A dulled sense of smell is a common problem – what natural approaches are there for this condition?

I was interested to read recently of a recently developed diagnostic tool for doctors – the artificial nose. Scientists at Strathclyde University have come up with a device that has the ability to detect odours characteristic of a variety of medical conditions. Learning of this new-fangled gadget reminded me of a story my mother once told me regarding a doctor with whom she had worked back in 1950s. Her colleague, a surgeon by trade, was renowned for his ability to accurately diagnose internal cancer on the basis of a physical examination. This skill, he maintained, was based less on what he saw and felt, and more by the smell emanating from his patient. This anecdote provides does seems to provide some support for the notion that it is possible to sniff out illness.

The fact that some doctors appear to have a nose for disease got me thinking about the significant number of individuals I see in practice who complain of a loss of their sense of smell. As odour detection is an intrinsic part of our sense of taste, individuals who experience a decline in their nasal ability will usually find that their ability to savour and enjoy food has waned too. Rarely, impaired sense of smell – the medical term for which is hyposmia – is the result of damage (e.g. by trauma or a tumour) to the so-called olfactory nerve that sends smell signals to the brain. However, more often, hyposmia is related to factors that may respond to a nutritional approach.

One of the chief causes of hyposmia is congestion in the membranes in the nose that contain the smell-sensitive nerve endings. Often, such congestion and a tendency to snotty build-up are related to the consumption of what may be referred to as ‘mucous-forming’ foods. I find dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt and ice cream are generally the worst offenders here, and those prone to nasal stuffiness might benefit from eschewing these for a few days to see what effect this has. Should this help clear congestion and improve sense of smell, the reintroduction of foods, one-by-one, back into the diet can help to identify which specific foods are the problem.

Another nutritionally-related cause for hyposmia is a deficiency in the mineral zinc. Infections are believed to place a particular drain on the body’s stores of zinc, which may help explain why some individuals find their sense of smell is noticeably impaired after a bout of cold or flu. Those keen to boost zinc levels in their body can find this mineral in foods such as oysters, lentils, sunflower seeds and pecan nuts. In addition, I recommend individuals supplement with 30 mg of zinc each for three or four months. Should this help restore sense of smell, it is a good idea for individuals to continue supplementation with a multivitamin and mineral which contains at least 7 mg of zinc each day. my experience is that that these natural approaches can be very effective in helping individuals pick up the scent.

13 Responses to A dulled sense of smell is a common problem – what natural approaches are there for this condition?

  1. Ron McIntyre 15 December 2008 at 2:24 am #

    Dear Dr. Briffa,
    A recent head injury (including some inner ear damage – both ore which are healing nicely) left me with an almost total loss of sense of smell (I catch faint whiffs here and there and can still smell strong odors, like Romano cheese) and a slightly diminished sense of taste.
    My ENT specialist said it “may or may not” fully return. Is there anything I can do to improve these 50/50 odds of regaining my sense of smell? …I would be happy with even partially.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Janet Baker 24 January 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    Dear Dr. Biffa,

    I have also lost my sense of smell after a recent head injury. I fell and fractured my skull. Unfortunately I also have no sense of taste which I am assuming is because I have no sense of smell ( I would imagine there has been no damage to the sense of taste.)

    Is there any test, or procedure that could determine the cause? I am wondering if a nerve has been severed or if this is just because of the residual swelling.

    I would be grateful for any advice.
    Thank you
    Janet Baker.

  3. Chrissie Blaze 8 April 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    I too lost my beloved sense of smell (I loved to smell the roses and a good glass of wine; a fine perfume) after an accident where I fell on the back of my head and knocked myself out.

    A year later I am still trying hard to restore it and it comes and goes. I have tried acupuncture and that helped while I was having the treatment. Now I am trying Basil pure essential oil diffused. It helps because I can smell it. A naturopath said sniffing strong smells helps, i.e. horseradish. Do this every time – basil, horseredish, peppermint essential oil (only use the finest) for about 15 seconds. Also step up your zinc to the recommended amount. Eat more lentils, sunflower seeds and oysters. Don’t give up. I’m a healer and everything that is damaged can be healed by one’s own body – it just needs a little help at times. Good luck!

  4. J. Bolton 13 August 2010 at 3:30 am #

    Twenty years ago I had a head injury in which I lost my sense of smell. Ten years later I heard about experimental work being dong with vitamin A injections. Not having access to vitamin A in that form, I took a deliberate overdose of it. It worked. My sense of smell is about 1/2 of that of other people, but I’m on my way to becoming a wine sommelier, if that’s any indication (you really need a sense of smell for that).

    Beware! vitamin A overdosing can be toxic or fatal. Look up the ranges that are dangerous. The recommended daily allowance is 5000 IU. Pills often contain 25,000 IU. I took 50,000 IU/day over a period of days. Children have been known to survive 300,000 IU, but it does make you sick, as well as very agitated, and a really massive overdose might kill you. That said, doing less than a large dose, i.e. a small dose over a period of time, would likely accomplish nothing at all. Same for carotenoids such as beta-carotene – these are 100% useless for the purpose of regrowing your smell nerves, as the body only converts as much as it believes it needs into vitamin A – so eating a boatload of carrots will do nothing. You need a large dose for nerve regeneration.

    The nerves often severed in head injuries due to large brain movements against the very sharp inner processes of the skull are also some of the nerves best able to regenerate. That said, few people overcome their anosmia. A large dose of vitamin A worked for me.

