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Unlocking the World of Smell-Training: From Covid to Neurodegenerative Clues

If our senses are a symphony, then the sense of smell often takes a backseat, overshadowed by its more celebrated counterparts like sight and hearing. Yet, as we tune in to the power scent holds to conduct our emotions into crescendos of bliss and healing, we discover the secret to living life in technicolour.

Our sense of smell is a potent, evocative, and profoundly influential force that enriches our daily existence. The ethereal dance of aromatic molecules can change our mood, transport us across the borders of time and memory, and even kindle the bonds of love. Most of all, it is intrinsically linked to our health, affecting our diet, physical well-being, and overall safety.

The invisible tendrils of scent are not mere phantoms; they are a complex web of molecular messengers released by myriad substances in our surroundings. When we inhale these molecules, they awaken specialized sensory cells within our nasal passages. Each of these cells sports a unique odor receptor, a molecular lock that fits only a specific aromatic key. These receptors are our gateways to the kaleidoscopic world of scent connection.

Dr. Gary Beauchamp, a taste and smell researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, notes that humans can potentially detect anywhere between 10,000 to an astonishing 100 billion distinct odors, if not more. We all possess unique combinations of odor-detecting cells, and it is this individuality in the realm of odor, that makes the world of smell all the more fascinating.

**Unleashing the Power of Aromatherapy**

Across civilizations, from the ancient medical China texts to mystical India and the sands of ancient Egypt, fragrant plants have been revered for their therapeutic qualities. Aromatherapy, a practice steeped in history, harnesses the essence of essential oils from flowers, herbs, and trees to enhance physical and emotional well-being. While scientific support for many claims in aromatherapy remains scant, the undeniable allure of scent and its profound connection to memory leaves the door ajar for possibilities.

Take, for instance, the soothing embrace of lavender.

Dr. Beauchamp tantalizingly poses a question: Is lavender, often celebrated as a relaxation-inducing scent, truly imbued with the power to relax, or is its influence a result of past experiences, etching an indelible association between the fragrance and tranquility in our minds? Scientists, always at the forefront of understanding the inner workings of our senses, continue to explore the uncharted territory of how various aromatherapies may shape our health and well-being.

**The Culinary Symphony: Where Smell Meets Taste**

Your culinary journey is intrinsically linked to your sense of smell. As you savor the flavors of a sumptuous meal, the act of chewing liberates aromas that travel from your mouth and throat to your olfactory senses. Without smell, we are capable of discerning only five fundamental tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Yet, the brain ingeniously marries data from both taste and smell receptors, with thousands of new options now available, thanks to scent.

There lies a common misconception among many – that their sense of taste has withered when food begins to taste bland or slightly "off." In actuality, the culprit might be their diminishing olfactory abilities. It's a fact – many elements can conspire to rob you of your sense of smell. A congested nose, or the presence of innocuous nasal polyps, can act as obstructive gatekeepers, denying access to the sensory cells yearning for aromatic experiences. Certain medications, including antibiotics and blood pressure pills, can distort your olfactory landscape, albeit temporarily.

But some adversities can bring about long-lasting olfactory deprivation. A head injury or a vicious virus, for instance, can inflict damage upon the delicate nerves associated with smell. Furthermore, the passage of time can be a silent thief, gradually dimming your ability to savor the world through its olfactory dimensions.

**The Hidden Pandemic of Lost Smell**

One might wonder, how prevalent is this loss of smell? The reality is that many individuals walk through life oblivious to the erosion of this vital sense. At the National Institutes of Health, in a recent health and nutrition survey, it was unveiled that a startling 12% of adults grapple with some form of smell dysfunction. Moreover, this problem festers with age, with a disconcerting 39% of those aged 80 and above exhibiting a deficit.

The consequences of smell loss are far-reaching and varied. It's a sliding scale, with quality of life issues cascading from subtle annoyances to profound afflictions.

As your sense of smell wanes, the culinary world loses its luster, and food becomes less enjoyable. You may find yourself either disinterested in eating or resorting to an unhealthier diet.

An unfortunate byproduct of this loss is an attempt to amplify flavor by adding more salt or sugar to your dishes. Yet, this well-intentioned effort can wreak havoc on individuals already at risk for medical conditions such as hypertension, kidney disease, or diabetes.

While the subtle inconveniences are evident, there are more sinister ramifications when one's sense of smell ebbs. The same national health and nutrition survey exposed a shocking statistic: one in ten individuals could not identify the smell of smoke. Even more alarming, approximately 15% could not recognize the telltale odor of natural gas. And as time tightens its grip, these rates skyrocket.

For individuals aged 70 and above, a staggering 20% failed to identify the smell of smoke, and a chilling 31% could not discern the ominous scent of natural gas. Dr. Davangere Devanand, an authority on neurodegenerative diseases and smell loss at Columbia University, unravels the enigma of age-related smell decline. It is not merely the nose but the brain itself that undergoes a decline in its capacity to smell. Devanand explains, "The main reason appears to be that the functioning of the brain regions involved in smell and memory become impaired as we grow older."

