There are heavenly smells and hellish smells, but did you know that some scents are proven to improve memory and concentration, and relieve stress? Ancient civilizations believed certain aromas kept evil spirits away, but before you dismiss their beliefs as so much mumbo-jumbo, let's see what modern science says on the subject.
In ancient times the Egyptians and Greeks burnt fragrant woods and leaves to release the essential oils that give a plant its characteristic smell. These days the precious oils are distilled, extracted or pressed from the parent plant, and are more concentrated. Let's examine the evidence for the beneficial effects of three of today's most common essential oils: lemongrass, lavender and rosemary.
Historically, oils such as tea tree, lemongrass and myrrh have been used for their antiseptic properties, but other than anecdote is there any proof? Yes, there is. The Journal of Applied Microbiology reports on a controlled trial testing the antimicrobial properties of 52 different essential oils against a range of bacteria. The essential oils were pitted against some pretty stiff opposition such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Staphylococci. To push things further, the oils were diluted to find the minimum amount that worked. Of those tested, the three oils most effective were lemongrass, bay and oregano, all of which maintained excellent antimicrobial properties even at dilutions below 2%.
Lavender is a popular fragrance, but apart from smelling nice, is it beneficial? Again, the answer is yes. Lavender has a reputation for calming, so scientists tested this on patients visiting the dentist's office. Two separate scientific studies assessed anxiety levels in patients in the waiting room. At random, people were exposed to the scent of lavender and the control group to no smell at all. Both studies came up with a similar result that those in the scented room had significantly lower stress levels than the control group.
In the 16th century, one writer observed: "Rosemary strengthens the brain." But in the modern day where evidence based medicine rules, can we back up this statement? Actually, yes. In 2003 a scientific study by the University of Northumbria, UK, tested the ability of 144 healthy volunteers to solve a variety of mental tests in a neutral environment. The volunteers were then exposed to the scent of rosemary and retested. When the results were compared, the scientists found the human guinea pigs in the rosemary-scented room were more alert, less stressed and had improved memory scores.
So how do essential oils work? Scientists tell us the answer lies in the physical proximity of the smell and memory centers in the brain. In effect their circuitry is so closely linked that smells hot-wire into areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, mood and concentration. Thus the positive power of essential oils can be harnessed to make us feel better, worry less and work more effectively. Something those ancient civilizations knew all along.
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