    Do your research, don’t over- overdo it (although a large does is required), and have some support. A large dose makes you go squirrely and overstimulated, touchy and crabby. You need enough, but more isn’t necessarily better – doing a huge overdose e.g. 200,000 IU/day will likely accomplish nothing more than making you sick. A wise course of action would also be to work up to it over a few trials – everyone is different – some people can be incredibly sensitive, e.g. pass out and faint after one children’s aspirin – clearly those kinds of people should NOT try this. Ultimately, consult a good MD/naturopath, although I do believe this technique is generally unknown so you may not get much backing for it. I hated being without a sense of smell (and, clearly, taste), so it was worth it for me.

    About two weeks after my deliberate (moderate) overdose, I noticed my sense of smell starting to come back – unexpectedly, as I had no benchmark as to “when” it might happen Over the next 6 months, it rebuilt. Once you can smell things, “work” your nose by learning and enjoying smells, so you can build up the brain side of the equation – half of smell is in the brain. Zinc is useless until you’ve grown new nerves, but afterwards a moderate amount of zinc is good (zinc is easy to overdo – stay in a modest range e.g. 15-40mg / day – too much zinc depresses other vital minerals).

    Good luck! Write back on your experiences …

  5. Leisa 20 May 2011 at 4:16 am #

    I fell hitting the back of my head, thinking not of it ,got up the next day with a stiff neck and a severe headache. The next day ,I woke up with a black eye. still with a severe headache, gave a x-mas party which my neighbor cane to , she is a doctor ordered a M R I . headaches went away in a month or so, but have no sense of smell or taste. There is one smell occurring often, pleasant, but, I want my senses back. Help!

  6. Ulan Djumanaev 13 June 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Dear Dr. Biffa,

    I have been living without sense of smell now for almost 15 years ever since I have developed chronich sinus. My sinuses were treated by soviet method by pricking many times. Currently I do not have sinuses, but sense of smell was effected. But, recently I noticed my smell of sense comes and goes for several minutes. Especially if I blow my nose or sniff quickly it appears but quickly goes away. Another trend I noticed is that when I do exercise smell of sense appears for a short time.

    Please could you recommend what I should do keeping doing, and any other recommendations, medicines, etc.

    Thank you,
    Ulan (Kyrgyzstan)

  7. Denise Cross 15 June 2011 at 12:00 am #

    I have been without a good sense of smell for several years. I went to an ENT Dr. who did a CT scan, looked in my nose, and walked away with no problems but no solution either. I fell over 16 years ago hitting the back of my head and am now wondering if that was the trigger to the loss of smell? I have tried zinc which helped a little, but when i stopped taking it the sense of smell i had regained disappeared. Any suggestions? I feel sad i can’t smell life, even the stinky parts…

  8. Watson 1 July 2011 at 10:46 am #

    I love how doctors like to write nice lengthy articles but can’t take the time to answer the comments afterwards big FAIL

  9. Charlie 16 July 2011 at 3:11 am #

    @Watson – This is a Comment section, not a chance for the writer to go back and re-visit the 2,500+ articles he’s written over a decade. I’m glad he took the time to pass along his knowledge. If a reader has something valuable to add, this is the place to do it.

    Anyone who actually WANTS AN ANSWER could easily use the Contact link at the top of the page. The Dr. has published his phone number, email address, and postal mail address. That’s far more than I’m willing to do.

    That said, I do take issue with his statement about dairy products. IMHO, it should read to avoid “pasteurized” dairy products. Much of the world drinks raw, fresh dairy products, and has done so for 9,000 years without consequence. These products are as different as a live turkey and a cooked turkey — which one lasts longer? Raw milk spoils naturally using enzymes and living microbes, creating additional, edible products (curds and whey, cottage cheese, buttermilk, sour cream, etc.). Cooked milk simply rots because the microbes and enzymes were destroyed. They are clearly not the same food. Healthy, clean cattle and goats provide a safe, valuable food. Livestock raised in poor environments require pasteurization of their milk because they’re not healthy.

    –> soapbox diatribe ends here

  10. Tina C. 5 September 2012 at 5:02 am #

    If you lost your sense of smell due to a head injury, no amount of zinc in the world is going to help you, unfortunately. Your smell loss is not due to smell receptors being damaged due to a cold (which have the capacity to regenerate), but a complete severing of the olfactory nerve. I’m afraid that in those cases, the chance for recovery is virtually zero. Your best bet is to visit one of the several prominent taste and smell clinics in the US. Google “taste and smell clinic” and find the specialist nearest you.

  11. Bella 14 November 2012 at 1:50 am #

    It’s amazing how many people have described that having a fall precipitated their loss of smell. Yet when I described this very same thing to several doctors I’ve met, they all completely dismissed this as a possibility. Interestingly osteopaths and nutritionists I’ve consulted, all agree that falls CAN affect this aspect of your senses. There seems to be a constant difference of opinion between the orthodox doctors versus other health forums. We turn to them for guidance and diagnosis, yet leave feeling completely confused and likely to dangerously self medicate, as I’ve read above. Please be very mindful of the levels of supplements you take. I would advise that you consult a nutritionist first to test and establish your levels before taking high doses of anything! In fact I’d suggest that you ALL consult a nutritionist to establish what your deficiencies are first. A fall in my case, affected my immune-system which then lead to a pot-pouri of convoluted symptoms, one of them being loss of sense of smell. This was all established in my nutritional-test-results. I went on a tailored nutrition eating plan with minerals and supplements over a strict 4 year programme, and now have total sense of smell back. I wish you ALL good luck in finding a route that works with your complete health, and retrieving your sense of smell once more. Remember no one part of your body works in total isolation.

  12. anna 1 April 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    I take my daughter here.He is one of a kind doctor with patients from overseas and would urge you to make a visit if you are serious about your taste and smell.

  13. anna 1 April 2013 at 3:51 pm #

    sorry this is the website .

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