National Sense of Smell Day
You have probably experienced a wave of recognition and connection to your past via an unexpected scent. From the smell of baking cookies bringing back memories of your grandma, to cheap body spray reminding you of your first crush, scents help us locate ourselves. It might not surprise you to know that smell is the only sense directly connected to the part of the brain where memories are stored.
The Relationship Between Psychedelics and Smell
Those who explore psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms, may have experienced their sense of smell being enhanced or temporarily changed. Some smells can become overpowering when tripping, so heightened are the user’s senses. Some smells may evoke such memories that the user is brought to happy tears. Sometimes, high doses of a psychedelic can cause temporary synesthesia, meaning your senses seem switched around — many report being able to smell sounds or visuals. All this to say, psychedelics, our brains, and our sense of smell clearly have a deep connection to be further explored. And, for National Smell Day we will be looking into an exciting potential use for this connection: treating COVID-related smell loss.
The Legacy of COVID-19
The legacy of COVID-19 is vast and ever expanding. Many people have lost loved ones, are experiencing the effects of long COVID, or simply coming to terms with the fact the whole world has changed. Some people are dealing with one of the more bizarre side-effects of the pandemic — a loss of taste and/or smell.
41% Of Those With COVID Suffered Smell Loss
Yes, although it is a preferable outcome to hospitalization, or even death, as a result of contracting COVID, this unusual symptom has continued to dog a significant proportion of those who were infected. A study from July 2020 found that around 41% of those with COVID experienced olfactory dysfunction — but most had regained their senses within a month.
For some people however, their senses began to return more slowly over a longer period. One of the effects of this slow return is an unpleasant phenomena called parosmia, which is where a person regaining their sense of smell experiences normal odors as different and unpleasant — “rancid” as some describe it. It is assumed this could be because the sensory neurons are rewiring as they begin to function again.
The Dangers of Anosmia
For some really unlucky folks however, they may remain fully anosmic (no sense of smell) or parosmic (bad smells) for many months or seemingly permanently. This has dire consequences. For a start it makes life more dangerous to the sufferer. You cannot smell fire or spoiled food, making you more vulnerable to these things. Smell is also an important bonding tool between humans, such as for parents and new babies. So, it is no surprise that 43% of those who lost their sense of smell due to COVID experience depression.
So What Can Be Done?
Well, at the moment, research and thus treatments are scarce. One option is ‘smell training’ where you regularly sniff different odors to ‘relearn’ them. However this does not work for everyone. Neither do steroids which only help if the loss of sense is due to inflammation.
There have been weird whisperings online however, of another way to combat this rotten side-effect. It may sound crazy, but many people are claiming that taking a dose of psilocybin (or a course of doses) returned their sense of smell to them! Can it be true? Will magic mushrooms and truffles become a revolutionary tool in this battle too? At the moment it seems that new uses for these fungi may just be infinite!
Well, let’s take a breath, thus far there is no official scientific data to support it. So we will be exploring the online accounts that share their experiences of this phenomena. If you or someone you know are currently desperate to regain your olfactory powers this could be vital information for you. Let’s dig in…
The Reddit Researchers
Morgan (name changed) is one of the many who self-reported his experiences with anosmia and psilocybin to Reddit. He later told his story to Mel Magazine, explaining that as well as continued fatigue, asthma and brain fog, their sense of smell never returned;
“When a neighbor’s house caught fire, I couldn’t smell the smoke.”
Morgan initially began to experiment with psilocybin to cope with depression that had so far resisted treatment, part-exacerbated by the lingering effects of COVID.
“After a few weeks of microdosing, I started experiencing phantom smells, particularly the smell of an electric fire. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, as I hadn’t heard of anyone taking shrooms to help with anosmia.”
Eventually, it became clear to Morgan that it wasn’t a coincidence. Taking a full ‘macrodose’ of shrooms had to be done.
“At some point during the trip, I realized I could smell again… I was sniffing everything with a nice or appetizing scent in my house with a manic grin.”
Unfortunately, once the trip ended so did Morgan’s revived sense of smell. However, on tripping again a few weeks later, it returned and partially remained once the psilocybin had worn off. In time, and a few more shroom trips later Morgan relishes his sense of smell, back to its “full former glory.”
Gradual or Instantaneous?
For most people who self-report online, it has been a journey of a few shroom trips, each improving their anosmia each time. It was also the case for Sebică, who also spoke to Mel Magazine (also under a pseudonym). The 20 year old from Romania had been suffering from parosmia for over a year after initially losing his sense of smell and taste. Last year however, he took two doses of 0.8g of shrooms one week apart. The next month he took a larger dose of 1.5g of dried magic mushrooms. He claims that his sense of smell is now fully restored, having improved with each psilocybin session.
