Humans and Health

The Candle and the Mind

A lit candle with a hand over the top of the flame
Ella Pilson 

Are you a candle lover? If you are, you’re not alone – the global market size valuing $533.5 million in 2020. An estimated 2.13 million people buying packs of these fragrances at a time. If not, what would you say if I told you that they could improve your concentration, quality of sleep and reduce anxiety? Ella Pilson enlightens us on candles and how they may be the answer to all our worries…

Candles to me are spiritual, releasing that inner-hippie vibe. From the aura created in the crescendo of candles streaming from the entrance to an old church or temple, to the silhouette it forms on the wall of a darkened room.

For others it can be romantic – creating that ambiance during a candle-lit dinner. Or, simply to create a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere. Frequently, being paired with a warm chai tea, as a focus point during meditation or alongside a steaming hot bath after a long, hard day. Candles could be the answer to all of our problems. 

You may be thinking this is a bit of an exaggeration or some voodoo ritual but there are some actual scientific processes going on behind the scenes. First, the molecules from the fragrance attach to proteins along your nasal passage creating electrical signals. These interact with the limbic system within the brain triggering emotions and memories. 

Some molecules are even small enough to interact with the nervous system lowering blood pressure, heart rate and brain activity. The Sense of Smell Institute has found that particular smells can have a neurological effect, triggering the release of endorphins, our ‘feel-good’ hormones, sending us back to a positive memory from our past and boosting our mood.

Smell is the strongest out of all our senses, being known as the ‘Proust Effect’. Scientist Christina Zelano explained that as our brains evolved, all other neural pathways were redirected to different regions of the brain, whereas our olfactory system (responsible for our sense of smell) remained in direct connection with our hippocampus. One study in 2014 showed that we can distinguish at least 1 trillion different aromas. 

It’s about time candles moved away from just being cob-web attracting specimens at the back of our cupboards

The essential oils within candles also have lots of medicinal purposes. Lavender can relax body muscles, sage improves concentration, orange reduces stress and peppermint improves focus, to name a few. Rosemary is also one to remember especially during exam season, being proven to improve forgetfulness. 

So check out this list for inspiration on your next shopping trip and see if you notice a difference. The great thing about candles is that they’re accessible and cheap and can provide a great gift for anyone particularly hard to buy for.

Therefore, as well as providing a calming atmosphere, they can play a powerful role in improving your overall health and mental well-being. Their association with creating better sleep, positivity, boosting your immune system and increasing energy levels; making it easier to make better lifestyle choices. 

They’ve not only been proven to reduce anxiety, stress, insomnia and many other mental health problems but also connecting with your self-awareness and reflection. For example, being a standard part of meditational practice. From aromatherapy to ‘Trataka’ or ‘candle gazing meditation’

The soft glow of the flame helps people to focus their thoughts and enter a more tranquil state. This also has scientific backing the flame allowing our brain to shift from a beta to an alpha brainwave state. This allows our body to transition from a position of alertness and reactivity into relaxation and creativity. 

While we need both states for healthy brain functioning, our wandering thoughts and overactive brains often do not allow ourselves to slip into that alpha brainwave state. From here, our alpha brainwaves can then move into theta, which is where we can meditate. 

What’s more, this ‘low light’ provides a well needed contrast to the artificial ‘blue light’ of our computer screens, soothing our brains into a state of serenity. During winter time, they can also help with stuffy colds and relieve symptoms of flu. 

Therefore, it’s about time candles moved away from just being cob-web attracting specimens at the back of our cupboards, stashed away for those spooky black outs or occasional dinner parties. 

I think there’s definitely more to be said about the benefits: balance, relaxation, positivity and creativity. 

Although, there have been some dreary concerns about the health risks of scented candles, such as wax made from paraffin releasing unhealthy toxins or causing a condition known as osmophobia, where their sensitivity to smell triggers migraines, 95% saying that this worsens under strong odours

Nothing solid has been produced and it may just come down to just some diligent packaging checking like you do with other food or healthcare products. 

Candles made from natural sources such as soy wax being a good choice and less worrisome for anyone with asthma or underlying health conditions. But whatever the case, there is not enough toxicity to candles to be harmful. 

I think there’s definitely more to be said about the benefits: balance, relaxation, positivity and creativity. 

If scented candles aren’t your thing, diffusers have also become increasingly popular – the mist replacing the flame in producing that tranquil environment. What’s more, they also contain essential oils known to be good for skin. 

Cypress oil in particular has physical benefits including helping the immune system combat infections, removing toxins or aiding the respiratory system to get suitable oxygen levels into the lungs. As well as more physiological and psychological benefits, decreasing stress and anxiety while boosting confidence. 

If improved mental health, physical well-being and a dash of zen to your everyday life isn’t enough to tempt you into creating a candle lit sanctuary I don’t know what will. 

This shows just how powerful candles can be – taking us back to some of our cherished childhood memories or mindful manifesters, awakening our imaginations. Thus, when exam season approaches, dial down those lights and may the sweet-smell of cinnamon, vanilla or tropical mango send your worries away.

Ella Pilson 

Featured image courtesy of Rebecca Peterson-Hall via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.  

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