What’s behind my gift of sniff?

In real life, I am someone who went from suffering daily allergies and popping cetirizine (aka Zyrtec) like breath mints to someone who’s head and sinuses are completely clear with an extra 20 bucks her pocket at the end of the month. Quick calculation 20 bucks per month on allergy drugs x 10 years = $2,400.

The price of pills adds up over time

And with clear sinuses, I can smell things that I never could before, like what my husband, Adam, ate for desert three nights ago at a business conference. This heightened sense of smell is akin to what happens to women who become pregnant, except I’m not. I joke with Adam that he can never cheat on my liver.

There are two hypotheses why I can suddenly smell what others can’t:

Hypothesis #1: Hormones

Severe damage to the liver causes major changes in body chemistry, including hormones, according to Gregory J. Gores, MD, a liver specialist a the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.* Pregnant women commonly report a heightened sense of smell, but scientists don’t understand exactly what happens. A spike in estrogen and HCG may be responsible. “It’s all related to the delicate balance hormones,” says Gores.

Still, if I had been born male there’s a good chance I’d still be in olfactory oblivion or bliss.

Hypothesis #2: Allergies

By eliminating common foods that can trigger allergies that can’t be detected by lan tests, I may have inadvertently dried out my sinuses by helping my liver, according to Gregory Barkdull, MD, an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist.** Barkdull rebuilds people’s faces and sinuses for a living, and he explains that he takes his patients of wheat, corn and soy for 1-2 weeks before surgery in order to dry out their sinuses.

What?! Not eating wheat, corn or soy will resolve most minor sinus allergies? Somehow I feel misled, lied to even, by I don’t know who: the food industry, the drug industry, the school nurse, our meat-wheat-sugar culture, my parents. If only I’d known before I spent thousands of dollars on allergy drugs. I could have taken that dream trip to Japan and supped on gourmet rice and fish the whole time, congestion-free.

Oh, and I didn’t pick these doctors because they’re both named Gregory. That’s just a coincidence.

* Dr. Gores is a hepatologist, not herpatologist. The former study livers, while the latter study lizards, although I sometimes suspect that my liver has a tiny reptilian brain of its own.

**Dr. Barkdull is an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, also known as an ENT. I’m not sure how I’d feel about spending 12 expensive years in medical training only to be labeled a suffix. His dedication to career is anything but an afterthought.

This weekly feature, the Science of Smell, appears on Fridays and endeavors to answer basic questions about this ancestral sense.

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  1. I think it is probably a combination of the two. As you know, my smelling ability is very hormone driven, and I have also had the experience of cleaning up my diet and noticing that I can smell more.

  2. …until I stumbled across this blog, I felt like a freak … I smell EVERYTHING and unfortunately most of what I smell causes migraines – big time migraine in the case of fragrances, synthetic fragrances (even something called “fragrance free”, chemicals, garlic,etc … some of the stuff that is airborne, will cause a rash across exposed skin … needless to say, I am constantly dodging smells … so when you see some woman walking towards you who suddenly veers off like she’s run into a wall, that’s me smelling the fabric softener on your clothes, your deoderant, garlic on your breath, that lovely vanilla scented soap you like, every smell that we’re constantly told will make us more attractive and feel better … finally, this summer I tried a baby sunscreen (guaranteed pure and natural) – 3 weeks later with some heavy duty steriod cream, the burn on my chest went away …


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