asleep. Oil diffusers, which can rely on either heat or air to circulate scent, are another good choice for dispersing fragrance throughout your sleeping space. Body products, such as lavender lotion, help keep the fragrance close and are a good choice if you don’t want to scent the entire room. Linen sprays are applied directly to your bedding and come in snooze-friendly fragrances.