Back in Jamaica, when Trudy-Ann Lalor and her siblings caught a cold, their mother burned Seville oranges over a fire in the backyard, cut away the charred peel, and gave them the hot, juicy flesh with sugar to eat with a spoon .
They always felt better. Maybe it was the calming aroma of the citrus, the deliciousness and warmth of the fruit, the dose of vitamin C. Maybe it was the sweetness of the attention itself – the fact that someone loved you so much that they took the time to prepare you for one Orange in this elaborate way.
The family didn’t have to explain any of this to anyone until Ms. Lalor’s 23-year-old son, Kemar Lalor, posted an instruction video on TikTok last December to reassure people that it would find a solution to diminished sense of taste.
Smell and taste are closely related, and the video quickly went viral when millions of strangers started burning oranges on the open flames of their gas stoves. Some were enthusiastic. They called it a miracle. Others laughed at it and called it a useless joke. Many left angry comments when the orange didn’t work as advertised, although Mr Lalor attributed this to poor execution – not burning the outside of the citrus fruit thoroughly, not eating the pulp while it was still hot, not adding enough sugar.
I found the orange remedy to be a kind of enjoyable exercise, a fun distraction. But it didn’t magically give me back what I lost after getting Covid in December. After my sense of smell disappeared, I became depressed and disoriented when all of the foods I loved became unrecognizable and turned into a series of unattractive textures.
So much of what we consider taste is actually smell – volatile molecules that travel the retronasal pathway, filling in all the details of a strawberry beyond its basic sweetness and acidity, and expanding its pleasures. Without information from our 400 olfactory receptors, which can recognize many millions of smells, food becomes flatter.
When I called Mr. Lalor, he was packing goat curry and roti to go to Big G’s 241 Jerk Chicken, the Jamaican restaurant his family runs in Etobicoke, Ontario. I told him that some days I still had problems, that the healing process was strange and non-linear, that I had tried the orange remedy but nothing had recovered overnight. He was compassionate but held on.
“Try again,” said Mr. Lalor. It worked for his mother and for him, he explained, although he added that they were never tested for Covid-19 so he couldn’t be sure they had. “Keep trying every day!”
While some people experience loss of smell as they age or after a head injury or viral infection, most people experience it temporarily when volatile molecules floating in the air cannot get into their olfactory receptor areas – in other words, a stuffy nose .
But during the pandemic, millions of people instantly lost their sense of smell. “It was like turning off a lightbulb,” said Dr. Pamela Dalton, a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “One moment they could smell and the next moment nothing smelled.”
I noticed that moment when it happened to me as I stepped into the shower at my Los Angeles home. At first I mistook the lack of flavors for a new smell, a strange smell that I couldn’t identify – was it the water itself? the stone tiles? – before I realized that it was just a space, a space pillow between me and my world.
Although there is no “on” switch to bring the odor back, Mr. Lalor’s advice to keep trying, trying every day, was correct. Scientists agree that there is no cure for anosmia, but they also agree that daily, repeated sniffing of some aromas can be beneficial and act as a type of therapy for an injured nose and brain.
The general technique known as odor training, and as routine for millions of people with anosmia as brushing your teeth before bed or grinding coffee beans in the morning, is as routine as it is.
“It is the only type of post-viral therapy for olfactory dysfunction that has been shown to be beneficial,” said Dr. Dalton, who strongly encouraged daily conditioning but also warned, “You will get bored.”
A typical scent set may consist of four essential oils, although you can use a charred orange or certain flavors with emotional value for you. The second I lost my sense of smell, I turned to the kitchen, opened jars of whole spices, shoved my face in bundles of fresh herbs, and hovered over the open top of fish sauce bottles.
For three weeks I kept sniffing at things I loved but couldn’t pick up anything. The first time I smelled something, it was so unpleasant that I choked: the stomach-swirling stench of rotten milk.
March 2, 2021, 10:15 p.m. ET
Whether you notice it or not, your nose is constantly alerting you to potential hazards that are out of sight – smoke, gas leaks, chemicals in the air, spoiled food, sewage. Bad smells are good in the sense that they are full of important information about your surroundings that will help you stay healthy.
