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The Power of Scent on Sleep

How fast do you fall asleep at night? Are you the type that dozes off as soon as your head hits the pillow? Or do you lie in bed, flopping around, adjusting your blanket, until eventually you’re comfy enough to drift off? All sorts of factors influence how quickly you fall asleep. One of the most crucial being your state of mind. If you're preoccupied, restless, or consumed by stressful thoughts, surrendering to dreamland won’t come easily.


Your sense of smell is powerful: One inhale can rocket you to another time and place. That’s because emotions are intertwined with your olfactory sense; and certain stimuli are able to produce powerful sleep effects too. In holistic medicine, and science studies, essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, and chamomile have consistently shown positive results, when used to induce sleep.


A recent study from the University of British Columbia discovered that "sleeping with a partner's scent improves sleep efficiency,” and according to Marlise Hofer, the study's main researcher, the effect is similar to taking melatonin supplements. Details of the study involved putting 155 people under observation. Each was given two tee shirts, meant to cover their pillows with before bedtime. One shirt had their romantic partner's scent, and the other, a scent of a stranger, or was clean. Additionally, participants were monitored by an actigraphy sleep watch, which measured movements throughout the night. Afterwards, participants detailed their quality of sleep.


According to the study's senior author, Frances Chen, subjects who inhaled their partner's scent, “experienced less tossing and turning." As opposed to stressful thoughts keeping you awake, researchers found the scent of a romantic partner helped subjects to recall relaxing associations. So calming were these thoughts, they created a cozy safe feeling, naturally conducive to sleeping. This new insight may also be helpful in other situations, such as bringing a partner's shirt with you, when traveling alone. Researchers are also studying the effect of a parent's scent, to determine whether infants may also experience improved sleep quality.


Taking the power of scent and sleep a step further, it seems the combination creates a type of synergistic effect that may increase your capacity to learn. According to a study in Neuroscience News, performed at the University of Freiburg, linking a particular aroma or fragrance while studying, and then carrying it over to sleep, serves to intensify the brain's ability to convert information into long term memory; this works because of something called the olfactory bulb, located in your brain’s limbic system, where scent is processed, along with emotional functions, such as feelings and memories.


How did it work? The study, conducted by author and teacher Franziska Neumann, involved 54 6th grade students in Germany. One group was told to keep rose scented incense sticks on their desk as they studied English vocabulary. Then, participants were asked to keep those same scented sticks on a bedside table, while sleeping. Meanwhile, in a different group, students placed the rose sticks next to them while taking a vocabulary test. Results were contrasted with students who hadn't used the rose scent at all. The result? Researchers discovered the group using scent for both learning and sleeping experienced approximately a 30 percent learning increase, plus strengthened memory.


On a practical level, this study is groundbreaking because researchers previously thought benefits would only occur if a scent was present during specific phases of sleep, (which made it inaccessible for the public). However, this new insight proved illuminating, since it proved that scent could be used throughout the night and still be effective. If you’d like to try this at home, it needn't be roses, you're inhaling. Fragrance is powerful. Choose one that evokes a positive response for you. And use it to enhance sleep, learning, or both.



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