What Causes a Loss of Smell and What You Can Do About It

Stop to smell the cumin (and the cinnamon, peppermint, and even the roses, too)

smell the roses

Your sense of smell is a huge component of overall health.  Unfortunately, up to one-quarter of people over age 50 have some loss of smell (called olfaction in medical lingo.)  Surprisingly, many people who have a diminished sense of smell aren’t consciously aware of it, even though it can have a profound impact on health and quality of life.

Four common ways you can lose your sense of smell:

  • Diseases or infections of the nose and sinus cavities
  • Exposure to toxic substances or heavy metals such as cadmium
  • Head trauma – this is the most common cause of olfactory loss in younger people and typically leads to a more significant degree of loss than other causes.
  • Side effects of medication.  This is not common, but drugs for blood pressure regulation, amphetamines, antipsychotics, antihistamines, and other drugs have been linked to a loss of smell.

Problems from loss of olfaction:

  • Your sense of smell contributes to your enjoyment of food; without it, you’re likely to have a diminished appetite.
  • Potential nutrient deficiency.  In addition to having your overall appetite suffer, you may find yourself subliminally making different food choices.  People with olfactory loss tend to choose foods higher in sugar, for instance.
  • Danger of being exposed to noxious vapors without realizing it
  • Loss of an important, though little-understood means of interpersonal communication
  • Mood changes and depression

If you’ve experienced head trauma, loss of smell is one of the most common effects.  Loss of smell can persist even when other symptoms have subsided.  That’s why testing the sense of smell should always be part of the evaluation of head trauma.

Loss of smell is also an early marker for cognitive changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.

You can test your sense of smell at home.

It’s almost (not quite) as good as the test you can get in your doctor’s office.  Here’s how to test yourself:

  • Go to your spice cabinet and choose 4-6 different spices or other flavors.
  • Place a small amount of each at the bottom of its own juice glass.
  • Blindfold yourself and scramble the glasses around.
  • Bring the juice glasses up to your nose one at a time and see if you can identify their scents.
  • If you have any question about your range of smell-ability, have a family member or friend try the same test so you can compare results.

Is there effective treatment for loss of olfaction?

If you’ve lost your sense of smell because of a sinus disease or infection, you may be in luck.  The underlying condition may be treatable, and you can expect your sense of smell to return once it’s been resolved.

If your loss of smell is from head trauma or another cause, the medical model considers the loss of smell to be untreatable.  However, I wouldn’t give up quite so quickly.  We know scientifically that we don’t know the limits of the body’s healing potential if it’s given the right conditions to work with.

In my office, I use craniosacral therapy as part of the treatment plan for patients with head trauma.  Craniosacral therapy works via a mechanism that is poorly understood and is virtually unrecognized within our current medical model.  However, if head trauma has damaged the nerves that run from your nose back into your brain, craniosacral therapy may be able to assist your body in the healing of those nerve pathways.

This treatment, though it would be considered unconventional, is extremely gentle and virtually free of negative side-effects.  A therapeutic trial might be worthwhile since it’s easy to determine if the treatment is helping you or not.

Perhaps you can join the many other patients who have benefited from craniosacral therapy.

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