How to Improve Your Sense of Smell

June 18, 2014

Yes, it can be done! Along with the other senses, our ability to smell tends to fade as we get older, usually starting around age 30. But we shouldn’t resign ourselves to such lackluster, odorless fates. Hanging onto our sense of smell has been linked to better mood, memory, and safety—and, of course, it lets us have more fun with perfume.

So how to take charge of your nose’s destiny? Here are eight solid tips to get you started.

Practice, practice, practice

The best way to improve your sense of smell is through training it like a muscle. Unlike colorblindness (sadly, no amount of staring at rainbows or sleeping with Crayolas under your pillow will help you see color), our smelling powers do work better the more we work them out.

To begin your journey to nose-buffness, Ron Winnegrad, director of the New York perfumery school at International Flavors & Fragrances, recommends putting yourself through smelling drills. Pick a few smells you enjoy, put them in jars, then smell them in 30-minute intervals. You might start with things around the house, like spices and herbs. Take short, shallow sniffs like a dog looking for treats. Apparently, shallow sniffs help you pick up scents without fatiguing your nose. Do this regularly until you can identify them without hesitation.

Winnegrad also advises simply being more scent-conscious throughout the day. Smell your food before you eat it, go wild in the tea aisle, smell before you buy in the grocery store, and pay attention to what certain places smell like as you go through your day.

Our brains actually seem to be wired for this kind of smell learning. In a March 2014 study in e-Life, adult mice were trained to distinguish kiwi, banana, and clove smells, while another group was just passively exposed to the smells. When the two groups of mice were presented with these smells later on, the smell-trained mice showed far more activity in their brain’s olfactory bulb. At first glance, this seems like no big whoop—our brains change all the time when we learn something new, making space in the cortex to learn a new language or memorize a new piece of music. But what’s startling here is how early in the path the changes showed up. If you think of normal adult learning like a store that becomes popular and expands its parking lot, this is equivalent to widening the streets that lead to the store. The adult mice’s brains changed like you’d expect a baby’s to change, truly optimizing a path for powerful smell processing.

So a sharp sense of smell may be the product of hard work rather than an innate gift. Still, aside from nose boot camp, there are a few other tricks to keeping your sniffer at high performance.

Link smells and language

It can help to read about different scents and practice putting your own words to the smells you experience. Having a rich language for all of scent’s subtleties can expand the way you think about smell. Plus, it can be fun to read about smells and open up memories that you didn’t realize you had. (Try reading this, and see what memories open up for you.)

Some people like to keep a journal of smells they encounter and how those smells made them feel. This can help cement the memories.

Manage your mucus

Clearly, when you’re full of mucus, it’s much harder to smell what’s around you. Curb the mucus-production by not smoking, staying away from foods that can make you stuffy (dairy is a common culprit), controlling allergies, and doing your best to stay un-sick.

Snack on some zinc

A zinc deficiency can sometimes mess with your ability to smell. Eat zinc-rich foods like red meat, spinach, cashews, and pumpkin seeds, or take a zinc supplement. But if you go the supplement route, you might want to take a deficiency test first; it’s not good to over-zinc yourself. Bonus: Getting enough zinc also helps with wound healing and boosting your immune function (which may also keep the aforementioned mucus at bay).

Avoid smells that irritate your olfactory system

Caustic, pungent irritants like ammonia can hurt your ability to smell, sometimes permanently. Hanging around other smells you find displeasing won’t exactly make you eager to sniff everything around you, either. So if you needed one more reason not to take out the trash, here it is.

Visit the gym (no workout necessary!)

Yes, it sounds a little gross, but apparently, sweat is the one unpleasant smell that actually isn’t bad for your nose. In fact, studies with rodents showed that smelling sweat actually increased their number of olfactory receptors. We won’t blame you if you’d rather take zinc instead.

Revel in clean air

Surprise of the century: Polluted air is bad news for your nose. Your olfactory receptor cells are exposed to the air, and pollutants can kill them more quickly than your body can replace them. Maybe a nose detox trip to the mountains is in order?

Has your sense of smell changed over time, for better or worse? Have you worked consciously to improve it? Let us know in the comments before we resort to drastic measures and set up camp near the treadmills.

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