Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Making sense of scents

Can a fragrance make you seem thinner? Researchers are working to determine how aromas affect thought processes

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Can a bottle of designer perfume make you thinner?

A researcher in Chicago says spicy floral fragrances make men think the women wearing them are thinner than they really are.

Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, calls the results "the olfactory equivalent of vertical lines."

Not everyone thinks fragrance smells sweet. For people who suffer fragrance sensitivity, asthma, allergies or multiple chemical sensitivities, odors and aromas like perfumes, gasoline, potpourri and car exhaust can prompt sometimes disabling health problems, including:
• Headaches, including migraines
• Dizziness or lightheadedness
• Nausea and vomiting
• Fatigue
• Difficulty breathing
• Difficulty concentrating
• Anaphylaxis
• Cold or flu-like symptoms
• Asthma attacks
Some popular essential oils and their uses in aromatherapy:
Chamomile: Eases stress, promotes sleep.
Geranium: Eases depression and lethargy.
Jasmine: Uplifting, promotes sleep, eases depression.
Neroli: Eases anxiety and depression, promotes sleep.
Orange: Uplifting, promotes creativity, eases depression and anxiety.
Peppermint: Antibacterial, analgesic, eases mental fatigue, relieves headaches.
Rose: Harmonizing, uplifting, eases stress and depression.
Rochelle Bloom of the Fragrance Foundation says these perfumes fall into the "spicy floral" fragrance category that a study says makes men think women are thinner
• 24, Faubourg
• Boucheron
• Allure
• Sensi
• Lady Stetson
• Chloe Narcisse
• Passion
• Escape
A trip to the gym might be more effective than a shopping spree at the perfume counter, most experts advise. Nevertheless, the Chicago study is part of a growing interest in how odors and fragrances affect the body and mind.

For instance:

• A smell test is used today to diagnose Alzheimer's disease.

• A group of Cincinnati researchers is trying to find ways to treat smell disorders caused by injury and disease.

• Interest in aromatherapy - and the use of aromatherapy products -- continues to boom.

Jackie Spears, 27, of West Chester, usually wears Clinique's Happy. "I've worn it for years," she says. "It's just a really fresh scent."

Some days, she needs a little boost, and that's when she brings out the extra ammunition: a mix of rose and tangerine essential oils she blends herself.

"Usually when I choose to wear the oils instead of my perfume, it's because I'm having trouble getting up in the morning or I'm not feeling so well," Spears says.

Tangerine and other citrus scents are believed to lift spirits. Rose is a soothing, old-fashioned scent that just feels goods.

"It always reminds me of my grandmother," Spears says. "Something in her makeup chest or her perfume always smelled of rose."

Drop a quick 12 pounds

Hirsch's study was straightforward, he says. A female volunteer applied several different scents, approached men at different events, and asked them to guess her weight.

None of the scents had any effect on their guesses until the volunteer tried what Hirsch and colleagues described as a "floral-spice mixture." Men who found the scent appealing guessed the woman weighed 12 pounds less than she actually did, Hirsch says.

Other scents, including a citrus-floral mix and a mix of sweet pea and lily of the valley fragrances, had no effect on weight perception.

"When we tried the same thing, having women estimate the woman's weight, there was no effect at all," Hirsch says.

Researchers weren't sure whether the women were too sophisticated at estimating a person's weight to be fooled by a pretty smell, or if men are easily influenced by the way a woman smells, he says

"If you smell good, we perceive you are good. If you smell bad, we perceive you're bad. And if we think you're good, we assume you weigh less," Hirsch says.

It's also possible that the men were aroused by the fragrance, he adds. "If you're aroused, you tend to view things in a more optimistic way," he says. "Or if it put them into a positive mood state, everything would look better."

Rochelle Bloom, president of the Fragrance Foundation in New York, knows a lot about what smells good. Her reaction to Hirsch's research: "I'm going to have to get a whole bottle of it and see what my husband says."

If fragrance influences a person's perception of body image, Hirsch argues, it's possible it could be used to treat people with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders. Use of a pleasing scent could help such people gain a healthier body image, Hirsch says.

Scent also could be used to stimulate or control appetite, since the aroma of food (or the lack of it - who's hungry when they have a cold?) is a strong trigger for eating.

Not all agree

Some experts say Hirsch's research smells fishy. One scientist calls Hirsch "that charlatan in Chicago," and questions the methodology and conclusions of his studies.

But no one argues that fragrances, odors, aromas and just plain smells influence memory, behavior and emotions.

At the University of Cincinnati, researchers are looking for ways to better diagnose and understand why some people lose their sense of smell.

