The importance of our sense of smell is a fact that has been, quite literally, right under our noses the entire time. While we don’t typically find ourselves thinking about our noses very often, unless it is to critique their size or shape, these organs are actually crucial not just to our interaction with the world around us, but to our very survival.
In this age of COVID, most of us have heard about loss of smell as a symptom of the disease. So what does the loss of our sense of smell mean to us in terms of our lives and our life experiences?
The answer, in short, is that we rely on our nostrils to a degree that many of us probably never even consider. Think about this: our sense of smell is what warns us if there is a gas leak in our house. It is what notifies us if food we are about to eat is rotting or “off,” allowing us to avoid becoming seriously ill. And of course, it is what enhances our daily lives as we “stop and smell the roses” or mentally travel back to fond memories when we are hit with the aroma of freshly mown grass or baking cookies.
It is also a key factor in our relationships with other human beings, and as social animals this is of paramount importance. Every person has their own unique scent, and we are wired to react to others based in part on these nature-given aromas. If you give it some thought, it is likely that you can vividly recall the smell of a beloved grandparent, or child, or romantic partner. In fact, a study in 2015 found that people were correctly identified by loved ones 75% of the time, based solely on smell. Additionally, it may even be possible that our sense of smell allows us to identify another person as a potential threat (https://insula.sissa.it/sites/default/files/Mutic%20et%20al.%2C%202015.pdf).
Given the important role that our sense of smell plays in our lives, and the impact that COVID has had on it for many of us, let’s take a closer look at our sniffers, what exactly they do, and what happens if this sense is compromised in us.
First, what exactly happens when we smell? Different scents are actually the result of tiny molecules that are released by just about everything, including food, plants, animals, people, smoke, and chemicals. These molecules enter our noses when we breathe in and land in the mucus lining, where special cells, called olfactory receptor cells, create electrical signals that are sent to our brains to be interpreted as smell. Interestingly, the part of the brain that does this is the same part that stores memories and emotions. This is why we often are reminded of feelings, experiences, or thoughts when we detect a particular scent (think about smelling a Christmas tree and what that inspires in your mind).
If we lose our sense of smell completely (called anosmia), or even partially (known as hyposmia), it can be very detrimental to our usual way of life. Of course, the most troubling loss is the loss of our ability to detect threats (gas leaks, rotting food, chemical spills, etc.) But in addition to this, we often experience a host of other, less dramatic, but no less impactful, effects. We may no longer have the appetite we once had, since smell and taste are so closely linked. We may find ourselves less interested in attending social events, as these include scent-heavy stimuli from food, other people, and a host of other aromas. And in many ways we may notice that we just don’t feel as connected to the world around us. It is almost like losing one’s sense of balance: everything just seems a bit off, as if we have lost a key weapon in our arsenal for engaging with the world. What makes this even worse is the fact that there is little public discussion of the sense of smell, and therefore little awareness, or compassion, for people who have suffered such an impairment. This can lead one to feel isolated or misunderstood, and can even escalate to feelings of depression.
Unfortunately, there are many things that can cause us to lose this critical sense. Most of us are familiar with the temporary loss or decrease in our ability to smell when we are sick (as with COVID or the flu) or suffering from allergies. But certain medications, such as those that regulate blood pressure, can also affect our ability to detect aromas. In addition, nasal polyps and other blockages can wreak havoc on our noses, as can certain brain injuries and ailments. Another culprit, but one which we have some control over, is smoking, which can lessen one’s ability to smell due to an excess of mucous in the nasal lining. Finally, a whole list of diseases can cause anosmia or hyposmia, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
As you can see, our beaks are under constant threat, and this is why it is so important to speak with your medical providers about any medications you are taking, any medical conditions you might have, and any lifestyle practices you are engaging in, so that you can know what possible impact they can have on your ability to “sniff with purpose.”
Now that you know what your nose knows, take advantage of it! With proper care and attention, your nose can not only protect you from threats, but it can become a gateway to an entire world of sensory experiences. In these hectic times, try to “stop and smell the roses,” both literally and figuratively. When you can, try to be mindful of the scents around you and the feelings they evoke. Be conscious of the aromas you sense at a meal and allow them to enhance your enjoyment of eating. If you smoke, by all means make an effort to quit (and obviously not just for the benefit of your nostrils). And of course, if you encounter any loss of your sense of smell, see your doctor right away (https://gracemed.org/patients/appointment ).
By appreciating and protecting your nose and the incredible work it does, you will not only increase your body’s ability to survive and thrive, but you will enhance your experience of life in all of its wonderful dimensions.