Articles: the culprit right under your nose

The more I learn about the rising rates of hormonal problems, depression, anxiety and related issues, the more I realize just how integrated Olfaction (the sense of smell) is. I already knew from my elementary school lessons that I have 5 senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch but for most of my life, having a sense of smell went unappreciated. And until recently, Scientists believed Humans have a poor sense of smell. Clearly, animals, especially mice and dogs, have a keen sense of smell but Humans’ Olfaction is not as weak as was previously assumed.

I recall high school Biology when our class was horrified to learn that when we breathe, microscopic particles float up our nose. The teacher gave the example of citrus fruit but it didn’t take long for someone to gross everyone out by mentioning poo. But now, to understand how a smell can travel to vital organs– besides just the lungs– induces greater horror than imagining random flecks and crumbs floating up my nose. When molecules of a substance are inhaled, they’re absorbed by olfactory receptors– a patch of skin, epithelium to be precise– far up inside each nostril. Multiple bundles form the olfactory nerve, which is commonly referred to as a bulb.

Various combinations of both inherited genes and the ingredients of inhaled substances determine which molecules Olfactory receptors will detect. That’s why the same odor identified by two different people’s Limbic Systems is pleasant to one and unpleasant to the other. For instance, I know a husband and wife who disagreed on whether the flowers blooming in their kitchen windowsill smelled good or not; they informally polled their friends, who couldn’t reach a consensus, either. Similarly, taste (which is linked to smell) can vary between people.

Regardless, the psychology of smell explains a vicious cycle where brand manufacturers condition consumers to like, prefer and eventually “crave” scented products. Since the input we get from these fragrances is processed in the Limbic System rather than going to the cerebral cortex where language is processed, it’s interwoven with our emotions and long-term memories. The smell of laundry is perhaps the most vivid memory because many people associate it with warmth, security and ultimately love. When they’re old enough to select which products to use, they’re likely to purchase those brands that remind them of childhood. But not just for fond memories– the brain equates a familiar scent to proper caregiving.

Epithelium is thin tissue that covers the entire outside of our body, lines cavities (e.g. intestines) and comprises our glands, which release hormones. So, molecules from whatever’s floating in the air– whether they’re from food, pesticides, disinfectant chemicals, air fresheners, pollen, or factory pollution– get absorbed into the body and cycled through the bloodstream. Scents, if they’re truly natural, can have many benefits, or at least a calming effect. Conversely, most artificial fragrances, especially if they’re made of toxic ingredients, disrupt the Endocrine System, yet we overwhelm every inch of our bodies– externally and internally– with them. Hopefully, the realization will motivate us to hold legislators and manufacturers accountable to honestly label their products rather than boast their ingredients are “natural,” which lacks an established legal definition. Until consumers demand transparency and influence change by avoiding problematic brands, there won’t be any motivation to remove the toxins to which we’re constantly exposed.

(For simple and cost-effective ways to transition away from endocrine disruptors towards healthier alternatives, please consult past posts about laundry essentials, part 1, part 2, and part 3.)


Resources for further information/ explanation:

Ted Talk: The Power of the Sense of Smell

Ted Talk: Why Smell is More Important than You Think

SIRC: The Smell Report

Human Olfactory Receptor Gene Family

The Olfactory Bulb

Predicting Human olfactory perception from chemical features of odor molecules

Computers predict molecules’ scent from their structures

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