The word anosmia was virtually unknown amongst the general population until last year when COVID-19 arrived on our front doorsteps and took over world news. So what is anosmia? Anosmia, is a complete loss of sense of smell, and is often caused by an illness or head trauma.
I live in the New York City metropolitan area and was literally overwhelmed by the devastation of this new coronavirus' wrath on so many lives. I started educating myself about the virus by reading reports from the CDC, NIH, WHO and signed up for updates from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). I even took a Coursera course to become a Contact Tracer through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, because I thought that if there would ever be a need for me to assist, I could. At the end of March, I read about Connecticut's first COVID-19 victim being released from Danbury Hospital after being in a medically induced coma.
When I came to the part in the article where it mentioned his enduring lost sense of smell and taste, I immediately thought about my sensory kits, and how the practice of smelling every day helped a former colleague from the fragrance industry regain her sense of smell after having aneurysms in 2017. I immediately jumped into action and was able to contact Elizabeth, the wife of Chris Tillett to offer my kits for smell training for her husband. She accepted, and on March 31, 2020, I drove up to Wilton, Connecticut and placed the two kits in their mailbox with a "Get Well" card and basic instructions for the regimen of smelling training. Just recently, I learned that Mr. Tillett has regained his sense of smell.
Anosmia soon became a common thread in articles about the virus, as medical researchers around the world began to discover that this condition seemed to be a common symptom and after effect of COVID-19. In April of 2020, the CDC listed anosmia as one of the most predictive symptoms of the virus.
I originally developed Essential Awakenings® in 2016 for the purpose to help stimulate the sense of smell (and taste) and memory recall for people living with dementia. I have spent the better years of my life as a scent designer in the fragrance industry, and through my years of work, I had met a world-renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Rachel Herz who is an expert on the sense of smell and taste. I was aware of a non-profit organization in the UK that gives tutorials on Smell Training, but the consumers have to go and purchase the materials for a DIY. What differentiates Essential Awakenings® with all others available for consumers is that my kits are an "all in one", packaged with scents, paper smelling strips, and a Smell Training Guide developed by Dr. Herz. The scents in Essential Awakenings® kits are also different from the usual four that are mentioned in articles and websites: Twelve everyday scents that resonate with a broad spectrum of the population such as grass, chocolate, popcorn and mint, for example. One of clients is using the scent kits for her parosmia (an abnormality in the sense of smell) and was thrilled when she finally recognized chocolate as chocolate.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Herz' Smell Training Guide for The Scent Guru Group that explains why the sense of smell is such an important function, how it works, how we loose it, and how we can try and get it back:
Smell Training Guide
How Our Sense of Smell Works
Scents are chemicals that float through the air. Our ability to smell begins inside our nose with two patches (one for each nostril) of mucus tissue called the “olfactory epithelia” that isolated about 2¾ inches up from the nostril openings. Scent molecules are swept into our nose when we inhale and land on the olfactory epithelia and stimulate the odor receptors inside. Specific chemicals stimulate the odor receptors in particular ways and cause a signal to be sent into the olfactory bulb in the brain, where it is then decoded as a certain scent. From the olfactory bulb the scent signal is then relayed to the areas of brain that process emotion, emotional memory, and learning. Indeed, our sense of smell is unique among the senses because it is the only sensory system that is directly linked with the neuroanatomical substrates of emotion, learning, and memory. Scent signals also directly activate regions in the brain that enable us to navigate through space, process taste, and motivate a wide range of behaviors.
Why Our Sense of Smell is so Important
Our sense of smell is involved in all aspects of our life. It is critical for our enjoyment of food. Our sense of taste just comprises the sensations of salty, sour, sweet and bitter; the flavor of bacon is due to the taste of salt plus the complex aroma of bacon. Our sense of smell is critically involved in our emotional and mental health due to the unique links between the processing of smell and the processing of emotions. Our sense of smell is essential for our physical health because scents enable us to detect a variety of dangers, and specific smells, due to their emotional associations, can also have positive (or negative) effects on the functioning of our immune system. Our sense of smell is intimately involved in our social and interpersonal behavior and plays a key role in romantic attraction, and bonding with children and family. Our sense of smell is also directly involved in higher levels of thinking and has pronounced effects on cognition, memory and spatial orientation. Most fundamentally our sense of smell give us a sense of our self, our feeling of connectedness with others, and is a central component to the overall quality of our life. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize how important their sense of smell is until they lose it.