Smell loss is not just an ordinary rite of passage in the journey of aging; it can serve as a harrowing early indicator of severe health conditions. Olfactory dysfunction can be a whisper, a hushed prelude to the tumultuous symphony of ailments such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or multiple sclerosis. Dr. Devanand and his team at Columbia University are engaged in unraveling the intricate relationship between smell dysfunction and Alzheimer's disease.

If your food no longer carries the aroma it once did or tastes unfamiliar, it is time to start improving your sense of smell.

**Covid : Attack on the nose**

The profound impact of COVID-19 cast a spotlight on an unexpected and unsettling consequence - smell disorders. As the coronavirus swept across the globe, it brought with it a surge in anosmia, the sudden loss of one's sense of smell, and parosmia, the distortion of odors. The virus was a startling revelation of how interconnected our senses and our overall health truly are.

In the early days of the pandemic, anosmia emerged as a puzzling and relatively common symptom among COVID-19 patients. Research from numerous medical institutions and organizations rapidly unfolded, shedding light on the unique mechanisms behind COVID-related anosmia. Scientists uncovered that the virus primarily targeted the olfactory bulb, a vital component of the brain's smell-processing system. This insidious invasion resulted in inflammation and damage to the delicate neural structures responsible for translating the molecular melodies of scent into our sensory perceptions.

In addition to anosmia, many COVID-19 survivors reported another disconcerting phenomenon - parosmia. This condition twisted the tapestry of smells, rendering familiar scents into grotesque and unrecognizable odors. Flowers once fragrant became foul, and foods that once delighted the palate suddenly turned revolting. The emotional toll of these sensory disruptions was significant, as people grappled with both the loss of pleasurable smells and the intrusion of unpleasant ones.

The sense of smell, while often overlooked in our daily lives, played a pivotal role in the fight against COVID-19. Anosmia emerged as an early warning sign, alerting individuals to their potential infection even before other symptoms manifested. This knowledge allowed for timely isolation and testing, aiding in the containment of the virus.

As the pandemic unfolded, healthcare providers adopted the "scratch and sniff" smell identification test, initially developed for evaluating smell disorders, as a valuable tool for COVID-19 screening. This simple yet effective test, often part of smell disorder diagnosis, became a powerful ally in the battle against the virus. Its ability to swiftly and accurately identify smell dysfunction played a vital role in curbing the virus's spread.

The consequences of COVID-related smell disorders extended beyond the immediate physical symptoms. For many survivors, the persistent loss of smell and the unsettling distortions of parosmia triggered emotional and psychological distress. The intimate connection between our olfactory experiences and our memories, emotions, and even our culinary joys had been severed.

In the face of this unprecedented challenge, researchers and healthcare professionals rallied to find ways to alleviate the suffering of those affected by COVID-related smell disorders. They explored smell training, a method that involves exposing individuals to a variety of scents to reawaken their neural pathways and aid in the recovery of their sense of smell. While this approach showed promise, it also highlighted the complexity of olfactory disorders and the critical need for further research.

The profound impact of COVID-19 on our sense of smell serves as a stark reminder of the intricate and often underappreciated role that this sense plays in our lives. The pandemic illuminated the fragility of our sensory world and the importance of safeguarding it. As we move forward, it is imperative that we continue to explore and understand the complexities of olfaction, not only to aid in the recovery of those affected by COVID-related smell disorders but also to unlock the mysteries of this extraordinary sense, which enriches our experiences, influences our well-being, and adds depth to the symphony of life itself.

A number of studies have been done in recent years which suggest that repeated short-term exposure to smells can potentially be of benefit to people who have been affected by olfactory loss or distortions, particularly for those who have lost their sense of smell as the result of a virus including the common cold and Covid-19. Smell training has emerged as a scientifically proven method to enhance and regain the sense of smell, simply by using 4 selected smells on a daily basis.

Studies suggest you choose scents to represent the four smell categories of Flowery, Fruity, Spicy and Resinous. However, you can choose any smell you feel comfortable with, have available and enjoy. It is not the smell that is important, but the mindful act of smelling that helps to entrain the brain to recognise odours.

What you need:

Different items from the home that provide a range of smells – try to select things that you know you found to be pleasant and/or have a connection with.

Lemon and orange rind, nutmeg, clove, mint, eucalyptus, ground coffee, coconut and vanilla are all items you can use.

You can use the raw material (e.g smell directly from the pepper grinder, rip a sprig of fresh herbs) or you can use small bowls or jars (ramekins, clean glass spice or baby food jars are ideal)


Place each item into a separate bowl/jar or just take the raw material into your hands

Relax and slowly take short gentle sniffs (sometimes called bunny sniffs) for about 20 seconds – sniffing too hard, too quickly and too deeply is likely to result in you not being able to detect anything.

Repeat 2 or 3 more times, then rest for a few moments.

Move on to the next smell and repeat as above.

Record your experience – any changes, what you notice in a scent journal

This New York Times article has more smell training tips if you've been battling smell loss.

Our Scent Academy will also be releasing Scent Training Kits in 2024, in our Smell Training programme. More details coming soon!

In the meantime, enjoy your new scent explorations with the world around you!

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