Mind & Spirit

Holiday scents that can help your health

By: Ylva Van Buuren

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Holiday scents that can help your health

By: Ylva Van Buuren
For Joy Watson, a certified aromatherapist instructor in Guelph, Ont., the holidays truly begin when boxes of sweet-smelling tangerines start showing up in grocery stores.

"When I was a kid in the early '40s it was a thrill to get a tangerine in my Christmas stocking. Having a bowl in the kitchen now takes me back to that magical time." Even today, she says, when she thinks of Christmases past, "one of my greatest recollections is how I felt when I received my first bicycle when I was 10 years old; it was my brother's old bike and my dad had cut the crossbar off, cleaned it up and painted it. I was so excited."

Few things stir up the holiday spirit more than different scents. "They take you back to when and where you smelled the scent in the first place," says Watson, "and all the emotions, memories and feelings you were having at the time."

Our sense of smell (called olfaction) is intimately connected to the part of the brain that triggers emotional memory, says Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I., and author of The Scent of Desire (HarperCollins, 2007). "Before you even have a chance to figure out what the smell is, you have an immediate emotional response." Herz says research has shown that our responses to smells are learned. "The way an odour makes us feel and the way we respond to it has to do with how we first experienced the smell."

At the same time, there is folklore about different aromas, and aromatherapy claims that different scents provide health and healing benefits, too.

Here is a guide to common holiday aromas, how to get them into your home and what they may do for you.

Christmas trees

Putting up the Christmas tree is a wonderful holiday tradition, and the woodsy aroma of fresh pine or other evergreens fills the home for days. In studies by Dr. Alan Hirsch, a psychiatrist and neurological director at The Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the smell of fresh pine "evoked feelings of nostalgia," he says, "and 84 per cent of the time, these feelings were associated with a positive mood."

At home
Buy a real Christmas tree or wreaths for mantels, doors and staircases. If you have an artificial tree, spray or diffuse a pine aroma. Diffusers, sold in drugstores, department and specialty stores, range from candle diffusers, to electric (plug-in) ones, to lamp rings (which use the heat from a lightbulb to heat and diffuse the oil). Always follow the directions that come with diffusers and essential oils.

Page 1 of 3 -- Learn why cinnamon, cloves and eucalyptus are a treasured holiday scent on page 2
Cinnamon has a sweet, spicy aroma and is considered a "warm" spice, says Herz. It causes a feeling of warmth and cosiness, which enhances the memories you have associated with it. "Warm" spices such as cinnamon actually bring blood from the centre of the body toward the skin. This action disperses blood throughout the body more evenly, which may decrease blood pressure. When it's diffused, cinnamon is also thought to act as a fumigant and to clean the air.

At home: Bake holiday cinnamon-spiced cakes and cookies, sprinkle cinnamon on top of eggnog and use cinnamon sticks in mulled wine, hot chocolate and coffee. Use potpourri, mister sprays and candles that contain cinnamon.  

The powerful spicy-sweet aroma of cloves is a favourite during holidays in Scandinavian countries. Dr. Johan Lundstrom, a doctor of neuropsychology at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, researches how odours affect us. He grew up in Sweden and says, "we have a tradition there, where we stick cloves through the skin of an orange. Today, the odour of cloves always takes me back to Christmas memories and doing that with my mother. It's a joyful memory for me."

Using a preparation of cloves topically is a remedy for easing tooth pain, and aromatherapists often use the essential oil to reduce drowsiness, irritability and headaches. But clove oil can burn the skin, so use only one drop blended with a teaspoon of vegetable oil. 

At home: To make your own orange-cloves ball, buy oranges and stick whole cloves through the skin, covering the entire orange or making a holiday pattern. Put the aromatic balls in bowls around the house or attach ribbons and hang the oranges.

Maryann McKinnon, 45, of Ottawa, who lost her mother a few years ago, has poignant childhood memories of her mom making holiday centrepieces with pinecones, brightly coloured baubles and small branches of eucalyptus. "When I smell cool, refreshing eucalyptus today, I always think of her." Eucalyptus, considered an uplifting scent, is also often used to relieve symptoms of respiratory problems such as nasal congestion, sore throat and colds, says Sara Rankin, a registered aromatherapist at Aromatica, a school in Lions Head, Ont., for natural therapies and holistic study.   

At home: Buy Christmas wreaths that contain eucalyptus, or make your own. Eucalyptus is in many skin and bath products and potpourri. To make a massage-oil blend, add two or three drops of eucalyptus essential oil and two drops of lavender oil in one teaspoon of vegetable oil.

Page 2 of 3 -- Discover how ginger, peppermint and citrus scents can add to your home's festive holiday cheer on page 3
Studies by Hirsch have shown that the sweet oriental smell of ginger in baked goods can elicit feelings of nostalgia. Dried ginger has been used for centuries to treat stomachaches and nausea, and there are many teas today that contain ginger. 

At home:
Making (and decorating) a gingerbread house with kids is a delicious holiday tradition. Ginger is also a popular scent in skin products and items such as candles and misters.

The sweet, sharp aroma of oranges, tangerines and mandarins is both relaxing and mood-enhancing. Rankin also notes that the scent of citrus helps make people feel more awake and alert.  

At home:
Make mulled wine with grated orange rind or simmer orange peel in a pot with cinnamon sticks to warm the spirit. Try Bliss Booster, one of three Scentology fragrances that Herz developed. It's a particular citrus scent that has been shown in studies to make people feel happy. For more information about the benefits of certain scents, visit Scentology's website at www.scentology.com.

Peppermint has a powerful minty-fresh fragrance. There is a lot of data that shows mint is a smell that evokes an invigorating response, says Herz. Ingested, mint teas and peppermints help digest heavy foods. The aroma is also thought to be stimulating and energizing. Many foot-soothing creams contain mint.

At home:
Hang candy canes on the tree. Mini candy canes make great coffee stirrers and crushed candy canes can be used as a topping for cakes or brownies.

Sage has a floral earthy aroma. Sage tea is soothing to the nerves and can help relieve congestion. Sage is often used in smudging, which is a Native American tradition of cleansing away negative energy with smoke from various herbs or resins.

At home: The cooking aromas of a traditional Christmas dinner are unmistakable – especially the stuffed turkey that roasts in the oven for hours. While every family has its own favourite stuffing recipe, many of those recipes include sage.

Does partaking in all the Christmas festivities ever make you feel like you're giving and getting too much? Read about how to reduce gift giving in your home.

This story was originally titled "Scents and Sensibility" in the December 2007 issue.

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Mind & Spirit

Holiday scents that can help your health