Healing your Pain through Scent

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Scent is all about chemistry and memory. Some consider smell to be the most emotionally evocative of all the senses.

America's favorite food. Focus on smell and taste to lessen your pain.
America’s favorite food. Focus on smell and taste to lessen your pain.

Smell bypasses the logical brain

I learned that the sense of smell was so incredibly important when it comes to pain reduction. When I was very young I had terrible migraines and one afternoon I was literally in the closet, in the dark, rocking back and forth. And then all of a sudden I smelled some coffee cake that my grandmother was baking in the oven! The smell drifted up the stairs.  I didn’t know if it was even possible – the wonderful aromas insinuated into the closet and when I started to smell that comforting delicious coffee cake I actually stopped rocking. I could smell the eggs, the butter, the flour, the cinnamon, the nutmeg – all of those ingredients just came into mind. My sense of smell calmed and soothed me, and I thought about the love that my grandlavender close cmother had for me. That was a very important attachment and the sense of smell for me is something primal. It allowed my body to relax and the pain lessened.

Smell and food 

Research has shown the smell of certain foods, like green apples, for example, decreases migraine pain. Experts agree that certain odors can provoke or warn off the migraine onset. Often migraines are triggered by smells such as cigarette smoke, cooking odors, or perfumes.  Some sufferers recognize various scents as part of the ‘aura’ that signals their migraine onset.

The Science of Scent Healing

As I described above, specific food odors may work with memory to ease an individual’s headache symptoms. Science has revealed that memories evoked by food smells usually pleasant and associated with a positive mood state. As such, smell has great potential for calming and soothing both body and mind. In fact, it bypasses the intellect. For example, for soothing try free smells at a local bakery.

Copy of free smells

Smell Mechanisms

Smell has the ability to affect your physiological and psychological state via two mechanisms:   

(a)   the intrinsic pharmacological properties of the odor molecule itself and

(b) contextual association and memory; we respond differently to different smells, for example, a pleasant memory of baking bread.

Contrary to expectations, research has shown humans adapt to bad smells more quickly than good smells. Note the smells around us and notice their effect. We turn off our awareness of a bad smell more quickly, which may seem as a bad strategy since bad smells alert to possible danger (poisons, toxins, old food, etc.). But humans are more sensitive to changes in the concentration of bad smells than good smells. Once we have taken in the smell information conveyed by a bad smell, we either act (avoidance) or, if we assess that it is safe for the moment, we switch off. As soon as the level of bad smell changes we are aware of it again.

This doesn’t happen with good smells, emphasizing the point that good smells have less biological significance – at least in terms of survival. Yet good scents have the ability to create changes in heart rate, respiration rate, blood oxygen, skin resilience and blood pressure.

There are lots of essential oil
There are lots of essential oil

You can easily practice aromatherapy every day. For pain reduction on the go, it can be very helpful to scent a small cloth and carry it with you in a Ziploc-type bag. Place one drop of essential oil on a cotton ball, put it under your nose, to inhale normally for one to two minutes. Or use fresh herbs, a scented body cream, perfume, or sachets of whatever smell is comforting to you. The scent you pick will probably work best if it is a naturally occurring smell.

Universal healer

Some plants have very soothing properties and may be useful to carry for that reason – like lavender, considered a universal healing scent. Others may evoke a particularly happy time or feeling, like an ocean aroma. While breathing deeply, gently waft the cloth near your nose from time to time. Do not hold it directly over your nose, or breathe the aroma of the cloth constantly. The idea is to soothe rather than overwhelm.


Aromatherapy all work to ease pain.

A diffuser is an effective way to unleash essential oils into the air and they vary a great deal in price and type.  If you don’t have one you can drip oil into a bowl of steaming hot water using one or two drops of one oil at a time. Stand a few feet away and take 10 deep breaths, then breathe normally.

When buying essential oils it is best to use 100% pure organic oils that are free of fillers, pesticides, and synthetic chemicals. Therapeutic grade or steam distilled oils are even better.

Don’t eat them

To be on the safe side don’t consume essential oils. The practice of consuming essential oils is dangerous and is designed to be done under the care of an aromatherapist trained in that form of therapy.

Most essential oils have long shelf lives, more than a year if stored in a cool, dry place. Do not store them in the sun. Use brown jars to store.

When possible learn about the scents you like and use the botanical name when ordering. The botanical name tells the genus and species of the plant and includes information about the variety, cultivar, chemotype, and hybrid. These details are the difference between a healing essential oil and one that is not.

It is safest with pain relief to use the tried and true essential oils. Avoid those that are not the common essential oils used historically in aromatherapy. Simply, unless you understand the complex chemistry behind scent, it is best to stick with the commonly used essential oils.

Get your free book on aromatherapy!

Remove the word chronic from pain….

Pain free at last


Good ted talk on smell

What a smell looks like

Science is perception: what can our sense of smell tell us about ourselves and the world around us?

Common Scents: Chemistry of Smell


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