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Wellness and Scents

The sense of smell is generally one of our most neglected forms of energy input. Our ancestors, like the animals, depended on their noses to warn them of approaching danger. Yet most of us in the Western world have not developed our sense of smell to any great degree. It lies dormant. Other than detecting a skunk on a country road, a cloud of fumes from a passing bus, or the odors of rotting garbage, we pay little attention to the constant subtle input of olfactory information.

The sense of smell is designed to serve as both a source of warning and a source of pleasure. Food is probably the most common and most pleasurable stimulus to the sense of smell. Most of what we assume to be our sense of taste is actually our sense of smell. The six basic taste sensations of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, astringent, and pungent are combined with the wide range of smells to provide us with the sensations we experience while eating.

The olfactory portion of the brain is closely tied to the limbic system - that ancient and primitive part of the brain where emotions are felt. Often, strong feelings associated with childhood experiences can be triggered by a whiff of a long-forgotten scent. Recall the smell of your grandmother's house? Of the incense or candles in church? Of a new car? We often respond to smells of food cooking with emotional intensity and strong memories. Food on the grill? A slow-simmering soup? Sometimes a smell will generate an emotional response even though we are unaware of the specific memories associated with it.

Almost every living thing emits a scent. Along with water vapor, the skin is constantly secreting unnecessary by-products. These odors produce each individual's unique body scent. Although these scents change with emotional state, diet, and season, they remain chemical signatures. An animal mother detects her baby from a group of many similar babies based on scent.

In some cultures, it is only when two persons are within smelling distance of each other's bodies that they feel themselves to be making meaningful contact. This is an essential part of their social interchange. Sexuality is also closely tied to the sense of smell.

In our ultrahygienic culture, organic body odors are usually abhorred. We go to great lengths to cover them up with artificial scents and deodorants for underarms, genitals, or mouth - in the same way that we deodorize the bathroom, kitchen, or trash can. In our obsession with eliminating natural odors, we have surrounded ourselves with a host of new, unnatural ones made from synthetic chemicals. Many people are becoming allergic to these ubiquitous chemical scents and finding it very hard to avoid them. Symptoms can range from mild nausea to near collapse. An entire medical specialty (environmental medicine) has arisen to diagnose and treat the victims of this culturally induced malady.

As we move toward high-level wellness, we often experience our sense of smell becoming more acute. On the unpleasant side, smoke that didn't bother us before becomes offensive. If the fumes from a single car passing us on a deserted road smell horrible, imagine what effect the thousands on the freeway must be having on our bodies. We taste the sodium benzoate in bread. We are overpowered by the smells left in clothing from the scented detergent and the lingering smell left on our clothing and skin from hugging a perfumed person. When we detect these warning signals, we can choose to suffer and be discouraged that things are getting worse, or we can choose to minimize both the amount of artificial chemicals in products we choose and our exposure to these chemicals in our environment.

On the pleasant side, we can become aware of the unique scent of each of our loved ones and of our own bodies, the wonderful scents of flowers and trees calling out to us from afar, and the subtle aromas of food. A fuller appreciation of the natural fragrances of life is one of the benefits of wellness.

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