Science explains how scented candles soothe

David Heitz

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Many years ago, when I was battling severe depression, I enrolled in some daytime activities at the local mental health center to get myself out of the house. We spoke at length about coping mechanisms we could use if presented with a mental health emergency.

When most people were asked to list their coping tool of choice, “lighting a candle” came up first. It struck me odd to think that something as simple as lighting a candle could save someone from a psychiatric meltdown.

But perhaps it can lift their spirits. I burn candles for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I like my environment to smell good. I decided to look through some scientific journals and see if there’s anything to inhaled fragrances impacting your mental health.

I found an article in Scientia Pharmaceutica, an international peer-reviewed journal of pharmaceutical sciences. It confirmed some of my hunches about the power of smell.

“In the last few decades, many scientific studies were conducted to investigate the effect of inhalation of aroma on human brain functions,” according to the author. “The studies have suggested a significant role for olfactory stimulation in the alteration of cognition, mood, and social behavior.”

What happens when you smell something

The review of scientific information on fragrances was led by Kandhasamy Sowndharagan and Songmun Kim of the School of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, Kangwon National University, Korea.

“The aroma components from natural products have been used for mental, spiritual and physical healing since the beginning of recorded history,” the review explains. “In aromatherapy, fragrance substances (aroma/odor/scent) from various natural sources have been used for the treatment of various disorders. The aromatherapy treatment is a natural way of healing a person’s mind, body and soul.”

The authors go on to discuss the medical benefits of pleasant smells. “Many ancient civilizations, including Egypt, China and India, have used aromatherapy as a popular complementary and alternative therapy for more than thousands of years.

“In traditional medicine as well as in aromatherapy and herbal medicine, essential oils and fragrance compounds have been used for the treatments of various psychological and physical disorders such as headaches, pain, insomnia, eczema, stress-induced anxiety, depression and digestive problems.”

Aromatic diffusers make rooms smell nice

In addition to burning candles, I also use an aromatic diffuser. I bought it at Walmart for less than $30. Not only does it make my room smell good, but it also morphs into an impressive light show.

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My aromatic diffuser keeps my room smelling nice. Burning scented and religious candles keeps me calm.Photo/David Heitz

For those who aren’t familiar with diffusers, you simply fill the inside with a small amount of water. Make sure your device is turned off when you do this, or water may shoot you in the eye from the diffuser’s jets.

Next, add essential oil drops of your choice. Essential oils come in every scent a candle does. But sometimes you can find essential oils in groupings of unusual scents. A friend recommended a set. The scents in the pack include campfire, night air, ocean breeze, dirt, rain, and fresh-cut grass.

This set of oils cost about $16. But oils can be bought individually in just about every scent imaginable. Usually a vial costs about $5.

Each scent in the Elements pack is heavenly, in my opinion. Campfire took me to a place of blissful calm. The scent inspired feelings of calmness, relaxation, warmth, and joy.

Smells cross brain-blood barrier

Another reason people like fragrances is because the effects from smelling them are immediate. “Many studies describe that the inhalation of fragrances highly affect the brain function since the fragrance compounds are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and interact with receptors in the central nervous system,” the Korean scholars reported.

“Furthermore, many studies have suggested that the olfactory stimulation of fragrances produces immediate changes in physiological parameters such as blood pressure, muscle tension, pupil dilation, skin temperature, pulse rate and brain activity.

“Hence, the studies in relation to the role of fragrances in the brain functions of healthy and diseased subjects have significantly increased in the past decades.”

I tend to prefer scents that are stimulating, such as peppermint, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus. But my all-time favorite standby is lavender, which always brings me quick feelings of calmness.

Religious tube candles

I also enjoy the religious tube candles. These candles aren’t always scented, but I feel a connection to the various saints who adorn them.

I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years. There, a few candles at the scene of a deadly accident often would snowball into elaborate shrines containing hundreds of tube candles.

A Los Angeles Times story used one such occasion to offer a short history on religious tube candles. The newspaper quoted Sister Schodts Reed, then head of the Reed Candle Factory in San Antonio, as saying “The seven-day prayer candle complete with a picture of a saint was invented by her Mexican-born father-in-law, Peter Doan Reed, in the late 1940s,” according to the Times. “After about a decade of making standard votives, Reed, in 1947, came up with a tall jar model that could burn for seven days and bore a picture of a spiritual figure along with a prayer.”

Today, the candle company is owned by a Mexican family company, according to its website. “After 80 years, Reed Candle Company has expanded to more than two hundred employees, produces more than three hundred and fifty different candle products and is the leader in the industry of Religious Prayer Candles. Reed distributes nationally and internationally with a network of warehouses throughout the United States.

“In 2017, Veladoras Misticas, a Mexican family company, acquired Reed Candle Company. Veladoras Misticas has been in the candle business since 1994, located in Nuevo León, México with a strong presence in the export market.”

What the different saints symbolize

Many people don’t understand that the candles are meant to burn for seven continuous days. That’s why they’re enveloped in a tube.

I buy my religious candles from Walmart. You can buy a box of a dozen candles online for $21.50. You get four candles each of San Judas, the Virgin de Guadalupe, and the Sacred Heart.

Praying to San Judas is said to bring good news in areas of employment, the superstition goes. The faithful pray to Virgin de Guadalupe when grieving. "Mexican-Americans often use candles like the La Virgen de Guadalupe in homes or businesses,” the L.A. Times reported. “You light the candles especially when someone is sick or if the weather is bad and people are not all home yet. It may be a way to cope with the situation, whatever it may be.

“It's a very personal way of coping, whether it is at home or at a vigil for a person or (in a memorial for) something that happened at a certain spot."

I have a shrine of religious tube candles and an aromatic diffuser going most of the time. The flickering wicks and scintillating scents bring me comfort and happiness. I usually have a Yankee Candle or two burning, too.

Now they make candles that crackle as they burn. They’re called WoodWick and they’re a bit pricey. But team up a WoodWick crackler with the Campfire essential oil and you may feel like roasting s’mores.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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