NEW RESEARCH SHOWS :
your sense of smell can lift your spirits,
make you feel sexy –
even help you lose weight!
By: Paula Dranov
T HINT OF YOUR FAVORITE SCENT: say, freshly ground coffee, or cookies baking, evergreen trees in the mountains, or roses from the garden. Now try to describe that smell. Nearly impossible, isn’t it? As tough as they are to capture in words, odors are indelibly linked with memories, like the familiar combination of coconut tanning lotion and slightly mildewed life jackets that brings hack childhood summers at the lake. As Helen Keller said, “Smell is a potent wizard that trans ports us across a thousand miles and all the years we have lived’
Smell is so mysterious that its mechanisms baffled scientists for decades. Then after 1$ years of intensive research , two American Scientists made a stunning discovery that won them the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Richard Axel of Columbia University in New York City and Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found the roughly 1,000 genes responsible for our ability to recognize and remember some 10,000 different odors. Their breakthrough studies help us understand the complex process that enables us to tell the difference between the sweet scent of a hyacinth, the tang of garlic, the harsh sting of ammonia and the clean, citrusy spritz of lemon.
Smells can lift our spirits, calm us, make us feel sexy—and maybe even help us lose weight. Some odors can repulse us, too, and for good reason: They can tell us that gas is leaking, the milk is sour or the meat is spoiled. They can even be life-saving: We can smell smoke way before seeing fire. Our sense of smell is incred-ibly complex, yet often undervalued (we treasure sight and hearing much more). It is also our most primitive sense, and the one we employ immediately (an hour after birth, newborns can recognize their mothers’ nipples by smell).
Decoding Our Sense of Smell
Scientifically speaking, all of the fragrances and stinky stuff we smell are chemicals known as odorants, each of which is composed of many molecules. One modifi-cation in the chemical structure of an odorant can completely alter its smell. “A slight change in the chemistry of orange scent and you get something that smells like sweaty socks,” says Buck. She and Axel found that the process by which we identify smells begins with 350 olfactory receptors in a patch of cells at the top of the nasal cavity known as the olfactory epithelium. These tiny receptors snatch up separate bits and pieces of arriving odorants.
But how do 350 receptors sort out all the millions of molecules that make up the more than 10,000 different odors we recognize? The combined efforts of a number of different receptors are needed to identify a single odor, such as ozone during a summer thunderstorm, or the steamy scent of rain on sun-heated asphalt. Once a receptor picks up a molecule from that incoming odorant, it sends out an electrical signal containing the chemical information it has captured to the olfactory bulb, a plum sized relay station located in the brain. From there the signal is dispatched to the brain’s cortex, where all of the information from the receptors is combined, thus allowing us to recognize that “eau de summer storm.” Exactly how this last phase happens, though, has yet to be unraveled.
Aromas of Attraction
Smell may play a big role in how women choose their mates (men, no surprise, focus more on outward sex appeal). “Women are first attracted to a man visually and then by how agreeable he is. But when they become more intimate, smell becomes a factor,” says Rachel Herz, PhD, a Brown University researcher who now studies smell and behavior.
There’s a sociobiological reason for this that harks back to women’s evolutionary y need to find a mate who is genetically compatible so that they can have very healthy children. We know that humans have odor prints as distinctive as their fingerprints (just ask a bloodhound or a woman who sleeps with her husband’s T-shirt when he’s away from home). These odors “may be a special signal to tell a woman that
a man’s genes are similar enough for compatibility but different enough to have a very healthy child,” says Herz.
When You Lose the Scent
Imagine what life would be like if the complex olfactory process broke down. Melissa Wittenborn, 48, of Hinsdale, Illinois, lost her sense of smell in an ice skat-ing accident in 2003 . She took a bad tumble, cracked her head and ended up in intensive care with a skull fracture and hemorrhages from five sites in her brain. Miraculously, she recovered—except for her sense of smell. Doctors told her that when her head hit the ice, her brain probably moved back and forth in her skull, shearing a nerve in the olfactory area.
About three months after the accident, Wittenborn was sitting on her back patio when a firefighter ran into her yard looking for an electrical junction box. He asked if she had smelled smoke. She had no clue that an electrical fire had broken out a few houses away and realized that if she were home alone, “I could be sitting in a burning house and not be aware until I felt heat or the smoke began to burn my eyes. The installation of smoke alarms and gas detectors solved that problem, but life just isn’t the same without a sense of smell: “I’m missing out on so much, such as smelling my kids and husband when they get out of the shower. I instinct-ively sniff a floral bouquet and there’s nothing there.” She also lost her ability to taste, and thus she initially gained weight. There’s a theory, says Alan R. Hirsch, a Chicago neurologist and “olfaction expert,” that food aromas, while they initially may make you want a food, also help signal when you’re full; no smell, no signal
Wittenborn is taking a variety of vitamins and supplements recommended by her doctor in hopes that her sense of smell will come back. Hirsch says there is some evidence that phosphatidyl choline may help improve olfactory function. There’s no proof yet, and some patients’ nerves do regenerate on their own. So far, Witten-born has gotten an occasional whiff of coffee, and was thrilled recently when she caught the aroma of a pizza in the oven.
