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By Lia Blanchard

Welcome to Aromatherapy 101, a series of articles discovering the reasons for our responses – both positive and negative – to certain scents, and ways to incorporate the beauty of fragrance to enhance your quality of life.

Let’s begin with vanilla, by far the world’s most popular flavoring and scent.

Vanilla: History

The Essence of Luxury bath and body gift basket is full of vanilla-scented pleasures.

The Essence of Luxury bath and body gift basket is full of vanilla-scented pleasures.

Native to Mexico, vanilla “beans” are actually the fruit of a particular type of orchid, now grown primarily in Mexico, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Madagascar. It is estimated that 95% of vanilla products are actually produced with “vanillin” – a product synthesized from lignin, a paper manufacturing by-product that used to be thrown away. In 2006, a method was developed to synthesize vanillin from cow manure – how’s that for organic?

Entire books have been written on vanilla’s long history with mankind, from being used a currency for the Aztecs to becoming Queen Elizabeth’s favorite food flavoring, to being brought to the United States by Thomas Jefferson – the Library of Congress has a copy of his vanilla ice cream recipe.

Medicinal Uses

In traditional and modern times, vanilla has been used to treat various ailments, soothe the stress, and enhance libido. Particularly in Europe, it is often mixed into an elixir to aid digestion and calm an ups4t stomach.

While there are no known side effects of vanilla, people who handle large amounts of raw vanilla have been known to develop vanillism, an irritation of the skin and eyes caused by tiny mites in the vanilla pods.

Aromatherapeutic Uses

Aromatherapy uses for vanilla mirror its medicinal purposes – to make people happy and more relaxed!

  • Situational stress: The stress reducing properties of vanilla were proven during tests at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Patients exposed to a vanilla scent prior to receiving an MRI scan experienced 63% less anxiety than those who did not. Aromatherapy practitioners recommend carrying “a bean or two” in a glass tube to periodically inhale when going through “anxiety-producing events.”
  • Mood enhancement: The scent of vanilla is considered warm and homey, producing a sense of security and pleasure. Real estate agents often use it before showing a home to prospective buyers.
  • Weight loss: A study at St. George’s hospital in London has indicated that the scent of vanilla may help you lose weight by significantly reducing sugar cravings.
  • Aphrodisiac: The Aztecs used vanilla to effectively improve female sexual response, and modern studies show that the scent of vanilla increases blood flow to the genitals of most men, particularly older men. Practitioners advise adding vanilla essential oil to massage oil for a subtle effect.

How do you feel about vanilla? Do you think it deserves to be the world’s most popular flavoring? How do you like it best?

Next in Aromatherapy 101: Lavender