At UC's Smell and Taste Lab, Dr. Robert Frank and colleagues are developing what Frank calls "an eye chart for the nose."

"What it has turned out to be difficult to do is to tell someone whether they have a normal sense of smell," Frank says.

It's common for people's sense of smell to diminish as they get older, and loss of sense of smell is one of the early warning signs of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Scientists want to know whether the deficit is caused by a problem with the smell receptors or by an inability to access the memories that identify different fragrances.

Some diagnosticians use a "scratch and sniff" test to determine the extent of impairment of Alzheimer's patients. They ask patients to sniff a variety of common fragrances - things like coffee, gasoline or talcum powder - and identify the scents.

Culture matters, too

It's difficult for people of all ages and abilities to name smells and for someone who's memory is deteriorating, it's especially difficult. Children also have difficulty coming up with names of scents; American culture emphasizes teaching youngsters colors, Frank says, but not odors.

"There are also cultural issues. When we give the test to our Chinese graduate students and say, does that smell like pizza, they don't know what pizza is supposed to smell like," he says.

So UC researchers are testing what they call a "very simple" sniff test.

"We measure somebody's sniffs as they smell different things," Frank says. "If you can smell and you smell something unpleasant, you cut your sniff short. Anybody can do that, a kid or somebody who's older or who's got memory problems."

Many diseases and injuries can damage a person's ability to smell. Head injury is the most common cause, says Dr. Alan Seiden, an ear, nose and throat specialist with University ENT Specialists. If the injury is severe enough to tear nerve fibers, the patient probably won't recover his or her sense of smell, Seiden says.

Viral infections also can damage the olfactory nerve, sometimes permanently.

And colds, allergies and structural defects within the nose, including polyps and twisted septums, can impair a person's ability to smell, says Dr. Robert Kratz, a Florence ENT and allergy specialist.

Strong trigger

Scent is probably the strongest trigger of memory and emotions. The olfactory nerve, which manages the perception of smells and odors, provides a direct link from smell receptors at the top of the nose to the portion of the brain that integrates memory, emotion and behavior.

There's little wonder, then, that a whiff of perfume stirs a recollection of a first love or that the waxy fragrance of crayons instantly transports us to our second-grade classroom, says Dr. Marvin Rorick, a neurologist with Riverhills HealthCare.

Receptors in the limbic center of the brain compare odors entering the nose to odors stored in the memory. Along the way, memories associated with those odors are stimulated, Rorick says.

"The limbic system allows those matches to occur, and the associative memory is attached to other things. That's how the second grade is attached to the odor of the crayons," he says.

The limbic system that integrates memory, emotion and behavior includes the hypothalamus, a kind of central processing structure linking physical function, memory and regulatory functions.

Smell is thought to be the oldest sense, in terms of human evolution, which might explain why it is "hard-wired" into the brain.

It's also significant that the olfactory nerve is among two of the cranial nerves that serve only a sensory function. Neither the olfactory nerve nor the optic nerve, which are both essentially direct extensions of the brain, carry any motor, or movement, impulses. The other 10 cranial nerves carry both motor and sensory messages.

Healing scent?

Some people believe scent can heal stress and other sources of disease.

Kristen Caudill, 31, of Westwood, makes custom blends of aromatherapy and essential oils for clients complaining of stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and chronic pain.

"I have a lot of people come in wanting stress-relief blends," says Caudill, a certified clinical aromatherapist who works at Whatever Works Wellness Center in Silverton.

Before she starts customizing a remedy, she talks to the client about what the problem is, looks up the oils suggested for treatment, and then asks the client to pick out three or four they find appealing. From there, she adds and subtracts and tweaks until she finds a blend that works.

Lavender - reputed to ease stress, promote sleep and fight infection - is one of the best known aromatherapies. Citrus oils are believed to promote calm and uplift the spirit.

Caudill's own stress-relief lotion contains lavender, ylang ylang, sandalwood and geranium rose.

Fashionable fragrances reflect a nation's moods, Bloom says. During the prosperous 1990s, flirty, frivolous scents were in vogue.

"Everyone had money in their pocket and everyone felt flirty," she says.

After Sept. 11 and the subsequent economic downturn, traditional fragrances - the kind our mothers wore - regained their popularity.

"The classics have come back in a big way since 9-11," Bloom says. Miss Dior and Diorissimo are being reintroduced, as are other classics.

"I think it's comfort. Everyone's become more conscious of family and staying home and wanting what's familiar and safe," she says. "Before 9-11, nobody wanted what their mother wore. We rejected it. We wore what was fun and new.

"Fragrance is powerful. It reminds us of things, and either they're good or they're bad, but it does carry memories. Now it's perfectly fine to wear what mom wore."


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