Holidays are mostly about food, but imagine if the smells and flavours of all your holiday favourites suddenly disappeared. Flakey, buttery Christmas cookies would taste as appetizing as sawdust. Eggnog would deposit a thick, fatty slick on the tongue, and any hint of nutmeg or vanilla would be entirely absent. Tackling a slice of roast turkey would be the equivalent of munching through corrugated cardboard.
Welcome a recent, dark period in my life. A sinus infection, coupled with pregnancy and the inability to take any decongestant medications, left me a temporary anosmiac—a person who can't smell and, by extent, usually can't experience flavour.
An estimated three to six per cent of the population suffers from anosmia
While it's difficult to lose true taste—the ability to detect sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami (savoury) through taste buds—losing one's sense of smell is actually fairly common. A diminished sense of smell means that volatile molecules, the ones that go into the air and help us experience and enjoy flavour, can't be detected.
"It generally appears to people that all of the sensations are coming from the mouth, but they're not. Some are coming from the nose," explained Beverly Cowart, a professor of otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre. No sense of smell means "you can no longer distinguish cherry from vanilla, or chocolate from strawberry."
While anosmia seems harmless, it can be fairly awful for the estimated three to six per cent of the population suffering from it. In my case, cooking and eating became a depressing and utilitarian task. Lime yogurt tasted a bit sour, but had none of its pleasant zing. A small sip of wine was awful, with all of the bitter tannin taste and zero notes of ripe fruits or floral. I made Thai curry soup, which I thought was spicy, but it was hard to tell.
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"It can be a very isolating experience for people," said Cowart. "So much of our social interactions revolve around food. If you can't go to somebody's house and honestly tell them that you enjoyed the meal they prepared for you, it's frustrating."
Anosmia can also be dangerous (think of not being able to smell smoke in a fire), or it can have career-ending consequences. "Firemen, gas workers, even policemen need to be able to smell to detect marijuana, or alcohol, or gas leaks," said Cowart. "I've known people in all of those professions who have been laid off because they couldn't smell."
Targeted exposure to odors can retrain the nose and brain
Luckily, my line of work doesn't require an acute sense of smell. And my anosmia was caused by rhinosinusitis, which means my blocked olfactory system cleared out after a miserable 10 days void of flavour.
Some aren't so lucky. Anosmia can also be caused by a virus or a head injury that damages the neurons needed for smell, and treatment options are limited when neurons are involved. According to Cowart, research has suggested that targeted exposure to odors can, in some cases, retrain the nose and brain, leading to some level of recovery.
"It, quite frankly, is the only treatment we have for smell loss related to nerve damage," said Cowart. There is no miracle cure for anosmia caused by neuron damage. "It's not a quick fix. It's something that people really have to commit themselves to," she said. "It seems to work better if people start sooner, not wait for years."
On another, and somewhat more depressing note, the sense of smell diminishes with age, with up to two-thirds of people reporting some smell loss by age 70 or 80. So I am here to tell you, millennial, to enjoy another vanilla-scented shortbread this holiday season while you still really can. For I have tasted the future. It is bland.
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