From New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Yesterday, we told the story of a rare but severe symptom of long covid a far more common symptom is the long term loss of smell. Today, my colleague Times restaurant critic Tehsil Rao recounts the quest to try to get her back. It's Tuesday, March 23 at. I was in the bathroom at my home in Los Angeles and I was stepping into the shower and I smelled something really unfamiliar.
I thought maybe it was stagnant water or the plastic of the shower cap that I was wearing to cover my hair. I thought maybe it was the stone tiles, like had someone else just clean the bathroom. I couldn't figure it out. And then after a few minutes, I realized it was actually a blank. There was no smell, I had just lost my sense of smell just like that. And I still went ahead and took a shower, but the whole time I was sort of thinking, how soon can I get a test for, you know, how soon can I get tested for covid?
I had very mild symptoms.
It was just like a rough flu or a cold. I was exhausted and my parents kept checking in, kept calling to remind me to eat. But I've never experienced a loss of appetite like that before. Any kind of meat made me feel a little bit queasy.
So like roast chicken, which is a real comfort food for me, normally was just very, very squishy.
And popcorn was like foam, but with sharp bits in it, like so unpleasant. All of a sudden everything about it. That's a joy was very unpleasant. I started to feel better in early to mid January. I didn't have to pass out and sleep for half the day I could get back to work, but I still couldn't really smell anything. Smell is just it's so crucial to taste, which means it's really crucial to everything that I do. I work as a restaurant critic, but I also develop recipes and it's really difficult to cook without a sense of smell.
If you're not used to it, you don't know what's going on. It's almost like wearing a blindfold. If you look at his mother, Mashu has had to get it back quick. I started looking up what people were doing to get back their sense of smell or, you know, different kinds of aromatherapist. And I came across this tick tock video that had gone viral for a home remedy. You want to take a nice fresh orange and burn all the way around, make sure it's dark, charcoal, black.
This Kamala lower a bloated cut is less than the middle burn, an orange and a whole orange with the peel still on. You burn it. You take the home, take the peel off, and then you mash the hot pulp of the orange with a little sugar and you eat it with a spoon. I'm no scientist, but it does work. I'm told this is some Jamaican remedy. It's going to work, I promise you.
So I thought I would give it a try. OK, so I've got these tiny oranges.
They're so tiny, they're going through the grape charring and orange, according to Kimura's to talk video with sort of the big event at my house that day was my partner myself, our two dogs. We were all in the kitchen related to spend.
So I have no idea. It's Tuesday. It's Wednesday.
I think the dogs are probably wondering what we were doing. They were getting very annoyed, but we stood over the gas stove and charged some oranges, the peels coming off really easily and tried to follow his instructions as closely as we could.
I knew that it was a tick tock video.
You know, it wasn't a scientific paper that I had read, but I was secretly really hopeful that it would work. I can't smell it.
And and it was still things were still really muted, still really flat. So I called up Kharma, that's the guy who made the tick tock to see if maybe I was doing it wrong.
He was inside his car, parked outside his family restaurant where he works at Ontario, Toronto.
They sell like goat curry and oxtail and rotisserie chicken, oxtail curry, got some nice rice, all that good stuff. Curry go.
Oh, that sounds so good. Yeah. And he was so optimistic. And, you know, I told him that it didn't exactly work for me. At least it didn't work the way it was advertised, like it would cure me in an hour.
Give it another try again. Rosabeth 12 minutes though. He said that I should try it every day. And make sure to eat it hot, ok.
And then he asked if I wanted to speak to his mom who taught it to him. And I thought, yes, I'd love to speak to your mom.
And he was like, Mom, I Judean.
And she came out and was equally like positive and joyful and blessed.
Thank you very much. And so thrilled that her family remedy had kind of traveled all around the world and people were trying it, even if it hadn't worked for everyone.
OK, back home in Jamaica, my mom give us talk to his children then, because you have fifteen kids and well, we are sick and we don't have to face any kind of stuff there. She just throws the orange and put the sugar and said, give us to eat them. So we get back to work days and stuff. And so we started eat because that's what it's supposed to do it get. But your sense is that you send something to your brain to reduce it.
So the orange remedy didn't work as advertised for me. But the thing that Trudy Ann said that the brain needs some kind of reboost, that got me wondering what is the connection between the brain and the nose?
Hello. Hi, Pam.
It's Tagil for The New York Times. Oh, I did a little bit of research and I found a place called the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. They do lots of different kinds of research on smell and on taste.
And I connected with a research scientist there, Dr. Pamela Dalton.
Well, I'm a basic research scientist who studies how people use their sense of smell.
And she studies, among many, many other things, the ways that emotions can kind of change the way we smell things.
Generally, when you lose your sense of smell, under most circumstances, it's because the molecules actually can't get into the olfactory receptor area of the nose because of congestion. covid is different in that way because most people who lost their sense of smell did so without having any nasal congestion whatsoever.
