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Living (And Eating) Without A Sense Of Smell

I just had to pounce on this new study on the emotional and social effects of living without a sense of smell. Most of us take smelling our world for granted; one of those basic elements of life that we would only sit up and take notice of if, one day, it went away. And nobody talks about it…

Anosmia Anxiety - © e-counseling.comResearch has shown that patients who have lost their
sense of smell also report high rates of depression,
anxiety, isolation and relationship difficulties.

Why pounce?

A couple of reasons. First, smelling is reckoned to be responsible for up to 70 percent of the sensory pleasure we call tasting, and that’s a huge part of the pleasure we get out of eating. Without it, would we eat as much as we do? Would we give a toot in the wind about what we eat? Would we still be able to cook properly? These are just a few of the questions researchers sought to answer in a study of people without a sense of smell.

Second, my dear departed stepfather, Graeme, turned to the culinary arts in his retirement from teaching school as a means of indulging his lifelong love of the mysterious. And the whys and wherefores of flavour, aroma, colour and texture, and the magical ways ingredients combine and transform themselves under the chef’s hand. But in his early 70s, he lost his sense of smell and, at first, was devastated. You would be too. But he got back on the horse, and kept trying, and eventually developed a feel for the right amount of seasonings and other ingredients certain dishes required to make them delicious to those blessed with a whole nose. He loved cooking for family and friends, and we were all glad he persevered in the fight against his tragic loss.

What it it, anyway?

The official name for the lack of a sense of smell is Anosmia. According to Wikipedia: “Anosmia, also known as smell blindness, is the loss of the ability to detect one or more smells. Anosmia may be temporary or permanent.” The Wikipedia entry for Anosmia also lists 53 possible causes of the condition . So we should not be surprised to hear that it’s fairly common. In fact, one in 20 people the world over suffer from Anosmia. The thing is, we don’t think much about it because those who have it don’t talk about it, fearing embarrassment or ridicule. Or pity. So, it’s also an invisible disease; one which the medical community rarely thinks to take up as a research topic.

What they did

Researchers at the University of East Anglia worked with the Smell and Taste clinic at the James Paget University Hospital, Gorleston-On-Sea, the UK’s first clinic dedicated to taste and smell. The team analysed writings by 71 patients who had contacted the clinic describing their experience with the condition.

What they found

Study spokesperson Dr. Carl Philpott explained, “Most patients suffer a loss of flavour perception which can affect appetite and can be made even worse if distortions in their sense of smell also co-exist. Previous research has shown that people who have lost their sense of smell also report high rates of depression, anxiety, isolation and relationship difficulties.”

But Philpott said his team also found a plethora of other results from the loss of one’s sense of smell:

“One really big problem was around hazard perception – not being able to smell food that had gone off, or not being able to smell gas or smoke. A large number of the participants no longer enjoyed eating, and some had lost appetite and weight. Others were eating more food with low nutritional value that was high in fat, salt and sugar – and had consequently gained weight. Participants had lost interest in preparing food and some said they were too embarrassed to serve dishes to family and friends, which had an impact on their social lives.

“The inability to link smells to happy memories was also a problem. Bonfire night, Christmas smells, perfumes and people – all gone. Smells link us to people, places and emotional experiences. And people who have lost their sense of smell miss out on all those memories that smell can evoke.

“We found that personal hygiene was a big cause for anxiety and embarrassment, because the participants couldn’t smell themselves. Parents of young children couldn’t tell when their nappies needed changing, and this led to feelings of failure. One mother found it difficult bonding with her new baby because she couldn’t smell him.

“Many participants described a negative impact on relationships – ranging from not enjoying eating together to an impact on sexual relationships.”

The takeaway

These problems led to diverse range of negative emotions including anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, isolation, loss of confidence, regret and sadness. And the problems were compounded by a lack of understanding about the disorder among clinicians. Philpott concludes the Smell and Taste clinic is a big step in the right direction. “The participants described a lot of negative and unhelpful interactions with healthcare professionals before coming to the James Paget Smell and Taste clinic. Those that did manage to get help and support were very pleased — even if nothing could be done about their condition, they were very grateful for advice and understanding.”

My take

I wish my stepdad had a Smell and Taste Clinic to go to during his lifetime. He might have found a cure. If not, then a clearer understanding of his condition.

Let’s follow up on Philpott’s team’s findings with further research on treating Anosmics. Some of the known causes are irreversible. But many others may have a viable resolution.

And let’s be thankful – all of us who have an intact sense of Smell – that were are so blessed.

~ Maggie J.