Scientists say that humans can distinguish over 10,000 different odor molecules. Turns out, while it doesn’t require any conscious thought, our ability to pick up on a scent involves a sensitive and complex function that has powerful effects on our memory and behavior. How else can I explain how one whiff of pumpkin immediately conjures up thoughts of trick-or-treating and holiday gatherings? Scientists dedicated to tracking the complex relationship between smells, our behavior, and our moods have found that certain scents trigger feelings, including those that help us relax and fall asleep and those that perk us up and keep us alert and focused.
Sleep and Relaxation
Looks like I’m not the only one tossing and turning—according to the National Sleep Foundation, over 60 percent of Americans get less than eight hours per night, and over 40 percent say they’re too tired to perform well at work at least a few days each month. Once I’m asleep, I’m totally out (I once slept through a smoke alarm), but it’s the getting there that’s a consistent problem. Smell experts claim the sense of smell offers a natural and cheap solution to the sleep dilemma.
A Wesleyan University study linked the smell of lavender to improved quality of sleep. The study, supported by the Sense of Smell Institute (yes, there is such an institute) showed that certain scents increased the length of time people spent in deep sleep—the most restful and restorative phase in our sleep cycle. Lavender proved to help both men and women get more meaningful shut-eye, but the effect was heightened in women. “This better sleep ability may be due to the effects of reproductive hormones in women,” says Dr. Namni Goal, the study’s lead researcher. Before Dr. Goal’s experiments, sleep experts were unsure of lavender’s power to improve sleep, but her study validated the connection. In addition to helping those of us who just want a little extra help getting our eight hours, the study also showed that lavender helps people who are depressed and having abnormal sleeping difficulties.
Not a fan of lavender? Another study, conducted by Dr. Bryan Raudenbush at Wheeling Jesuit University, showed that subjects sleeping in a room with a faint jasmine scent slept more peacefully and felt better rested the next day.
Waking Up and Staying Up
Even when I do get a solid eight hours of sleep, there are still days when I just can’t shake the tired feeling, especially when that three-o’clock-slump rolls around. In an effort to shed some light on this problem, scent researchers have also tested whether there are particular smells that’ll give us an extra boost in the morning or midday. Lucky for us, it looks like there are such smells. (Alas, a girl can have only so much coffee before it just stops working.)
Good news for me (and bad news for my corner coffee shop), it looks like peppermint and lemon have the power to lure us into a state of alert productivity, similar to that of a good cup of java. A study conducted by Dr. Hoel Warm and William Dember showed that workers who got an occasional whiff of peppermint performed better on tasks that required sustained attention.
Japanese companies have already tapped into this in hopes of increasing workers’ moods and productivity. Workplaces have begun providing office aromas through a computerized odor delivery system built into the air conditioning (I kid you not, this is straight from the Sense of Smell Institute). And it’s worked—workers reported increased efficiency in their routine jobs. Warm and Dember also tested the power of peppermint on long-haul truck drivers who (you guessed it) found that the scents, sent through their truck’s air conditioning system, did perk them up on long journeys.
Lemon has also proven powerful with similar alertness-inducing effects. Studies (conducted in both labs and real world scenarios by the Sense of Smell Institute) showed that people exposed to lemony, woody fragrances early in the morning felt an increase in mental stimulation. When the same people were exposed to a floral scent later in the day, they reported an improvement in their concentration. Lemon has also been tested on clerical workers, who made fewer errors after inhaling faint hints of it.
Whether it’s peppermint, lavender, jasmine, or lemon, it seems to me that it’s at least worth testing these out with candles or essential oils (and if sleep’s what you’re after, oil is probably the safer option). Me? I’ve never been much of a lavender girl, but jasmine oil has definitely left me feeling a little more relaxed, and a whiff of lemon in the afternoon does make me refreshed. Whether it’s just a placebo effect or not, I don’t know, but feeling rested when I need to and staying alert when I’ve gotta be—sans sleeping pill addictions, gross-tasting energy drinks, or creepy noise machines—is a worthy investment.
My coffee habit? Well, it’s gonna take a lot more than lavender to kick that one.