Published in magazine ZARJA JANA, 45/2021
The current pandemic situation has brought a lot of changes to our lives. In many areas we come to realize that some simple things can no longer be taken for granted. One of them is also our ability to smell. It has always been a part of us, we practically never had no problems in that area. However, recently, when a temporary loss of the ability to smell became one of the symptoms of the widespread viral disease Covid-19, the situation changed considerably.
What diseases can cause olfactory dysfunction?
A temporary or even a permanent loss in the ability to smell due to a disease is not a new phenomenon. It may appear after recovering from viruses, flu, allergies, nasal polyps, head injuries and even as a side effect of some medications. The ability to smell may also decrease with age. However, this dysfunction appears more acutely with the Covis-19 situation. Interestingly, a study by the University of Paris Saclay, published in January 2021, found that there were many more cases of the olfactory dysfunction among patients with milder forms of Covid than with more severe ones.
What are the forms of the olfactory dysfunction?
We do not yet know why we lose our ability to smell when infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Scientists around the world are working intensively on that question. Currently, several theories are known which all differ considerably. Whatever the reason, the result is a complete or a partial loss of the ability to smell, mainly temporarily.
The degrees of the olfactory dysfunction can vary. Anosmia is a complete loss of the ability to smell, hyposmia a partial loss, and parosmia a type of distorted ability when one perceives familiar odors completely differently (e.g. previously pleasant smells as unpleasant).
Is it possible to restore our ability to smell?
The first good news is that the ability to smell recovers mainly on its own. The study by the University of Saclay in Paris showed that 75 to 85 percent of the ability to smell returns within two months. It was also found that with 95 percent of patients, that ability was restored to its original state within six months. Sounds good, but we never know in advance what recovery we can expect. Waiting six months, however, is anything but simple.
If the loss of the ability to smell is short-lived, it usually does not present a significant hurdle in patient’s life. If it lasts longer, however, it can get complicated. This is especially disturbing for people who are professionally working with scents (gastronomy, oenology, perfumery, cosmetics…), or for those who extensively use their smell in everyday life. The lack of the ability to smell can also affect our emotional life and lead from dissatisfaction to various forms of depression in most severe cases. It is therefore recommended for a patient who has no ability to smell for already a month to do something about it.
Another good news is found in neuroplasticity. This is the ability of our brain to redistribute nerve pathways after a change or an injury. If we add to this the special ability that dead olfactory neurons can be replaced by new ones capable of performing the same functions, the chances of restoring our ability to smell are excellent. The only question is how and in what time.
Have we lost our ability to smell or are we just deficient in zinc?
We know for certain that zinc is one of the elements that affect the functioning of our ability to smell. What’s more, the loss of smell is often a sign of a severe zinc deficiency in the body. The reason for it resides mainly in our way of life. Weakened microbiome, the use of substances that inhibit stomach acid (especially proton pump inhibitors), the use of diuretics or anticonvulsants which all rapidly flush zinc out of the body, may lead to zinc deficiency. Also, over the years, the function of our stomach acid begins to decrease which affects our ability to absorb zinc. It is therefore advised to first strengthen our stomach. According to the publication ‘End of the Heartburn’, in 90 percent of cases, heartburn is not the result of an elevated stomach acid, but of improper stomach movement or even a lack of acid. If we solve this riddle, the body will find it easier to normalize the amount of zinc needed, and maybe that will be enough to solve the problems with the ability to smell.
How to encourage recovery?
As our nervous system is damaged, everything that helps to restore it also helps to regenerate the olfactory epithelium. If our body gets a quality intake of fat, it will easier restore the nerve sheaths. These are made of unsaturated and saturated fats, therefore more of butter, coconut fat, pork fat, and good sources of omega 3 fats (flaxseed, walnut, hemp oil) should be integrated in our diets.
Magnesium is another element that plays an important part in faster recovery. It repairs damaged DNA in our cells and is most effective if our cells are not yet destroyed. It is therefore important to take magnesium regularly, from the very start of health problems. When cells fail, it is impossible to restore them. But when a cell is just damaged, magnesium can help a lot.
The third important aid in the regeneration of the nervous system comes in the form of vitamin B. It plays an important role in the speedy regeneration of the damaged cells and is thus an important element in the case of the olfactory dysfunction. However, its absorption will be better if vitamin C is present. Best would then be to use preparations that are already properly formulated.
No to aggressive methods
In online forums we can come across many suggestions on how to regain our ability to smell. Some of methods are very aggressive. People say out what they use to moisturize and lubricate their noses in order to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Some even mention rinsing the nose with various mild acids. Those can do more harm than good! And here comes the third good news – we don’t need aggressive means to get back our ability to smell. In most cases, an olfactory training is sufficient. Indeed, a ‘sniffing training’ can speed up the recovery. A recent metastudy (February 2021) clearly showed the benefits of olfactory trainings and demonstrated significant clinical improvements with patients suffering from anosmia.
A sniffing training is a completely non-aggressive method that has no side effects. It is based on regular and repetitive stimulation of the olfactory system by sniffing selected strong odors. Perhaps it is most convenient to use essential oils which are very concentrated and have a strong scent. A selection of four oils from contrasting groups is recommended (for example citrus, herbs, flowers …). We should practice smelling at least twice a day, smelling all four scents each time. The emphasis should not be on the duration of the smell, but on the intensity. And, of course, we should use natural and high quality essential oils without artificial additives.
As we start with the training, we should know that results cannot be achieved in a few days. It takes perseverance in carrying out the training at least twice per day as a part of our daily routine. The easiest way is to have the bottles with essential oil already ready on our nightstand and train right in the bed. With practice we will get better. Even if we may not be able to distinguish between rose and lemon essential oils at first, let’s stick to it. Our body builds a new neural connection and sooner or later a new highway for the transport of the stimuli will be built. Sometimes it takes a few weeks to rebuild an olfactory road, sometimes a few months. A nice thing is that our body responds positively even if we are unable to distinguish smells. The choice of essential oils thus remains important. Best is to use those which have at the same time a positive effect on other health issues that we may have.
Where to get help?
Some of you will do this training on your own. However, if you need support, you can consult an aromatherapist. Olfactory disorders and other problems of the olfactory system are addressed by specialist doctors who should be visited in any case of a serious and long lasting dysfunction.
Authors: SANJA LONČAR and EVA NEDELKO, aromatherapist