Aromatherapy & Anosmia
How Covid-19 cost me my sense of smell (and how aromatherapy helped me get it back).
By Kelly Satchell
I remember the last cup of coffee I had, before it started. I was lying in bed on the phone to a friend when my brother brought me in a steaming strong cup of the good stuff. The aroma instantly enveloped the room, making it smell divine. Lounging around, savouring the taste, and drinking endless cups is always a sure-fire signal the weekend has arrived. The next day I stopped tasting or smelling anything.
What is ‘anosmia’? It’s the fancy term given to a partial or complete loss of smell. It can be temporary, or in more unfortunate cases, permanent. It’s most commonly caused by a swelling or blockage in the nose. And the reason we’re talking about it? It’s a condition that many are experiencing as a result of contracting COVID-19.
And while the horizon has now resurfaced, and we can see an end-point closing in on the virus, there are still many unknowns. Whilst I can taste, and smell more than I could before, I don’t know whether my sniffer will ever be the same again. So in some respects, this is an ode to my old whiffer. I once detected the very light scent of patchouli on a friend (undetectable to anyone else) and became mildly worried (and intrigued) about whether that meant I’d identified the early onset of a disease (it’s a thing). I was proud of my discerning nose, much to the annoyance of everyone else. Now, I’m stuffing my snoot everywhere just to be able to pick up the faintest of fragrances.
There’s a reason Proust’s madeleine story from “In Search of Lost Time”, in which the taste of a madeleine evokes a flood memories of his aunt who used to feed him them as a child, is referenced so often. It’s the memories that are tied into smells and tastes that conjure something so much larger than a pleasant odour:
“after things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but more vitally, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
It's no surprise that smell can hit us with such overwhelming nostalgia, because the olfactory bulb (which processes smell) sends messages directly to the limbic system, the parts of the brain linked to emotion and memory. Smell is also the most elemental sense and you've been building those memories (scent is stored with memory) since you were a fetus, as it's the only sense to be fully developed in the womb. Smell is crucial to how we perceive the world, not only in terms of memories and happiness, but also from a primal perspective of identifying threats, and it can even potentially influence how we choose partners (although the link between pheromones and sexual arousal in humans is not 100% confirmed).
Studies have found that repeated short-term exposure to smells can have a positive impact on the strength of your nose. If you’re also struggling with anosmia, you can try retraining your nose by smelling lemon, rose, clove and eucalyptus (the four smells typically used in most of the published research studies). But you should choose smells you recognise falling within the four different groups: flowery, fruity, spicy and resinous. Putting your mindfulness techniques to practice, you should smell each essential oil for approximately 20 seconds at a time, twice a day. Any of these should do the trick:
In a world consumed by a pandemic where our horizons have shrunk and our support networks are scattered, smell has the magical power to transport us elsewhere. Like that perfect moment when you pass someone wearing the same perfume as a loved one. Most people love the smell of coffee, but for me in particular it evokes my grandparents' kitchen in France, taking a leisurely breakfast reading the local papers and drinking bowls full of coffee, heady with its smoky smell. When loved ones are far, they can at least for an illusionary minute feel close.
Scent's leading role in taste has been well debated - Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago famously claimed that over 90% of what is perceived as taste is actually smell. Yet otherwise, it's a very underrated sense. There are some cultures such as the Ongee of the Andaman Islands who revere scent. Social anthropologist Dr Kate Fox notes that instead of greeting someone with 'How are you?", the Ongee ask "how is your nose?". If the person responds that they are feeling "heavy with odour", the greeter must inhale deeply to remove some of the surplus and if in short supply, the greeter should breathe on them. In India, the traditional greeting was to smell someone's head, with an ancient text stating "I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love".
Considering that many of our lives have changed drastically over the past two years and we have fewer stimuli to engage and interest us - be it working from home, travelling and touching less - I think it's high time the nose received its due praise for its talents. It doesn't have to be restricted to living in the past, dreaming of holidays gone by - a cedarwood forest in Lebanon, jasmine lining the streets of Jordan, or the salty seawater and suncream of Croation beaches. Taking time to focus on your five senses is often proclaimed as a key mindfulness tactic, allowing us to be more observant of the world around us and to truly live in the moment. So it only makes sense that when we have a burning urge to be free, explore, and see new sights, we instead make do with what's within grip and indulge in new flavours, novel smells, and focus on the minutiae of our local surroundings.
While foreign holidays still feel like a distant dream, try bringing those dreamy landscapes to your home with the following:
Escaping through natural scents can also bring us closer to the calming effect of nature and the earth. Spending time in nature is known to improve your mood, reduce feelings of stress and anger, and generally help us to feel more relaxed. So, if you're blessed with a superb sniffer, I urge you to go forth and satiate your desires with fragrances of all kinds: the sentimental, elemental, and the unusual.
Cherish your nose and the simple pleasure of scent, it's more important than ever when you're unable to explore unknown places and it doesn't have to be restricted to living in the past. Try out some new scents and you might make some new delightful memories, even if only from the comfort of your own home.
Discover a new favourite fragrance with these top picks:
Discover aromatherapy, personal fragrance and more below: