You’ve heard that gardening is good physical exercise for the joints, but did you know that growing fragrant plants can give an emotional boost?
“Aromas can heal by enhancing our memory and changing emotions that affect the body’s stress response,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, a rheumatologist and author of Healing Spaces. “If you can identify a fragrance that reminds you of a peaceful, pleasant place and puts you in the mood to say, meditate, it can have a very positive effect.”
The olfactory sense is linked to the areas of the brain where emotion and memories are processed. So a garden or even a window box full of fragrant plants that conjure pleasant memories can be healing, explains Naomi Sachs, a landscape architect who specializes in designing restorative landscapes and gardens that promote health and well-being.
Create your own by choosing plants with whatever fragrances trigger happy memories – whether from your childhood or recent enjoyable time – then steal some moments to enjoy the aromas, she says.
Recent studies corroborate the use of aromatherapy for pain relief. “Aromatherapy is effective because it works directly on the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center,” says Mehmet Oz, MD, professor of surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “This has important consequences because the thinking part of the brain can’t inhibit the effects of the scent, meaning you feel them instantaneously.” Of the many uses of aromatherapy, pain relief is only one; anxiety reduction and rejuvenation are other common objectives.
Dr. Oz, a cardiovascular surgeon, studied aromatherapy to find alternative methods to expedite recovery time and reduce anxiety in heart patients. Dr. Oz and his collaborator, clinical aromatherapist Jane Buckle, PhD, recommend using 15 drops of an essential oil, such as lavender, chamomile or eucalyptus, diluted with 1 oz. (2 Tbsp.) of a “carrier” or neutral oil, such as almond, avocado or jojoba, dabbed directly on the skin. This means you literally have scented relief on you when you need it, says Dr. Oz.
Alan Hirsch, MD, neurologist at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, believes you don’t have to limit yourself to essential oils. Limiting the length of your exposure to certain scents, however, will ensure they remain effective. “Short-term exposure is key because people stop responding to scents after a few minutes.
To use aromatherapy for pain, relaxation, and rejuvenation, Drs. Hirsch and Oz recommend trying these scents.
Vanilla for relaxation. In the Columbia University Medical Center study, subjects who smelled vanilla while completing stress tests had more stable heart rates and blood pressure readings than those who took the tests in an unscented environment. Place a few drops of vanilla extract onto a handkerchief and carry it with you throughout the day.
Peppermint, jasmine, and citrus for recharging. These scents make you feel more awake. “Even though these scents are pleasant, they act as mild irritants and the effect is similar to that of smelling salts,” explains Dr. Hirsch. Sprinkle a few drops of the essential oil of your choice in a candle diffuser, or dilute two drops in 1 tsp. of avocado or almond oil, then rub it onto the back of your hand.
Sachs recommends making your garden a multi-tasker by planting a fragrant tree that also bears fruit, or herbs that smell great and can be used to add flavor to your meals.Try these five garden starters to get your nose and health revving:
Basil. This popular herb has a sweet aroma that can uplift moods, according to author Michael Castleman in The New Healing Herbs (Bantam Books, 2010). Feeling foggy? Basil oil also is used to sharpen concentration and relieve headaches. Add a few basil leaves to any sautéed vegetable.
Lavender. A blue-purple flower known for its calming qualities, a study at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., published in 2005 in Chronobiology, found that lavender increases the time you spend in restful deep sleep, which might help if joint pain keeps you awake. “Lavender is a multi-sensory experience,” says Sachs. “It’s a beautiful blossom, the fragrance is wonderful and it has tremendous medicinal properties to help you relax.” Place a few blossoms in a nightstand vase.
Rosemary. An herb with highly aromatic needles, rosemary has been shown in studies to increase alertness and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also has antifungal and antibacterial properties, according to research published in July 2011 Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology. Add a few sprigs to a flower arrangement in the kitchen, and use it to season anything from salmon to potatoes.
Roses. Along with the flower’s beauty, the edible fruit of the rose – the hips – packs more vitamin C than an orange, helping build collagen and connective tissue and acting as an antioxidant. What’s more, studies prove what most people already know: Flowers simply make us happy.
Mint. Of about 600 plants in the “mint” family, spearmint and peppermint may be the most popular. A whiff of peppermint scent was found to increase alertness and performance in a study from the University of Cincinnati. Brew a cup of minty tea to kick mid-afternoon drowsiness.