We’ve all heard that smell is our “most powerful” sense—touching our hearts with the fond memory of the aroma of Grandma’s famous lasagna or Mom’s perfume or bringing us the heady whiff of new-car leather. Beyond triggering memories, scents and aromas actually can affect our energy levels, improve memory and even enrich ­relationships. 

It’s not surprising that people tend to be happier and more optimistic in environments that smell pleasing to them. Most everyone can smell, and with a little guidance, you can tap into scents’ true potentials. Here’s how to use scent to your advantage…

To Improve Your Love Life 

Did you know that purposefully inhaling certain scents may help fuel your libido? Perhaps not surprisingly, sweet scents are associated with arousal in both men and women. 

As odd as it sounds, however, it is a combination of donuts and black licorice that increased male sexual arousal, boosting penile blood flow by more than 30%, per research from the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. For another sexy combo, try pumpkin pie and donuts. These scents combined increased penile blood flow by 20%. 

Women also are affected by black licorice. A blend of the scents of Good & Plenty licorice candy and banana-nut bread enhanced female sexual arousal by 18%. Oddly, a lone vegetable makes it onto the sexiest scents list—a combination of cucumber and Good & Plenty stimulated women. 

Scientists theorize that these odors work by reducing anxiety, which in turn reduces inhibitions. That can lead to enhanced sexual desire.

To Resist Cravings 

Go ahead and breathe in those freshly baked smells at the grocery store. A 2019 University of South Florida study found that smelling indulgent foods such as pizza or cookies for an extended period of time actually can help ward off cravings. Subjects who were exposed to these ambient scents for longer than two minutes while in a supermarket were less likely to purchase “unhealthy foods,” compared with those who shopped with no ambient scent or in the presence of a “nonindulgent food–related ambient scent” such as strawberry or roast turkey. 

Scientists hypothesize that the brain may derive sufficient sensory pleasure from the aroma of the food alone, without even tasting it. In essence, you can fool the brain into thinking that you have eaten the goodie already. 

Helpful idea: If you’re trying to avoid sugary indulgences at an office meeting or party, just wait a few minutes before you lift anything to your lips. The first 30 seconds will be hard—the study showed that a very brief whiff of the cookie scent left subjects more likely to want to eat a cookie. But after that, it became easy to ignore the cookies. 

Don’t want to stick your nose in a cookie platter or get that close to tempting treats? Study authors theorize that using a cookie-scented extract or cookie-scented candle (or any other indulgent scent) might be just as effective at beating those cravings.

To Ease Stress

Many people know that lavender is a major de-stressor, hence it often is used to scent candles, body lotions, fabric softeners and more. The mere smell of lavender increases alpha-wave activity in the brain, indicative of a more relaxed state. A 2018 Japanese study suggests that the calming effect may be due to linalool, a fragrant alcohol compound that gives lavender its distinct aroma. The calming qualities also improve sleep—a study published in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that study participants who slept with a chest patch imbued with lavender essential oil for five consecutive nights (Noctilessence, 10 patches for $24.99) experienced better overall sleep quality, compared with people wearing unscented patches. Even more impressive, the sleep benefits remained after two weeks of sleeping patch-free. 

But a much more surprising de-stressor can be found right in your laundry basket or on your closet floor. Try breathing in a piece of ­clothing ­recently worn by your romantic partner to help calm your nerves. Recent research from University of British Columbia, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that women who were asked to smell a shirt recently worn by their partner (without being told that it had been worn by their partner) felt less stressed both before and after a challenging math test or mock interview. 

To Wake Up

You know that a cup of coffee can help you wake up in the morning. But did you know that you may be able to derive just as much of an energizing effect from sniffing it as you do from sipping it? Simply smelling coffee can make you feel more awake. 

Helpful idea: Program your coffee maker to start percolating 10 minutes before your alarm is set to go off if you want to wake up feeling energized before you’ve even had your first cup of Joe. 

Whether or not you’re a coffee drinker, the next time you need to perform at your best—while taking an exam, for instance, or before a job interview—­inhale a deep whiff of coffee beans to feel instantly more alert.

To Improve Your Memory

Rosemary oil contains several compounds shown in test-tube studies to facilitate activity of the chemical messengers in the brain that are involved in memory. 

In a British study, people over the age of 65 were divided among three rooms. One room was scented by placing four drops of rosemary essential oil on an aroma diffuser that ran for five minutes before participants entered…one was lavender-scented…and one was unscented. The participants were presented with a series of challenges designed to assess prospective ­memory—the type of memory that helps us plan for the future, such as mailing a letter after seeing a mailbox. Rosemary’s woody aroma improved prospective memory by 15% across the tasks. 

Note: When purchasing essential oils, don’t be fooled into thinking that more expensive means more effective. In my experience, more costly brands typically perform on par with less expensive ones. Surprisingly, artificially created oils also perform similarly to ones labeled “natural.” 

How to Improve Your Sense of Smell

Sense of smell declines with age, but it may be possible to retain it—or even regain it—by purposefully inhaling potent odors several times a day for three months. A 2009 study found that when 40 anosmic volunteers sniffed “Sniffin’ Sticks” of rose, eucalyptus, citronella and clove twice a day for 12 weeks, nearly one-third of them ended up with improved olfactory functioning overall. Subsequent studies have replicated the effects. It may work with age-related smell loss, as well as with individuals who have lost their sense of smell from head trauma, a virus or another condition. 

What to do: Choose three odors that you currently have difficulty ­detecting—cologne, cinnamon, roast chicken, for example—and sniff them (one at a time) three times per nostril, four times a day, for three months.

Note: Many medications used for hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer and depression can cause smell loss because they affect your taste ­receptors…or cause dry mouth, which in turn can diminish your sense of smell. If you are experiencing a loss of smell, talk to your doctor about whether it is a possible side effect of your current medications. You may be able to take a lower dose or a different drug. Smell typically resumes within a few months.