Health Curiosities

Holiday Scents That Can Help Your Health

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. Before you even have a chance to figure out what the smell is, you have an immediate emotional response. The way an odor 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.

Cinnamon has a sweet, spicy aroma and is considered a "warm" spice. 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. 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.

Holiday centrepieces with pinecones, brightly coloured baubles and small branches of eucalyptus, can stir childhood holiday memories for some of us. Eucalyptus, considered an uplifting scent, is also often used to relieve symptoms of respiratory problems such as nasal congestion, sore throat and colds.

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.

Studies 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.

Peppermint has a powerful minty-fresh fragrance. There is a lot of data that shows mint is a smell that evokes an invigorating response. 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.

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