Sensoria

The sensory dimensions of art and culture

Where’d the Nose Go?

Your sense of smell and how to protect it

You and your friends are conversing over a delicious meal, and someone raises the question: “If you had to lose one sense…which one would it be? Sight, hearing, touch, taste or smell?” It’s a very difficult and highly personal question, but most people answer, “I guess, smell,” thinking the loss of smell would be least disruptive to their life.

You might be surprised to find that without your sense of smell the next bite of this meal would have little or no flavor. This would be very distressing! Most people don’t know that ninety-percent of their sense of taste is reliant on smell. Usually the loss of smell is only a temporary condition; however if it becomes a condition you have to live with for the rest of your life, you’d likely be devastated and struggle to cope. You would be losing the pleasure and enjoyment of your favorite meals, the smell of your child’s hair, the aroma of an ideal mate, and even the ability to detect harmful chemicals around you.

The choice to lose your sense of smell suggests a need to advance our understanding of the key role smell plays in our lives, so to not underestimate its true value. A person with an olfactic disability doesn’t appear disabled, and others know little about the disorder, which leads to a lack of support.  They become disconnected from their environment, unable to detect contaminated food, harmful chemicals, or smoke from fire. They avoid restaurants and often shun social situations that revolve around food and drink. As such, the loss of the ability to smell has been linked to unintential weight loss, malnutrition, depression, and even suicide. It is evident now that this loss majorly affects one’s day-to-day life and general happiness.

The importance of the sense of smell begins with how odors are processed in the brain. Olfactory perception is linked to the hippocampus and amygdala—the parts of the brain directly involved in memory making. It is well known that smells trigger more emotional memories than the other senses. It consciously and unconsciously contextualizes our lives and gives a depth of meaning to our social interactions with others. Protecting your sense of smell means protecting autobiographical memory. It means: protecting your very sense of self.

The sense of smell is one of our most important senses not only for knowing the self but others as well. It is a continuous sensory experience vital to our everyday lives.

So how do you protect your sense of smell?

Keep your immune system robust!

Many diseases can affect your sense of smell. A very common cause of temporary and permanent loss of smell is upper respiratory infections, such as: acute sinus infections, the flu, common cold virus, hay fever, chronic rhinitis, and sinus/nasal polyps. As a chemical sense, your own unique smell registers your immune response. Some diseases have characteristic odors that can emanate from various places on the body and convey a chemosensory cue to illness. If your body odor changes, pay attention, it could be an early sign of sickness. 

Manage weight!

Keep an eye on your weight, sudden loss or gain. Researchers found that overweight individuals have a much greater risk of a smell disorder.

Don’t smoke!

Besides the carcinogenic aspect of smoking, the habit reduces your ability to distinguish different smells and taste specific foods, which reduces enjoyment derived from these imperative, daily activities. 

Avoid allergens!

Chronic allergies and some treatments cause stress to your olfactory system that can significantly reduce your sense of smell and taste over a period of time. Find out what you are allergic to and try to avoid it.

Beware of chemicals!

Exposure to various chemicals such as insecticides and certain cleaning products can irritate the sensitive mucous membranes which can cause inflammation and swelling within the nose and respiratory system. Wear respirator if exposed to toxic chemicals.

Take care of those teeth!

Keep regular dental appointments and keep an eye out for any oral infections that arise. Problems with your teeth can affect your sense of smell.

Know what you are putting in your body!

Some medications can contribute to loss of smell and taste. Here are some medications to look out for: beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, certain antibiotics, estrogen and zinc-based products, amphetamines and long-term use of nasal decongestants.

Try not to hit your head!

Problems with or damage to the brain, nerves, or any part of the olfactory system pathways can cause you to lose your sense of smell. Here are a few neurological diseases that can affect this system: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Paget’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Eat balanced meals or take vitamin supplements!

Deficiencies of zinc and vitamin D have been correlated to diminished sense of smell.   

More vigilance is needed in the senior years!

Being over 60 puts you at greater risk for loss of smell. Changes in the brain and nose make it more difficult to distinguish odors, which can lead to accidental exposure to chemicals and malnutrition due to loss of pleasure from eating.

Improve your sense of smell with training. Make sure to continually, consciously smell and taste a variety of foods. Add spices and hot sauces to meals that taste bland or underwhelming. Stir your imagination by recalling tasty food smells.

Thousands of people develop problems with their sense of smell every year—from loss of smell (anosmia) to partial loss of smell (hyposmia) and even distortion in perception of smell (dysosmia). If you experience persistent problems, please see your doctor.

 

Follow Gayil Nalls on Twitter: @olfacticinkblot
Follow Gayil Nalls's "The Massing Lab" on Twitter: @themassinglab

 

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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