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February 8, 2012, last updated April 22, 2014
By Alison Turner, Featured Columnist

Losing your sense of smell is more than just an annoyance.
You use your sense of smell to help you taste food, to detect
gas in your home, even to improve your mood and social
effectiveness when you buy flowers and wear perfumes.   
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication
Disorders (NIDCD) finds that approximately 1%  to 2%
percent of people in North America report a “smell

Problems with your sense of smell increase as people get
older, particularly in men.   Because there are nearly as many
good smells as bad out there, there are times when we might
appreciate a weak sense of smell. However, the National
Institutes of Health also warns that olfactory problems could
also indicate a serious condition with your  nervous system.   
What causes a loss of the sense of smell? Are there foods or
other natural remedies to help you regain your sense of

How serious is a sense of smell disorder?  There are several
types of sense of smell disorders, the most general categories
being “anosmia,” the inability to detect odors, “hyposmia,” a
decreased ability to do so, and “dysosmia,” the distorted
identification of smells.   

A weakened or altered sense of smell could be temporary
nasal congestion from a common cold or allergies, resulting
from a disorder that prevents air from reaching smell
receptors in the nose (such as nasal polyps, deformities or
tumors). But, did you know that losing your sense of smell
could also indicate Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease, head
tumors or head trauma such as concussions?

The seriousness of the problem depends on why it is

How Do Sense of Smell Disorders Happen?  

The sense of smell is part of the body’s “chemosensory
system.”  In a piece of tissue high up inside the nose we
have olfactory sensory neurons: one neuron for one odor
receptor, so that the molecules released by a particular smell
stimulate its corresponding receptor. There is also a pathway
at the roof of the throat to the nose, so that molecules from
our food activate olfactory sensory neurons as well (this is
why when you have a stuffy nose you can’t seem to taste
your food). These cells directly connect to the brain, which
then identifies the smell.

Circumstances affecting the chemosensory system, then, may
in turn influence our sense of smell, whether it be
congestion, inflammation or a problem with the neurons.  

What Do You Do if You Have a Sense of Smell Disorder?

The first step to getting your sense of smell back, if you
believe it has indeed left you behind, is to get the problem
diagnosed.  As seen from above, olfactory problems are
symptomatic of different conditions, and knowing what yours
comes from us crucial to making it better.  Surgery and
antihistamines are often prescribed, usually for allergies or
nasal polyps, but there are  several things you can try on
your own.  Below are ten recent studies that have analyzed
ways improve a weakened sense of smell.

Don't Smoke.  You already know a long list  of reasons not
to smoke.  Now, keeping your sense of smell should be added
to the list. Smoking damages your ability to smell.

In 2007, experts from the University of Munster and the
University of Dresden Medical School, both in Germany,
including Dr. M.M. Vennemann with the former,  found that
smoking may also negatively impact our sense of smell.

Out of the 1323 participants in the population-based study
conducted in Germany, 3.6% were anosmic (could not smell
at all), and 18% showed olfactory dysfunction.

Gathering information about lifestyle and background
revealed that “smoking in general increased the risk for
impairment of olfactory function,” and the team concludes
that “smoking increases significantly the risk of impairment of
olfactory function.”

Don't Overdo the Alcohol.  Alcohol can damage your sense
of smell. In 2006, a team of specialists from the Department
of Psychiatry at Innsbruck Medical University and the
Institute of Communication and Psychotherapy at the
University of Innsbruck, both in Austria, led by Dr. Claudia
Rupp with the former,  conducted a study in response to
prior research indicating that “chronic alcoholism is
accompanied by olfactory deficits.”  

The experiment included 32 alcohol-dependent participants
and 30 “healthy comparison subjects,” and found that
alcohol-dependent patients were impaired with olfactory
functions.  The team took their research a step farther and
found that the olfactory deficits in people who are alcohol-
dependent “appear to be associated with prefrontal cognitive
dysfunction […]suggesting that alcohol-related olfactory
discrimination deficits may be associated with impairment in
the functional integrity of the prefrontal lobe.”  

While more specifically locating the area of the brain that is
impacting smell in alcoholics may help in the future to
alleviate the problem, it might be worthwhile to cut back on
the drinking in the meantime.

