Two recent studies have suggested that the smell of desert rain storms may have some health benefits, mainly thanks to oils and other chemicals that are released from plants after a rainstorm.
The studies, one of which was posted in the Environmental Research and Public Health, focused on a range of different plants typically found in the Sonoran Desert. Overall they studied 60 species of plants, and identified 115 volatile organic compounds within them that were released both before, during and after rainfall. Fifteen of these organic compounds have been shown to have health benefits in previous studies.
During the summer, many of these desert plants produce more oils to protect themselves from the harsh conditions, which may explain the ‘smell’ of rain that has been reported by some people.
So, what causes people to ‘smell’ the rain? The production of the oily compounds in the desert plants remain on the leaves until the summer rainfall allows them to accumulate in the atmosphere. This effect is often heightened during summer, as the production of the oily compounds is often happening during droughts and heatwaves.
However, these oily compounds could also come with potential health benefits, reports Gary Nabham, the lead author of the two studies. Some of these include:
- Improved sleep patterns and improved mental clarity
- Reduced anxiety and depression, as well as stabilising emotional hormones
One of the healing compounds is known as trans-caryophyllene, which is found in the creosote bush located in the Sonoran Desert. The trans-caryophyllene comes from the fungus inside the plant, and is actually what gives the plant its ‘smell’.
This discovery has led researchers to theorize that the 'smell' of desert rainstorms may have health benefits for humans, and perhaps even wildlife.
"They’re [the oils] released into the atmosphere even before the rain actually falls and contribute to that incredible surge of anticipation that you feel right before the first raindrop of a thunderstorm. From there, they travel into our lungs and into our bloodstream within minutes.”
Using his ever-growing knowledge of desert plants, Nabham hopes to create a series of ‘fragrance gardens’ throughout the Southwest of America. He wants these gardens to promote healing and well-being.
“I would like to see these fragrance gardens around every hospital, community clinic, and bed and breakfast—wherever anyone comes to heal, relax, and recreate,” Nabhan says.