If you’re feeling stressed, take heart: what you smell may help you relax. “The part of the brain that processes odors is very close to the [part that houses] emotions and memories,” explains Pamela Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. When you sniff something you like, you tend to breathe more deeply, your blood pressure lowers and your heart rate slows—all of which help release pent-up tension. What’s more, some scents may even soothe pain or help you eat less. Try these four “scent-ual” strategies:
1. Inhale lavender. In one 2010 study, British researchers randomly assigned 340 dental patients to one of two groups. In the first, they diffused lavender oil with a ceramic candle warmer before the start of morning and afternoon clinics. For the second group, researchers replaced the lavender oil with water. Their findings: the group exposed to the lavender scent reported significantly lower anxiety levels. And if it works during dental appointments, who’s to say it can’t work during other stressful times?
2. Cut into a coconut. When you’re stressed, the scent of coconut may blunt your natural “fight or flight” response, slowing your heart rate. People who breathed in coconut fragrance in a small pilot study at Columbia University saw their blood pressure recover more quickly after a challenging task. The researchers speculate that inhaling a pleasant scent enhances alertness while soothing our response to stress.
3. Sniff an apple. If you like the smell of green apples, embracing their aroma may help alleviate headaches, according to preliminary research. In one small study, people with chronic migraines reported some pain relief after inhaling green-apple fragrance at the start of a headache.
4. Pack some peppermint. Overwhelmed by decadent holiday buffets? A little peppermint may help you stave off the urge to overdo it. When researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia evaluated hunger levels of peppermint sniffers versus nonsniffers, they found that those who wafted peppermint oil under their nose every two hours rated their hunger level lower, experienced fewer cravings and ate significantly less. “While the greatest effect from peppermint comes through inhaling the scent, peppermint gum, mints and flavored water have been found to produce similar effects,” says Bryan Raudenbush, Ph.D., lead researcher and associate professor of psychology.