Pam explained that during the pandemic, you know, millions and millions of people lost their sense of smell just in an instant.
It was just like a light bulb got turned off, switch got, you know, flicked off, and one moment they could smell and the next moment nothing smelled.
And even though that's how we lose our sense of smell, that's not how we get it back. You know, there's not a switch that just kind of turns it back on.
We don't really understand how this system uses coding to develop all of the different smells that our brain is able to understand.
So much of what we think of as taste is actually kind of happening in your nose and brain.
It's your smell receptors. You have 400 smell receptors and they're all working to identify millions and millions. The estimate is a trillion smells. But then is that sort of a readout for the brain to say, oh, those five types of cells that are activated mean I'm smelling a flower versus, you know, pizza or coffee in the morning. But another thing she told me that made me feel a little optimistic is that olfactory receptor neurons are constantly regenerating every few weeks.
Now, you as an adult have memories of what things should smell like. And that's why we think the olfactory retraining may actually help, because you're connecting the central input, your representation of what your coffee should smell like with the incoming molecular signals. Smells are connected to memories and moods and feelings. One way of thinking about it is that there's this map in your brain that you can follow to get smells back. But if your sense of smell has been gone for a long time, if you lose that map, it's more like starting from scratch.
It's almost like if there's some if there's some map intact, they can follow the right map to make the right connections. If it's completely gone, they're just wiring, rewiring haphazardly. So I was really hopeful after talking with Pam, but, you know, maybe there would be some way to find my way back to smelling by doing this thing called olfactory training or smell training. I just needed to learn how to actually do it. We'll be right back.
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What small training is, and I could sum that up by saying it's not what your nose does, but rather what your brain does with the stimulation.
I called Chrissy Kelly, who founded Absent in the U.K. and that's absent as in smell.
I remember when I when I got 100 people in my Facebook group, which was called Smell Training, thinking, oh, my God, you know. Wow, that's amazing.
And she started this online community and now we have twenty two point nine thousand. So there are a lot of us now.
And she lost her sense of smell back in 2012 after some kind of viral infection. And at that time, doctors didn't really recommend anything. But she read some research about smell training and how repetitive structured sessions smelling just for scents could potentially help people start to orient themselves again. Pick up smells again.
I quickly got to the point where being a student of my affliction was better than being a victim of my affliction, and it became an absolute passion.
I wanted to formally learn what a small training session should look like, and it's so much more like therapy than I expected it to be.
There is so much anxiety about getting it right in the beginning that I, I just think it's really valuable to say, OK, this is the program, start with this.
So kind of like therapy. Small training works best if you're in a quiet space where you feel safe, where you can focus and think. I sat down at my little desk in my office at home with a box of spices.
OK, and now for the first jar, I just want you to sit there with it with no expectations.
So she asked me to get four spices and not open them all immediately. Open them one at a time.
OK, so hold it up to your nose.
And I had cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and I want you to just shut yourself down completely.
I think what she was saying is, you know, turn off the thoughts that are analyzing what's happening right now and just kind of be in the moment and just take a little I call them Bunnie sniffs Tiny little when I was smelling air right up without her, when I was smelling on my own, I was taking these deep breaths and kind of trying to pull the aromas into my body and that actually that doesn't work that well.
So Chrissy suggested funny sniffs which is taking these teeny, tiny little sniffs of air, you know, consecutive little sniffs. Then you pause and then take a breath, because we don't want you to faint and then go back to it again, and I was immediately ready to say I can't smell them very well.
It's kind of like the clothes were in the next room and I could hear them a little bit, like I could pick up a word every now and then, but I didn't know exactly what they were talking about.
OK, so don't judge yet. And before I could complain, Chrissy asked me to kind of slow down, take my time.
Don't say, oh, that was good or that wasn't good or I didn't get anything. Just just just sit with that.
OK, the second one the second that we that we spelled together was a jar of whole cardamom pods.
Cardamom is a really familiar smell to me. It's it's part of the reason I picked it to be part of my smell kit. My mom uses it mostly paired with me, like in Lamborghini, there's often cardamom or in masala chai and tea with boiled with spices and ginger.
It's just a really familiar delicate floral scent.
OK, so Chrissy had me open the lid of the cardamom jar and she told me to close my eyes.
I want you to imagine that you were looking into a really deep well so deep that you don't know when you know the coin you toss in is going to hit the bottom and to just keep listening.
So imagine that you are waiting and waiting and waiting and people who have lost their sense of smell. I think that we smell more slowly.
Krissi used the term listening a lot when we were talking about smelling. It's like you're leaning in and you're trying to pick up as much as you can.
