If you’ve read Stillwater long enough, you already know I’m big on aromatherapy. While I don’t burn incense or embalm mummified corpses, concentrated botanical extracts are a big part of my daily life, particularly as an alternative medicine and for cosmetic care. The concept of aromatherapy is really simple: You inhale an aromatic bouquet to bring about a physical, emotional, and spiritual balance. But hey, doesn’t drinking tea do the same, wellness-wise? Well, yes, but let me broaden your perspective as to how learning aromatherapy basics can supercharge your tea tasting experience.
Did you smell that?
Like you would describe the massive diversity of tea flavors, in aromatherapy, essential oils usually fall into these 6 categories:
- Herbaceous (holy basil, fennel)
- Floral (rose geranium, jasmine)
- Citrus (lemon, tangerine)
- Minty (peppermint, cajeput)
- Woody (cananga, frankincense)
- Earthy (myrrh, patchouli)
- Spicy (clove, cinnamon)
Just as distilled flowers, roots, barks, leaves and resin do, little did I know before reading How To Make Tea that steeped tea leaves also releases volatile oils, much like the essential oils and the top notes you design for your personal fragrance in perfumery. Once tea leaves come in contact with warm water and blossom, these volatile oil compounds are released into the aqueous medium, with some of them so thin and mobile, they immediately evaporate over your brew.
That instant kick of mental clarity when you inhale the first wave of its aroma? Yup, that’s you sniffing the most diffusive notes of tea, and whether you realize it or not, that brief olfactory stimulation is a significant dimension to your whole tea-sipping experience. They even have a term for it – the “nose”, and every type of tea offers an aromatic bouquet that is unique to its flavor characteristics.
Remember when …
The nose of teas also “help lock into the brain the scents of each tea as a memory,” Brian Keating explains. How so? Well, we have a special system embedded throughout our whole physiology that the medics refer to as the “smell brain”. Put simply, it is the network in your brain that governs the direct relationship between your sense of smell (olfaction) and how you feel (emotions), why you act the way you do (motivations), and what you remember (memory). While this system is a discussion for a whole ‘nother blog post, we’re going to zoom in on how scenting helps you remember better for today.
Our sense of smell is at least 1,000 times more sensitive than any of the other 4 senses1, which makes recognizing a particular scent an immediate, automatic response. Our visual, auditory, gustatory, and somatosensory information has to travel through neurons and the spinal cord before they reach your brain, whereas your olfactory bulbs have neuron receptors that are actually an integral part of the brain … to be more specific, a very primitive part of the brain (that’s responsible for your emotional life and forming long-term memories). This direct exposure with the outside environment makes you register whatever scent you’re smelling right away, with little conscious thought or will, instantly reminding you of particular people, places, and/or events associated with the scent.
While memories are typically formed when you happen to catch a whiff of unsolicited scents (e.g. all the pleasant memories with your boyfriend came rushing the moment you sniff his sweat-soaked T-shirt), you can harness the power of aromas to trigger the kind of physical, emotional, and spiritual responses you are looking for … in our case, simply by taking a moment to:
- close your eyes,
- inhale your steeped tea, and
- enjoy the environment you’re having the tea at before drinking it.
This way, you’re extending the wellness benefits of tea above and beyond its sensory taste.
Your tea, my environment, our memory.
Occasionally, I have guests at home, and my hope is to serve them well, causing them to leave the door more positive than before they step in. Because positive emotions is what I intend to elicit, I always make sure I’m in a good mood before letting anyone into our home, and that the house is neat and clean and tended. Of course, all this is just logic, right? You would want to make your space homey so that guests will be able to feel comfortable. But I’ve added another element to the hospitality mix, just to make for a stronger and more lasting impression: Serving tea. With its scents, mouthfeel, and flavors, they are sure to remember the one occasion when they have spent a good time at our home by drinking good tea. Ever since I started this tea-serving habit, starting from when I married my husband, I’m starting to feel that tea is a symbol for utmost service, and personally for me, my favorite floral and vegetal aromas of lesser-oxidized teas have transformed into an ultra-gentle nudge in my brain, that life is to be lived intentionally in order to be happy :)
Now my question for you to begin February is this: Have you stopped and smelled the roses (perhaps even literally) since the start of the year? What are you going to be more intentional about starting today?