So, what explains this strong connection? Well, the olfactory bulb — a structure in the front area of our brain — is responsible for how we process smells. Smells are directly sent to the amygdala region of the brain responsible for processing emotional experiences and the hippocampus region of the brain responsible for associative learning. When you look at our other senses, like sight and touch, none of them quite as strong of a link to these specific areas of the brain.
This occurs with smells, but if the smell is also something you eat, the connection is even stronger. When you eat, the tiny molecules of food can travel into your nasal passage and cause an overlap in what our brain thinks is taste and what our brain thinks is smell. If you’re ever tried to eat when you have a congested nose, you may have noticed that food tastes a lot blander. This is that phenomenon in action.
After reading the above, it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn that the smells of certain foods — and the fond memories associated with them — can make us crave them. For example, studies have shown that memories triggered by odors evoke more of an emotional response than memories provoked by other stimuli such as sight or sound.
You may be wondering why scent is such a strong sense. Well, it might have something to do with the fact that we develop our sense of smell in the womb and it’s one of our strongest senses in childhood. No wonder why we develop such strong emotional ties around smells and flavors! It is our strongest sense when we are creating the foundational memories that will determine our outlook on life.
This can be an amazingly powerful positive thing. But the truth is, it can also sabotage our health lifestyle goals. For example, in my functional medicine telehealth clinic, I often see patients who struggle to remove certain “comfort” foods and smells from their diet — even if those foods are triggering chronic health issues that the patient is otherwise very motivated to fix.
Luckily, after a lot of research and experience with patients, I’ve found three key ways to use scent to your advantage. Here’s how:
1. Use smells can reduce stress
If you have any scents that instantly evoke positive memories or a calming event, keep them close! Maybe lemons remind you of summers cooking with your mom, or the smell of fresh cut grass in the summer instantly reminds you of the seemingly endless summer days you spent in the backyard as a kid. Whatever it is, know that you can always access that smell and the positive feelings that come with it! Studies have found (1) that those who smelled scents that were associated with a positive memory or calming event experienced a slowing of breath and reduced stress, similar to what is seen in meditation.
2. Use scent as a secret weapon against inflammation
Studies have shown that certain smells associated with positive memories were also linked to reduced inflammation. And I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely on a mission to make sure my inflammation levels are in a healthy place. For instance, one study compared levels of TNF-a — an inflammatory signaling protein that is high in a wide range of diseases and dysfunctions — after smelling a scent associated with a good memory and after smelling a neutral scent. Researchers found that the levels of TNF-a were significantly lower (2) after being exposed to the emotional-associated scent. If you have a scent that you love and that feels powerful, keep it around and let it be your secret inflammation-fighting weapon.
Certain smells can no doubt trigger intense cravings, but interestingly enough, certain scents can also curb cravings. While this has less to do with odor-evoked memory, studies have shown that specific essential oils — grapefruit in particular — can help reduce cravings. This can be seen through its ability (3) to activate sympathetic nerve activity to facilitate lipolysis which can inhibit weight gain.
So, next time you catch a whiff of a nostalgic scent — for me, it’s the smell of tires, which evokes memories of trips to the auto shop with my dad on a random weekend — breathe it in and take advantage of it’s stress-reducing, craving-crushing, and anti-inflammatory benefits!
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