Get Your Vitamin D.  In 2011, Ralph Kruse, a chiropractic
physician in Illinois, and Dr. Jerrilyn Cambron with the
National University of Health Sciences, also in Illinois,  
observed patients for whom “diminished olfaction” improved
when their levels of vitamin D3 was elevated.  

The study concludes that a link between a lack of vitamin D
and a diminished sense of smell was “noted,” and that
symptoms were alleviated by the consumption of vitamin D

You also can get your daily supply of Vitamin D naturally --
from the sun. Spend 15 to 20 minutes a day in the sun, with
your arms exposed, if possible. That should give you all the
Vitamin D you'll need. (Read more about
Vitamin D deficiency
and the health problems it causes.)

Stop Using Nasal Medication with Zinc.  In 2010 Drs.
Terence Davidson and Wendy Smith with the Division of
Otolaryngology at the University of California San Diego and
the School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs of the San Diego
Healthcare System, respectively,  evaluated the relationship
between over-the-counter intranasal zinc therapy and
anosmia, the loss of smell.  Studying 25 participants who
reported acute-onset anosmia after applying zinc gluconate
gel, the doctors concluded that evidence “demonstrates that
intranasal zinc gluconate therapy causes hyposmia and

If you struggle with smelling when you didn’t before, check
any intranasal medications you may use – if zinc is involved, it
may be part of the problem.


There have been conflicting studies on the role of zinc in
maintaining your sense of smell and taste, with some studies
showing zinc helps and others, like the above study on zinc
gluconate, showing too much zinc actually harms your sense
of smell. To try to settle the question, researchers from the
University of Virginia. Massey Cancer Center conducted a
study of chemotherapy patients. Often, these patients lose
taste and smell sensitivity after cancer treatment. After being
given 220 mg of zinc orally twice a day, these patients
showed no change in their sense of smell or taste.

It's fair to say that the jury is still out on zinc's effectiveness
in restoring your sense of smell. However, it can't hurt to try
to add foods high in zinc such as oysters to your diet if you
have loss a sense of smell to see if it helps.]

Try Acupuncture.  Acupuncture can help restore your
sense of smell, a study found.  In 2010, researchers with the
University of Cologne Medical Center in Germany,  including
Dr. Julia Vent with the Department of Head and Neck
Surgery,  evaluated whether or not traditional Chinese
acupuncture (TCA) could help the recovery of olfactory
function after viral infection of the upper airway (which
cannot be achieved with pharmacotherapy).  15 participants
struggling with compromised olfactory function after an
upper respiratory viral infection were treated by TCA in 10
weekly, 30 minute sessions.  Patients treated with TCA had a
“significantly better outcome in olfactory function” than did
patients receiving control treatment.  

Avoid Cadmium Exposure.  Cadmium is a metal that is a by-
product of zinc refining, and is used for several things in
industry, such as plastics, alloys, parts of batteries, and in
nuclear and electronic engineering.  Past studies reveal
cadmium poisoning in people after several years of exposure,
a condition that often results in problems with the nose and
respiratory system, such as rhinitis, emphysema, and
anosmia, the inability to smell.   

In 2011 a team of researchers from The State University of
New Jersey and Rutgers University, led by Dr. John McGann
with the latter,  evaluated the persistent harmful effects of
intranasal exposure to cadmium in a mouse model, in order
to assess possibilities of “sensory rehabilitation training.”    

Cadium, the researchers found, accumulates in the brain’s
olfactory bulb, and is “accompanied” by gradual reduction of
axonal projections from the olfactory cells and thus also
“complete impairment on an olfactory detection task.”  

But here's some good news:  two weeks of “odorant-guided
operant conditioning training” was able to restore the sense
of smell in the cadmium-exposed mice.  The team believes
that the parts of the brain in the mice “learned to interpret
the degraded sensory input.”  

What this means, they conclude, is that “sensory learning can
mask even severe damage from neurotoxicants and suggest
that explicit sensory training may be useful in rehabilitation of
olfactory dysfunction.”

Step one is to avoid persistent cadmium exposure; step two,
hope that “odorant-guided operant conditioning training”
will soon be a smooth process in humans.

‘Tis the season to lose our smell?  

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