Losing some or all of your sense of smell can stem from a head injury like Witten-born’s, polyps in the nasal cayity (surgery can fix that) or even a really bad cold, which can damage a membrane at the top of the nose . Certain medications, such as statins, can be to blame, too. If that’s the problem, smell sometimes comes back after you stop taking the drug.
Doctors use a scratch-and-sniff test to find out if you can smell 40 different odors as well as others of your age and sex can. Our sense of smell does gradually dimin-ish as we get older. As many as half of us will experience a decline between ages 65 and 80; after 80, that number increases significantly. Sometimes, a problem with smell is the first sign of serious illness. “A good predictor of Alzheimer’s disease is loss of olfactory function,” says Richard Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Multiple sclerosis can also show up first as a loss of smell, and a strange odor may be a sign of epilepsy.
For most people, though, odors can be a joy and a comfort, even when taken for granted. A whiff of your mother’s roast chicken in the oven, freshly cut grass on a summer day, and even your wet dog are everyday reminders of the evocative power of your sense of smell.
CAN YOU SNIFF YOUR WAY THIN ?
WELL, it certainly won’t hurt to try. Scents don’t magically speed your metab-olism or burn fat, but they might, just might, reduce your appetite. The idea here is that the smell of food can fool your brain into thinking that you’ve already eaten. If the trick works, the brain signals that you’re full so that you eat less and lose some weight. A twist on this idea is the theory that the scent of vanilla can help you lose weight by reducing cravings for chocolate.
Want proof? In 1995, Alan R. Hirsch, a Chicago neurologist and “olfaction expert,” published a study showing that overweight people ate less and lost weight by sniffing the scent of green apples, peppermint or bananas whenever they were faced with food or tempted to eat. The odors were contained in devices that look like lipstick tubes. But when you unscrew the cap, you release the scent.
You can try a variation of this at home, Hirsch says, by inhaling the aroma of your food before eating. Experts say that you stop eating a meal because your sense of smell and taste is satisfied, even if you don’t feel full. To get more of the smell to your brain, make sure the food is hot, and take the time to chew it thoroughly.
Hirsch is now testing whether adding flavor enhancers to food will work even better to make you feel satisfied. Participants in his latest study sprinkle crystals containing calorie-free flavors, such as cheddar cheese, taco, raspberry, spearmint and cocoa on their food to see if the extra flavors fool the satiety center into signal-ing that a few mouthfuls are all you want. The study is ongoing, but preliminary results show that the 92 participants lost an average of 33.6 pounds each in just six months. For more information on this research, go to: scienceofsmell.com
If you can resist everything but chocolate, a vanilla-scented patch called Crave Control, which has been tested in England, might kill your yen for sweets. The patch boosted the willpower of people who participated in a study at London’s St. George’s Hospital. Crave Control can be ordered online at: www.feelingok.com.uk
Skeptical? Well, here’s an odor that definitely will help: the smell of the sweat you work up with regular, calorie-burning exercise..
AROMATHERAPY: Does it work?
MODERN AROMATHERAPY, introduced in France in 1928, relies on scented oils (some times with massage) to help you feel better, physically and emotionally. Certain oils are designated for certain problems: lavender for relax-ation and restful sleep, vanilla to reduce anxiety, chamomile to soothe, rosemary and the citrusy tang of lemon and orange for alertness.
If you want proof that aromatherapy delivers on its promises, you won’t find much. Some scientists draw a line between aromatherapy and aromachology,” a new name for the scientific study of odors’ effects on mood, emotion and behavior. But what they’ve learned so far seems to confirm some of the claims for aromatherapy: Lavender is relaxing, can boost your mood and may improve the quality of your sleep, particularly for women. Heliotropin, a vanilla-like scent, relaxes anxious patients undergoing MRIs. Lemon-balm oil dabbed on the faces and arms of elderly nursing-home patients with dementia can be calming. Rosemary can perk you up and reduce anxiety.
So is aromatherapy worth trying? Sure, if you would enjoy a fragrant massage. (Make sure the aromatherapist is well trained; used improperly, the oils can cause burns, allergic reactions, headaches, nausea, and can aggravate asthma.) The bottom line? If it works for you, it works.
READERS DIGEST Magazine
May 2005. (Pgs. 131-135)
Church of the Science of God
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