So I thought for this post, it would be interesting to get into one of the systems of the body that rarely gets talked about because of the lack of knowledge regarding it. The olfactory system, that is, the sensory system of smell, doesn’t receive much attention and people generally assume there’s not much you can do with it. That it simply ‘is what it is’ as they slowly lose the vibrancy of odors or almost their entire sense of smell, whether it be because of age or a sinus infection that produced long-lasting consequences. So let’s look at what the olfactory system is, the potential reasons for malfunction, and some things that may end up helping you restore what once was.
The olfactory system is made up of a group of items that help us detect airborne chemicals, which are referred to as odors, and identify what exactly it is. When we smell fresh bread baking, the pleasant aroma, the odor, wafts from the bread into the air which is then processed, if you’re lucky enough to be nearby, in our olfactory system. Without this wonderfully designed system, not only could we not smell our food but we couldn’t taste it either. This system is so sensitive, that we can distinguish nearly 10,000 different odors and even detect an aroma that only contains a few parts per billion. So if there are one million different molecules in the air and there is even just a half of one molecule that is from a bell pepper, we would be able to tell.
So that we can all understand and follow along with the olfactory system and exactly how it works, let’s follow the scent on an apple pie as it makes its way into your nose. Firstly, the apple pie obviously plays a part in this because if it didn’t do anything, there would be nothing to smell! As I explained earlier, there is a release of chemical molecules, the things that we know as odors. When that odor enters inside the naval cavity, the nose, it works its way up to the top and becomes locked onto receptor cells in the cilia. The cilia are bundles of small hairs that are connected to around 10 million olfactory nerve cells. The nerve cells, which are called olfactory receptors, create a membrane which is known as the olfactory epithelium. It’s this membrane which recognizes and separates old and new odors. I know this is confusing but stay with me.
The olfactory receptors are connected to neurons that turn these odors into electrical signals and impulses. When the electrical system is stimulated like this, it sends the information to an area called the olfactory bulb which is located right behind the nose and it belongs to the central nervous system. Once inside the bulb, nerves that are used to conduct electricity in the body finally send the information to the different regions of the limbic system. This is where the real fun begins.
The limbic system is an incredible part of the brain that is directly connected to controlling your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, stress, memory, and hormone levels. Essentially, this system is your emotional control center; joy, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, it all is a result of the limbic system. The amazing thing is that our sense of smell is the only sense directly linked into this system. That’s why we become reminiscent of Grandma as we pull the apple pie out of the oven. If she’s included among the memories that involve apple pie, the odor is going to stimulate those memories.
Now we’ve almost all been sick at some point or another and been unable to taste our food. The reason why is pretty commonly known but I’ll include it. Seventy to seventy-five percent of what we taste is perceived and recognized by the olfactory system. So we can still make out if a food is generally salty, sweet, sour, or bitter because that’s what our taste buds are able to perceive. When we eat the food, the odor is carried to the back of the mouth and up the nasal cavity to the olfactory receptors so when those are covered with mucus, they can’t absorb and detect the odor.
So what are some things that hinder our ability to smell? Well, most conditions that affect the respiratory system also affect the olfactory systembecause of their connection. Dairy products are a big culprit in forming mucus. There’s been a lot of debate going back and forth with the traditional belief that dairy forms mucus. I don’t know where or how the opposing side has received such a large following because, YES, dairy IS mucus forming. There is no arguing that. Almost all dairy is mucus forming, especially dairy made from cow’s milk. That’s not to say that dairy in general is bad but it’s no coincidence that you feel extra mucus-y after consuming a large amount of milk or yogurt. Eliminating dairy for a period of time can help reduce mucus in the naval cavity, ultimately improving smell.
Sugar. We all know the dangers and consequences of a sugar-saturated diet, there’s no room for debate here. Especially when it comes to bleached, white sugar. Sugar will suppress the immune system from doing its job, cause inflammation, and build up mucus as well. Replacing sugar with healthier options like raw sugar, maple syrup, agave, or honey is a great idea but take it a step further and gain independence from sugary items and develop and appetite for fresh fruits. It’s a lot easier said than done, obviously, but not impossible. The goal is to simply eliminate the need and craving for sugar, not to say you can’t ever have another cookie or scoop of ice cream on occasion.
So let’s talk about why we lose our smell. We now know how smell works so it’s safe to say there’s an issue with the olfactory receptors or something in the area. This can be the result of nerve damage or even the mere inability or air to reach the receptors because of congestion. For some people, allergies can play a role, or simply age. In most cases, it happens with no apparent cause so no treatment is ever recommended. They have to just suffer through the rest of their life with no smell and little taste. You all know how certain smells and foods can light up your day so imagine a world without those things.
Be very wary of what products you’re using. We cannot stress that point enough. Toxic chemicals and items found in perfumes, soaps, and cleaning agents can be absolutely detrimental to your health. This includes the olfactory system. Synthetics can damage your nervous system and ultimately affect your smell and taste, as well as various other organs and systems. Replacing harmful cleaners and products is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
If you’ve experienced the lose of smell in any magnitude, I would encourage you to do some research on what else you can use if this is something that affects you. Hopefully you found this helpful and if you made it all the way to here, thanks for reading!