How we Lose our Sense of Smell
There are numerous ways that our sense of smell can be damaged or lost. The technical term for total smell loss is “anosmia”. The most common cause for anosmia is through viral infections and sinus growths. We can also lose our sense of smell by being exposed to environmental toxins and even certain medications. Another way that the sense of smell can be lost is from head injuries or as a symptom of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. All of us to varying degrees will experience a decrease in our sense of smell as we enter our golden years, similar to the way normal aging affects our vision and hearing. Sometimes smell loss is temporary and can spontaneously recover such as when we recover from an illness, sinus blockages are removed, or when we are no longer exposed to certain medications or pollution. However, the doctrine has traditionally been that it is not possible to recover from more permanent forms of anosmia. New research breakthroughs now challenge this presumption. Considerable research has revealed that there is a treatment method for people who seem to have permanent anosmia that enables them to regain their sense of smell. The treatment method is “smell training”.
Smell Training for Regaining Your Sense of Smell
Many research studies have recently demonstrated that smell training can help people with anosmia recover their sense of smell. Smell training has been shown to improve all aspects of smell functioning including detecting that a scent is there, knowing that one scent is different from another scent, and recognizing what the specific scent is. In addition to helping people recover from anosmia, smell training can help anyone develop a better sense of smell.
What Smell Training Does/How it Works
It is not known exactly how smell training works to improve the sense of smell and enable people to recover from anosmia, but it is not due to simply sniffing. Studies comparing the effect of sniffing plain air to smell training have shown that simply sniffing does not produce any improvements whereas smell training clearly does. The way smell training helps people regain smell function appears to be due to a combination of actions stemming from stimulating the sense of smell. Included in these effects are that stimulating the sense of smell through smell training appears to: induce neurological regeneration of the odor receptors in the nose; increase the number of neurons in the olfactory bulb; help reorganize and reconnect brain circuits that are involved in the sense of smell and re-establish linkages with other brain areas; have a direct impact on re-learning the experience of odor sensation and perception.
In Dr. Herz' final section of her guide, she makes a point to say that perseverance and patience is the path to success. Stick to it and don’t be discouraged if you can’t smell anything after a while. Everyone is different and it can take weeks or more before you are able to detect anything. It is also possible that smell training may not work for you but the longer you keep at it the better your odds will be.
Dr. Herz also suggests that when you start to get your sense of smell back, you should still continue smell training but you can do it less often. If, however, you being to notice a decline return to smell training following the initial instructions.
The sense of smell has long been one of the most under appreciated senses and is often taken for granted. As one of my clients has said, “you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it.” The sense of smell is connected with memories and emotion, and very important for our wellbeing. Furthermore, the sense of smell can help save your life, as Timothy Huff (now unfortunately is deceased) told us in one of my Essential Awakenings® Smell & Memory Activities at River House Senior Center: "We were in the jungle in Vietnam and I smelled garlic and fish." Fish and garlic were not part of the American soldier's diet, so this foreign smell activated the fight or flight instinct for him and his comrades. Imagine yourself in this situation. Or, in another situation such as a man who recently told me he lost his sense of smell from COVID-19 and when he works in his boat yard, he can't smell the fuel. This certainly could be a hazard of his trade. Smell training has been helpful for all of my customers who have written back to me when I've followed with them. For instance, the following is a testimonial from Cristina Young, L.C.S.W who wrote to me last July after she trained, and regained her sense of smell with the Essential Awakenings® kits:
"I lost my sense of smell and taste when I had COVID in March. Several months later, I was surprised to still not be able to smell and taste. The world seems a bit flat and uninteresting without those two senses. Luckily, I contacted Ruth and she sent me her wonderful smelling kit. The variety of scents and the easy use of the applicators motivated me to use the kit fairly regularly. A doctor explained it to me like this: When you injure your leg, you do physical therapy to regain your strength and agility. This is like physical therapy for your sense of smell. Both taste and smell have improved greatly with the use of the oils, but taste is definitely in the lead. I've still got a ways to go until I fully recover, but this lovely kit has speeded up the process for sure. Many thanks to Ruth and The Scent Guru Group!"
It's important to realize that when you regain your sense of smell, you regain your sense of self, and feel more in balance with your world. And, if you are a foodie like me, you get to enjoy your food again! When giving the Essential Awakenings® activities, I tell my audience they should practice daily "mindful" smelling: When taking a walk in the forest, smell the leaves on the forest floor; when going to the beach, breath in the air and capture the essence of the ozone, and the sun tan lotion smells; when going to the marketplace, a botanical garden or nursery, don't just look at the flowers, stop and smell them.
If you are looking to regain your sense of smell, give the Essential Awakenings® kit a try today.