Aromatherapy is the practice of using aromatic essential oils from plants to achieve physical and psychological benefits. You can enjoy the aromas of essential oils by warming them in fragrance diffusers, or add them to gels or lotions and apply them to the skin. Do not apply undiluted essential oils to the skin as this can cause irritation.
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In 1991, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York tested the effects of five fragrances on 85 patients undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scan. Of the fragrances tested, a vanilla-like aroma, heliotropin, was rated the most relaxing. Patients exposed to the heliotropin reported 63 percent less anxiety and claustrophobia than those were not exposed to fragrance. The study prompted Sloan-Kettering to include vanilla fragrances as a standard part of MRI scans. A study at Tubingen University in Germany also revealed that vanilla reduced the startle reflex in both humans and animals. Because of its relaxing properties, vanilla scents are commonly used in bath products and candles to help promote restful sleep.
According to “Chemistry of Spices,” vanilla has been considered an aphrodisiac since the time of the Aztecs. In 1762, a study in Germany found that a medication containing vanilla cured male impotence. A study by the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found that vanilla, as well as other odors such as lavender, pumpkin pie and black licorice, produced an increase in penile blood flow in male volunteers. Vanilla was especially effective in older men.
Researchers at the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France, found that the smell of vanilla eased breathing problems and sleep apnea in premature infants. Dr. Luc Marlier and his associates added 15 drops of a vanillin solution to the pillows of 15 premature infants in the intensive care unit and monitored their respiratory rates for three consecutive days. Episodes of sleep apnea decreased by 36 percent on the first day the babies were exposed to the vanilla scent. The scientists hypothesized that the vanilla helped the infants in two ways: by directly affecting the respiratory centers in the brain, and by helping the infants adapt to stress.