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Chances are you’ve got a favorite smell. Maybe it’s the floral scent that reminds you of your wedding bouquet, the cinnamony aroma of your mom’s fresh baked snickerdoodles, or perfume of freshly cut grass. Yet being able to smell is the most under-rated of the human senses: one study found that young people would rather give up their sense of smell than give up social media.
But when loss of smell became a symptom of COVID-19—60 percent of patients reported losing taste and smell within the first four days of onset and other research shows this issue lingers at least 6 months for many—the value of our olfactory senses went up. People want their sense of smell back, and fortunately, there’s a way to help the process along: smell training—specifically a technique called Smell Retraining Therapy (SRT).
How do you lose your sense of smell?
Losing the ability to smell, called anosmia, isn’t just a coronavirus phenomenon. Before the pandemic, researchers estimated at least a fifth of the population suffered from anosmia or parosmia, a related where odors are distorted. (For example, something you used to find fragrant now smells foul.) Changes in your sense of smell are typically caused by a virus, cold, or flu damaging receptors in the nose.
While losing your sense of smell might seem like a minor inconvenience, being able to smell is actually crucial. Detecting an off odor can save you from a gas leak, a smoldering fire, or a bite of food that’s gone bad.
The nose also provides a direct route to the central nervous system: Smells can affect emotions. They can be comforting or triggering, depending on the association of a smell with certain people or experiences.
How does smell training work?
For people who have lost this crucial sense, smell training allows them to “practice” smelling as a way to help regenerate the neural pathways to the olfactory part of the brain. While research is still limited, an early study found that 68% of people who did SRT showed improvement compared with 33% in a control group. And the CDC has says SRT is safe to try.
Smell training typically uses four different common categories of scents: flowery, fruity, spicy and resinous. Smell training kits may use essential oil of rose, lemon, clove, and eucalyptus. But experts say you can use any item with a strong, lasting scent–lavender, cinnamon sticks, orange peel, a bunch of basil or mint.
Fifth Sense, a U.K. non-profit that supports people with smell disorders, offers this process for smell training:
- Begin with one fragrance at a time. Place each one into a separate container.
- Take slow, short, gentle sniffs of the first smell. (Sniffing too vigorously may inhibit your ability to detect the smell.
- Repeat 2 or 3 times, then rest for five minutes
- Move on to the next smell and repeat as above.
- Record any changes
Practice twice a day for at least 12 weeks; researchers say it takes consistency and time to see results.
Pairing smell training with pranayama
Researchers haven’t studied pairing SRT with breath work, but Richard Rosen, author of The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama says slowing the breath and breathing more intentionally may allow you to take in the scents more deeply.
“Fill the nostrils with the breath. Be conscious of the breath touching the entire lining of the nostrils,” he says. “Most average breathers don’t do that. That might make each inhale more effective in contacting and inhaling the odor.”
Pranayama practices such as anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing), may also help sensitize the nose and enhance the ability to detect smells.
An Ayurvedic approach to smell therapy
From an Ayurvedic perspective, smell training makes sense. Practitioners have used nasya–administering medicines through the nasal passages—as a therapeutic procedure. They cite a direct connection from the nose to the brain, and believe that medicine delivered this way “eliminates the deep seated doṣas”.
Otolaryngologist Renee Rossi, chair of Mount Madonna Institute’s College of Ayurveda says research shows that cleansing practices through the nose, called pratimarsha, may stimulate production of stem cells that circulate throughout the body. This might help rejuvenate the smell receptors.
Rossi suggests daily lubrication of the nasal passages by dipping a clean pinkie finger in sesame oil and gently massaging the inside of the nostrils. Rinsing the nose with saline in a neti pot clears the nasal passages and may also help to fortify your sense of smell.
If you plan to use a Smell Replacement Therapy home kit, do it carefully. Use clean utensils to avoid introducing germs or bacteria into the nose. Rossi also warns against putting undiluted essential oils directly on nasal tissues. They might burn or irritate the skin.