The smell of desert rain may be good for your health

The following contains excerpts from a press release by Mikayla Mace Kelley, University of Arizona Communications.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for rain in the desert. Instead, breathe easy knowing that the desert fragrances after a storm help keep you healthy and happy, according to new University of Arizona research.

Desert dwellers know it well: the smell of rain and the feeling of euphoria that comes when a storm washes over the parched earth. That feeling, and the health benefits that come with it, may be the result of oils and other chemicals released by desert plants after a good soaking, new University of Arizona research suggests.

“The Sonoran Desert flora is one of the richest in the world in plants that emit fragrant volatile oils, and many of those fragrances confer stress-reducing health benefits to humans, wildlife and the plants themselves,” said Gary Nabhan, a research social scientist at the UArizona Southwest Center and the Kellogg Endowed Chair in Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security.

The Southwest monsoon season typically runs from June 15 to Sept. 30. About half of the region’s average annual rainfall occurs over the course of those three-and-a-half months.

Nabhan and his collaborators – Eric Daugherty, a former intern at the Southwest Center, and Tammi Hartung, a co-owner of Desert Canyon Farm in Canyon City, Colorado – identified 115 volatile organic compounds in 60 species of plants in the Sonoran Desert that are released immediately before, during and after rain. Of these, 15 have been shown in past studies to offer tangible health benefits.

“The fragrant volatile organic compounds from desert plants may in many ways contribute to improving sleep patterns, stabilizing emotional hormones, enhancing digestion, heightening mental clarity and reducing depression or anxiety,” Nabhan said. “Their accumulation in the atmosphere immediately above desert vegetation is what causes the smell of rain that many people report. It also reduces exposure to damaging solar radiation in ways that protect the desert plants themselves, the wildlife that use them as food and shelter, and the humans who dwell among them.” (link to full report)