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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