How do the smells of nature benefit our health?

| James Urton
Photo of Mount Rainier with a hillside of wildflowers and evergreens in the foreground.

A subalpine meadow on Mount Rainier in the summer. Photo: Elli Theobald.

UW-led research promotes more investigation of how natural odors and scents impact our health and well-being

Spending time in nature is good for us. Studies have shown that contact with nature can lift our well-being by affecting  emotions, influencing  thoughts, reducing stress and improving physical health. Even brief exposure to nature can help. One well-known study found that hospital patients recovered faster if their room included a window view of a natural setting.

Knowing more about nature’s effects on our bodies could not only help our well-being, but could also improve how we care for land, preserve ecosystems and design cities, homes and parks. Yet studies on the benefits of contact with nature have typically focused primarily on how seeing nature affects us. There has been less focus on what the nose knows. That is something a group of researchers wants to change.

“We are immersed in a world of odorants, and we have a sophisticated olfactory system that processes them, with resulting impacts on our emotions and behavior,” said Gregory Bratman, a University of Washington assistant professor of environmental and forest sciences. “But compared to research on the benefits of seeing nature, we don’t know nearly as much about how the impacts of nature’s scents and olfactory cues affect us.”

Headshot of Anne Riederer.
DEOHS Clinical Associate Professor Anne Riederer.

In a paper published May 15 in Science Advances, Bratman and colleagues from around the world — including Anne Riederer, clinical associate professor in the UW Department of Environmental Health Sciences (DEOHS) — outline ways to expand research into how odors and scents from natural settings impact our health and well-being.

“Intimate links” between nature’s scents and well-being

At its core, the human sense of smell, or olfaction, is a complex chemical detection system in constant operation. The nose is packed with hundreds of olfactory receptors, which are sophisticated chemical sensors. Together, they can detect more than one trillion scents, and that information gets delivered directly to the nervous system for our minds to interpret — consciously or otherwise.

The natural world releases a steady stream of chemical compounds to keep our olfactory system busy. Plants in particular exude volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that can persist in the air for hours or days. VOCs perform many functions for plants, such as repelling herbivores or attracting pollinators. Some researchers have studied the impact of exposures to plant VOCs on people.

“We know bits and pieces of the overall picture,” said Bratman. “But there is so much more to learn. We are proposing a framework, informed by important research from many others, on how to investigate the intimate links between olfaction, nature and human well-being.”

How human activity affects exposure to beneficial scents

The authors are also calling for more studies to investigate how human activity alters nature’s olfactory footprint — both by pollution, which can modify or destroy odorants in the air, and by reducing habitats that release beneficial scents.

“Human activity is modifying the environment so quickly in some cases that we’re learning about these benefits while we’re simultaneously making them more difficult for people to access,” said Bratman. “As research illuminates more of these links, our hope is that we can make more informed decisions about our impacts on the natural world and the volatile organic compounds that come from it. As we say in the paper, we live within the chemical contexts that nature creates. Understanding this more can contribute to human well-being and advance efforts to protect the natural world.”

For more information, contact Bratman at

Adapted from the original post here.


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