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Healthy Traveler

The Nose Knows What Can Ease a Trip's Woes

September 30, 2001|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Can a whiff of the right fragrance keep you energized during a tedious drive, rejuvenate you after a long flight, coax sleep when you need it and ease travel-related stress?

Advocates of aromatherapy--which uses fragrances derived from essential oils or extracts of flowers, fruits and other natural substances for a desired effect--claim it can, even though scientific research has produced mixed findings. The right fragrances at the right time, some researchers say, can calm you, pep you up, minimize feelings of claustrophobia in crowded situations and make you a generally happier traveler.

Since ancient times, pleasing aromas have been used to induce feelings of contentment and relaxation. Modern aromatherapy products meant specifically for travelers are available in travel goods stores and online. They commonly take the form of sprays (which can be misted into the air in front of you or applied to tissue and inhaled), lotions and auto diffusion systems (such as Aeron Drive Time, Internet http://www.drivetime.net, and Hubmar's CarScenter, http://www.hubmar.com) that can be scented with essential oils and plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter.

Whether aromatherapy has a solid scientific footing depends on whom you ask and which study you read.

Recently, researchers from Munich, Germany, and Vienna tested the influence of several fragrances on the alertness of 280 subjects. Half inhaled from masks impregnated with plain water, and the others inhaled from masks impregnated with jasmine, peppermint and other oils thought to energize. To test their alertness, the subjects were instructed to push a button on a keyboard when prompted. The researchers found no significant difference in reaction times between the groups, they reported in the journal Chemical Senses. The effects of essential oils on attention, they conclude, are "mainly psychological."

But other experts disagree. "The sense of smell is the most primitive instinct," says Dr. Howard Murad, a UCLA assistant clinical professor of dermatology who markets his own skin care line, which includes aromatherapy products. "As scents are processed [in the brain], they can have an effect on the rest of the body," he says. "Nothing works for everyone, but certain scents can give you a sense of calm, energy or passion."

When essential oils are inhaled, the molecules stimulate the olfactory nerve and send messages directly into the brain's limbic area, the seat of memory, learning and emotion, according to the National Assn. for Holistic Aromatherapy. Several studies, some of them cited in the Chemical Senses article, back up the effectiveness of aromatherapy. Rosemary oil, for instance, has a stimulating effect, at least in animals, and some oils, including lavender, vanilla and citronella, have proved to have a sedative effect.

Jasmine, peppermint and citrus, like rosemary, promote wakefulness and are energizing, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist who has conducted numerous aromatherapy studies as head of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Sniffing a scent you find pleasant can reduce the frustrations of travel, Hirsch says. He has also found that some fragrances seem to quell claustrophobic feelings. In a study carried out partly to determine whether fragrance could help those who felt anxious while in an MRI scanning machine, Hirsch asked eight volunteers to sit in a 21/2-by-41/2-foot booth, breathe in 10 fragrances and rate their feelings about the size of the space.

The smell of barbecue smoke made the space seem smaller, but green apple scent made it seem larger, perhaps because it reminded subjects of being outdoors. No significant effect on space perception was reported for the eight other odors, which included vanilla, buttered popcorn and coconut. Hirsch says it makes sense that the right scents can make crowded public transportation feel less confining too.

In another study, researchers from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia found that exercisers who sniffed peppermint oil were in a better mood than those who did not and were more motivated to exercise. This finding suggests that the aroma of peppermint might be ideal to help revive a traveler after a long trip.

Unpleasant odors can increase feelings of aggression and frustration and reduce learning ability, other research indicates. Hirsch conducted a study that found an increase in behavioral problems in students at a Chicago school when the distasteful odors from a nearby mulching site were strongest. It's reasonable to conclude that other unpleasant odors, such as jet fuel smells and stale air inside crowded public transportation, would have a similar effect, Hirsch says.

Travelers who decide to give aromatherapy a try should consider a dry run, experts say, because side effects can occur. Certain aromas can trigger migraines in those prone to them, and other scents can cause allergic reactions.

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Healthy Traveler appears twice a month.

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