So smell is instantaneous for healthy people. And I think it takes a longer time for us to receive for the receptors to work and to feed that into the brain. You know, you throw the coin in and you wait. And to kind of apply that to sniffing the cardamom pods and just keep listening.
So let's give that one to go.
I'd forgotten that my grandfather, my mom's father used to chew cardamom pods until I was doing this exercise. I think maybe to freshen his breath. I don't know why he did that, but he was like my favorite grandparent. We were very close and he always smelled like cardamom. He died a few years ago.
And when I was in the middle of this exercise, I remembered it, you know, and it it opened up all these other memories that were connected to that. All the tasks that we're doing right now, the concentrating, the thinking, the waiting, the anticipation, all of those things are cognitive processes that happen higher up in the old factory brain.
I think of it more like a car that's passing me on the street with the windows open, blasting a song.
And you just hear a tiny snippet of the song and it takes a while to recognize it.
You know, like, you know, the song came out that one summer that you wore those denim cut off shorts and you were hanging out with your best friend and you definitely sang at a karaoke. And, you know, it's so familiar. It's right on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't get it. And then maybe 10 minutes later, you remember the name of the song. When Chrissie and I kind of got to the end of our small training session, she told me it's really about building confidence more than anything else.
It's about building up your confidence. And before I spoke to Chrissy, I'd imagine small training as being closer to, like, going to the gym or, you know, really cool, really active, really fun. I'd sort of imagined so embarrassing. I sort of imagined, like, the Rocky theme song playing. And I'm in like a cool tracksuit and I'm like jogging through Los Angeles.
And it's so boring and lonely to just sit and smell and think can be kind of disheartening. If you have a good day and then you have a bad day, it feels like you're going backwards.
I don't think that the word recovery is a good one to use because smell loss is an injury.
So you recover from an illness, but an injury might leave you with some lasting scarring, you know. So if you were in a car accident and you were really badly banged up and had to have surgery or had scars somewhere, you wouldn't say, when am I going to recover from this? You would say, when are my scars going to heal?
You don't just go from hurt to healed overnight. And that's what smell is like.
You know, you don't just go back to normal. It's more like adjusting and learning how to live in a new space. That's really just the beginning.
The smell training doesn't have a distinct timeline. I have been very tempted to stop because it's really, really tedious, but over the weekend, I got a ladder out of the garage and propped it up against the lemon tree in my front yard.
And they have this amazing, like floral fruity perfume. And I notice that the the leaves, too, you know, I could smell the leaves and there's something about it that feels new to me. It feels so vivid and I feel so grateful for it in a way. I think I'm just paying much closer attention to it than I used to. After two months, Tehsil reports that her sense of smell has finally returned. We'll be right back. Great journalism applies relentless curiosity in search of the truth, and with every story, there's a need for analysis, context and structure, all tools that help create positive change in the world.
SACE shares the same value by turning data into answers using SAS analytics and A.I. organizations, drive progress, make better decisions and improve lives. Because when curiosity and innovative analytics meet, people can do amazing things. Find out more at SAS dot com slash curiosity. That's s ask.com curiosity. Here's what else you need to know today. We had a very tragic incident today here at the King Soopers, there was loss of life. We have multiple people who were killed in this incident on Monday afternoon.
A gunman opened fire at a grocery store in a residential neighborhood of Boulder, Colorado, killing 10 people, including a police officer. The suspected shooter is in custody, but the police have not described a motive. It was the second mass shooting in less than a week following the murder of eight people at Spoors in and around Atlanta, Georgia.
And The Times reports that on top of his nearly two trillion dollar stimulus package, President Biden is preparing to recommend spending as much as three trillion on a sweeping set of new programs, beginning with a giant infrastructure plan. That plan calls for investing in roads, bridges and rail lines, broadband Internet for rural communities, charging stations for electric cars, and the construction of one million affordable housing units to pay for it. Biden is expected to propose raising taxes on corporations, a tactic that is already meeting resistance from congressional Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell.
I think the Trojan horse will be called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse will be all the top and free.
Biden may seek to pass his infrastructure plan through a legislative process known as reconciliation that bypasses the need for Republican support in the Senate and requires just 51 votes rather than the usual 60.
So, yeah, I fully expect that's what they'll try to do. And that's because I don't think there's going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a toxic. Today's episode was produced by Tina Antolini, edited by Wendy Dorr, engineer by Corey Shreffler, and contains original music by Dan Powell. Special thanks to Hans Butoh.
That's it for The Daily, I'm Michael Varro, see you tomorrow. Great journalism applies relentless curiosity in search of the truth, and with every story, there's a need for analysis, context and structure, all tools that help create positive change in the world. SACE shares the same value by turning data into answers using SAS analytics and A.I. organizations, drive progress, make better decisions and improve lives. Because when curiosity and innovative analytics meet, people can do amazing things.
Find out more at SAS dot com slash curiosity. That's s ask.com curiosity.