The Nose Knows—So Does the Rest of the Body
This has been a week of amazing revelations from cutting-edge science, which have validated principles enshrined in naturopathic medicine.
Earlier, I reported that sulforaphane, a potent antioxidant chemical in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, has recently been shown to significantly improve some of the most troubling symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Today, I’m going to relate some amazing new research which suggests that there is a previously unsuspected physiological basis for the supposed health benefits of aromatherapy.
As the name implies, aromatherapy is the time-honored (but largely scoffed at) practice of using scents to induce beneficial effects in the body and mind. Massage therapists, for example, have long used aromatic compounds, such as sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, cedar wood, rosemary, etc., to induce relaxation and/or invigoration. Some of these effects have been investigated. For example, scientists have noted that certain natural scents, such as pine and cedar, appear to trigger relaxation in blood vessels, yielding lower blood pressure. This preliminary research suggests that a walk in a pine forest is literally good for your cardiovascular health. Just by breathing pine-scented air, your blood pressure drops.
Sure, these aromatics are pleasant, and many have been valued for centuries for various purposes. But until now, no one has really shown how pleasant scents could directly affect human physiology.
The sense of smell is one of the oldest of all senses. It’s enabled by specialized olfactory receptors in the nasal cavities. Humans have about 350 different receptors for various aromatic chemicals. These receptors act like locks. Borne on air currents, specific scent molecules interact with these receptors like keys fitting in locks. When engaged, the receptors trigger a signal that travels to the brain. There the information is interpreted as “rose” or “pine,” etc. As it turns out, our sense of smell is far inferior to that of dogs and other animals, which rely on scent for survival. But we’re still capable of identifying thousands of scents.
And now scientists have discovered that these olfactory receptors are found not only in the nose. They’re also located on cells throughout the entire body, on tissues as diverse as those comprising the skin, liver, and intestines. What’s more, investigators showed that one scent—sandalwood—is capable of promoting faster wound healing.
That’s remarkable for any number of reasons. Sandalwood has been treasured for centuries. It’s long been used in folk medicine, although there was heretofore no scientific basis for its beneficial properties. The remarkable new research shows that it’s time we start taking aromatherapy far more seriously. It truly can promote healing.
Daniela Busse, Philipp Kudella, Nana-Maria Grüning, Günter Gisselmann, Sonja Ständer, Thomas Luger, Frank Jacobsen, Lars Steinsträßer, Ralf Paus, Paraskevi Gkogkolou, Markus Böhm, Hanns Hatt, Heike Benecke. A Synthetic Sandalwood Odorant Induces Wound Healing Processes in Human Keratinocytes via the Olfactory Receptor OR2AT4. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/JID.2014.273