Some claims however, are much more fantastical. A man named Dustin told The Pulse podcast how after just one mushroom trip (his first in 17 years) his sense of smell returned, and has not fallen below 90% since. Hilariously the first thing that Dustin realized he could smell during his trip, whilst distracted by colorful visuals, was his own body odor!
“And I was like, ‘What the hell is going on? Like, I smell awful.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can smell!’”
He later went on to rejoice in the much more delectable tastes and smells of oranges and enchiladas.
Similarly, Jaycee from Arkansas (more pseudonyms ahoy!) apparently cured his anosmia, in just 4 weeks after a trip of 1.25g of mushrooms.
It all seems pretty magic right? And there are many more message boards chock-full of similar stories if you’re hungry for more. But let’s get down to some brass tacks — what could be the reasons behind this? (Bearing in mind that there is still a lot that we do not yet know…)
Possible Reason 1: Psilocybin Causes Neurogenesis
Neurogenesis is when neurons in the brain regenerate, a process that a recent study suggested psilocybin could achieve. Due to this, this was the most popular theory postulated by the at-home science sleuths of Reddit. Neurons are highly involved in our olfactory systems, processing odor molecules and sending that information to the brain.
So the idea with this theory is that COVID-19 is attacking olfactory neurons — and the shrooms are helping them grow back. Interestingly, this theory saw life pre-COVID, as a potential treatment for those suffering anosmia for other reasons.
However, at the moment, a clear link between psilocybin and neurogenesis is still pretty slight. The studies have mainly been on mice, and not directly related to olfactory neurons. Brad Goldstein, a doctor and researcher at Duke University who studies post-COVID anosmia, theorizes it’s pretty unlikely, and even more unlikely are the tales of those who claim to have cured their anosmia in just one shroom session.
Possible Reason 2: Serotonin & Smells
Another theory that could explain this phenomena, Brad suggests to Pulse Podcast, is that psilocybin affects our serotonin receptors, and that is what people are experiencing. During a psychedelic trip, psilocybin turns up and down our serotonin receptors — and some theorize that serotonin could affect the processing of smells in the brain.
Chris von Bartheld, a professor at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, who has also been researching smell loss relating to COVID, agrees there could be something in this theory.
“Psilocybin is known to have changes in perception, and so I could imagine that — let’s say you have COVID, you lost your sense of smell…So for weeks or even months, there has been no activity in your olfactory nerve. And so the parts of the brain that normally receive this information, they noticed that, well, there’s nothing coming in.”
This could cause your brain to stop ‘noticing’ smells coming in. Psilocybin could act as a reset button or catalyst to get your brain to start receiving and attending to olfactory information again.
However, the spanner in the works of these two theories is that they focus on processes within the brain itself. Recent research has found that the smell loss caused by COVID-19 seems to be located within the nose itself, before we reach the brain.
Brad explains to The Pulse podcast;
“Damage is almost certainly in the nose, at the olfactory epithelium, not in the brain cortex… So a drug that modulates cortical synapses, not involved in the damage, is not likely to be directly impacting repair or recovery.”
Basically — psilocybin does wonders to your brain, not your nose.
Possible Reason 3 : Psilocybin Combats Inflammation
No sadly that’s not inflation (topical joke ahoy!), but yes, psilocybin has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties. Fred Barrett, a neuroscientist and associate director of the Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, stands behind this theory. He explains that COVID causes anosmia by inflammation in the olfactory system. And, if this continued anosmia is caused by continued inflammation then, Barrett explains;
“…if psychedelics have an anti-inflammatory effect, it stands to reason that adding an anti-inflammatory to your body would ameliorate the effects of an inflammation. And if people are recovering from anosmia through psychedelic use, that briefly would be my guess as to what might be happening.”
He did also mention that it could just be a coincidence. With the amount of people suffering from COVID-19 related anosmia it figures that some of them may just happen to recover at the same time they take a psychedelic. Especially as their use is becoming more and more widespread.
Let’s Wait and See…
So for now, that’s that. Most scientists agree that at the moment there is no clear-cut theory for why this phenomena has happened to so many people. We reckon it must be a bit more than just a coincidence… Maybe a new research discovery is just around the corner… We’ll certainly keep you updated if anything reveals itself.
Until then enjoy your trip — whether you can smell or not!