“Although the olfactory system can tell us where to find good sources of food and safe places, it is ultimately a sense of danger,” said Dr. Dalton, who wasn’t surprised that a hint of spoiled milk was my reintroduction into odor formation and even encouraged adding “bad” smells to my workout. “It’s a warning system.”
On the other hand, some smells are crucial for the quality of life, access to memories and emotions, the feeling of being close to people and connecting with nature.
I think of the sweet smell of my nephew’s head when he was a baby. from my parents’ house when a lasagna is in the oven; of hot, dry mugwort brush when my dogs increase the scent. I think of the smell of french fries mingling with clouds of chlorine by the pool on a summer day, and I’m not sure how to remember those tiny, wonderful moments without their smells anchoring me.
“Loss of smell is a great loss of pleasure,” said Chrissi Kelly, founder of AbScent, a non-profit group for people with anosmia in the UK.
When Ms. Kelly lost her sense of smell after a viral infection in 2012, no one recommended odor training as a possible therapy. However, she read scientific research, including an article by Thomas Hummel on how repeated, structured exposure to odors can increase sensitivity.
She taught herself the technique. And then she taught others.
For many Covid survivors with anosmia, Ms. Kelly has become a kind of mentor who creates a close online community, guides new anosmic people through training and cheerleading us without setting unreasonable expectations. Anosmia presents itself differently for everyone and there is no set schedule for odor training.
“I never use the word ‘recovery’ because I think it’s misleading,” she told me when I asked about my own recovery. “Loss of smell is an injury. You are recovering from illness, but an injury can leave scarring. “
Scent training isn’t magic, but it’s a way to potentially rebuild neural pathways and slowly reorient yourself when you feel lost.
Before I spoke to Ms. Kelly, I had envisioned olfactory training for the theme song “Rocky”. I’d zip up my shiny tracksuit and jog in front of different ingredients, correctly identifying them one by one while strangers gave me a thumbs up. Sesame oil! Black peppercorns! Marjoram! It was a brisk assembly and a total fantasy.
In fact, the process of sitting and sniffing – calmly focusing on registering aromas or fragments of aromas – is lonely, boring, and mentally taxing.
So that newbies can smell the training, Ms. Kelly suggests starting with rabbit sniffers or “tiny little sniffers that bring the air up to the olfactory slot”.
During FaceTime, she led me through a “mindful smelling” session while I held a glass of clove under my nose and quickly sniffed rabbits to share my thoughts with her. “OK, so don’t judge yet,” Ms. Kelly ordered before I could tell the carnations looked muffled, like listening to them through a glass pressed against the wall.
“For people who have lost their sense of smell, I think it takes longer for the receptors to work and get them to the brain,” she said. “So just make sure you’re patient and just keep listening.”
It is impossible to talk about smelling without resorting to analogies and metaphors, and “listening” is a common occurrence.
Detecting a smell while exercising can feel a lot like recording a fragment of a familiar song from a passing car, clinging to the short string of notes you recognized and just having the name on the tip of your tongue.
A few seconds later and you remember it was summer 2015. You heard it one night while you were sitting on your friend’s crook. You sang it at least once at karaoke. Ugh, what was it again?
With my next fragrance, the cardamom pods, Ms. Kelly asked me to imagine looking into a deep well. So deep that if you throw it in, you won’t know when a stone will fall on the floor.
“You strain your ears to hear the sound of the stone hitting the surface of the water, and that’s what I want you to do now. Imagine waiting and waiting and waiting.”
While I waited, I received some small fragments of messages from the cardamom – something floral, something mild, but almost menthol, something like the freshness of sun-warmed citrus fruits. It came in chunks, like a series of clues, but then I smelled the cardamom clearly and completely.
“So much of olfactory training is about giving people confidence,” said Ms. Kelly.
Every single aroma that I could recognize was more precious, more intense and more luminous, even my dog’s fishy breath. Although it wasn’t more than a few weeks ago, I considered stopping daily conditioning altogether if I could smell the foods I ate and cooked faster and more precisely – the soothing tickle of garlic that hit the oil, the cinnamon eucalyptus from fresh curry leaves, wrinkled in my fingers.
But some days my sense of smell is distorted and everything in my orbit smells wrong – like a day of cigarette butts, heavy and chemical. Some days the vibrancy of what I have restored is subdued or slower and more difficult to access.
The smell training does not end when you smell a few more smells. It begins.