Can ADHD Affect Your Sense of Smell?

ADHD sense of smell

Can ADHD affect sense of smell?  Maybe. But maybe not in the way that we might presume.  I first wondered about this observing the olfactory habits of my husband, aka “Dr. Goat.”

One day, our mail carrier handed me a small box. As he walked away, I said to myself, “Wow, his cologne still lingers. Must be strong stuff.” Then I opened the box: It contained a small bottle of patchouli oil. Even though securely closed, the scent was overpowering.

I bring the powerfully odiferous package to my husband. “Do you like this scent,” I ask, holding it under his nose.

Sniff-sniff-sniff.

“Nothing,” he responds.  What?

In this post, I

  1. Explore potential explanations
  2. Conduct a few experiments
  3. Comb the published literature
  4. Apply powers of observation to find the likely answer (and yes, it sort of involves ADHD)

ADHD sense of smell

Sense of Smell: Another “ADHD Thing”?

This wasn’t the first time when my husband seemed unable to share my appreciation of luscious scents. Consider my gardenia plant covered with blossoms. (See photo above.)

I grew up in the South, with the scent of magnolia and gardenia blossoms hanging in the air during hot summer nights. Though I didn’t miss that hot mugginess, I did miss gardenias. So, I chose a variety appropriate for Northern California, Veitchii. 

After a few years of struggling, it finally came to life when I found a semi-sunny spot it really likes.  Delighted that the buds hanging there since December had finally opened, I brought one in for my husband.

‘Sniff-sniff-sniff. Nothing.

“I must have blown out my olfactory receptors in the lab,” he concludes. He meant time spent studying to become a biologist, dealing with various chemicals during bench experiments.

But how can that be true? He absolutely detects some fragrances. Including some delicate ones. Plus, he is super quick to pick up any annoying aromas, including scented laundry detergent and fabric softener, chemical deodorizers or cleaners, cologne, and the like. We share an aversion to those. You’ll find none in our house.

“Congrats, You Are A Psychopath”?

It’s very strange, his erratic sense of smell. Perhaps it is contextual? Perhaps it’s related to his energy level, how close his stimulant medication is to wearing off, or his flat-out “interest” in detecting the odor?

For years, I left it at that.

I certainly did not share with him articles such as this: Do You Have a Poor Sense of Smell? Congrats, You Are A Psychopath.

That article reports on a study from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, in which scientists make their case linking psychopathic personality disorder to impaired “olfactory processing.” The paper is titled Olfactory Abilities and Psychopathy: Higher Psychopathy Scores Are Associated with Poorer Odor Discrimination and Identification.

Here is the abstract:

Olfactory processing is known to involve the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is also believed to function less effectively in individuals scoring higher in psychopathic personality traits.

In this study, we examined whether poorer olfactory discrimination and identification—taken as an indicator of OFC integrity—was associated with the degree of presence of psychopathic traits in a community sample. Seventy-nine non-criminal participants completed the Self-Report Psychopathy scale and a standardized measure of olfactory ability, the Sniffin’ Sticks, measuring odor threshold, identification, and discrimination.

Consistent with predictions, we found a relationship between psychopathy and olfactory discrimination and identification but not odor threshold, even after controlling for gender, age, empathy, smoking status, and craniofacial surgery/injury.

These findings suggest that brain areas subserving higher olfactory processes—identification and discrimination—are somehow less efficient in individuals who score higher on psychopathic traits. In particular, we suggest that this relates to processing within the orbitofrontal cortex.

liquid zinc assay

Enter the Zinc Test

Still, one question nagged: Could a zinc deficiency explain his erratic sense of smell? Limited study has associated:

  1. ADHD to zinc deficiency
  2. Zinc deficiency to poor sense of smell

No, he seemed to lack other signs of a zinc deficiency. And, we eat a fairly zinc-rich diet (pumpkin and sunflower seeds, some red meat, etc.)  Still, I was intrigued by a do-it-yourself zinc test, so I purchased the liquid zinc assay. He agreed to an experiment.

It’s simple. You take in a teaspoon of the liquid.  If you’re zinc-deficient, allegedly you’ll taste very little. It might even taste like water. If you’re not zinc deficient, it will taste unpleasant. My husband grimaced immediately, which apparently means he’s not zinc deficient.  (Yes, I did a “blind” control – a spoon of plain water.)

I found one published review paper on this zinc test: The Accuracy of the Zinc Test Method.  There were some positive findings, but researchers caution that the test cannot be considered definitive. There is more information at diagnose-meTest Zinc Levels: Overview

Finally, zinc deficiency surely cannot explain all cases of hypogeusia  (a reduced ability to smell).

(PLEASE don’t supplement zinc without serious consideration. There can be “too much of a good thing.” To be clear: We don’t know if ADHD neurobiology itself might limit zinc absorption/uptake. One study presents preliminary evidence that ADHD neurobiology itself can affect iron uptake: Can Stimulants Normalize Iron Uptake in Individuals with ADHD? Maybe)

ADHD sense of smell

Then I Noticed: He’s Not Focusing!

A fresh gardenia bud blossomed. I plucked the velvety cream-white flower and carried it inside.  “Check it out,” I said, holding the gardenia near his nose.

But this time I more closely observed the manner in which he attempted to take in its scent: Sniff-sniff-sniff. That’s when I realized: He’s not focusing on smelling! He’s focusing on sniffing.

I tried his method. Sniff-sniff-sniff. Also nothing.  Try it yourself. If you just make sniffing actions, in rapid succession, you really can’t smell much.

I shared this stroke of insight with him and then said: “Okay, now close your eyes, take a deep bre…”

My husband always erupts into irrepressible chortles when I make that particular suggestion.  It reminds us of our ridiculously futile efforts, pre-ADHD diagnosis at various workshops, to help him to “calm down.”

Some day I will share with you the “Mindfulness Raisin Incident” of 1994.

I change tactics.  “Okay, just sit back relax and leisurely take in the scent.”  He did.

“Oh, that’s lovely,” he said. Eureka!

Hmm, ADHD and sense of smell: It’s complicated.

eureka lightbulb

ADHD:  A Constant Source of Discovery

After almost 20 years of studying ADHD, I still learn something new every day:

I never fail to hit upon some small understanding that connects to a larger picture of comprehension.

Who knew that ADHD might affect a sense of smell—that we must “focus” on taking in a flower’s aroma? Even if a micro-focus, it’s still focus.

For me, it gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “Stop—and smell the roses, er, gardenias.”

—Gina Pera

Have you experienced this phenomenon?  I’d love to hear about it.
This post originally appeared on July 6, 2017.

 

 

15 thoughts on “Can ADHD Affect Your Sense of Smell?”

  1. I always kind of assumed other people were being dramatic about how bad “bad smells” were. I could smell what they were talking about, but it wasn’t THAT bad.

    But then, I was doing a dissection lab while obtaining my biology degree. There were numerous species of birds that had died from reasons unrelated to the dissection (window collision, hit by car, killed by cat, etc.), and as such they weren’t always in the best condition.

    So I unwrap the specimen. Immediately, my partner recoils in horror at the smell. All I can detect is the faint scent of olives, which I find all formaldehyde-preserved specimens smell like, so I think she’s just over-reacting. But then she runs to the garbage can and vomits.

    I stand there, shocked, as the professor runs over in concern. She asks my partner what happened and she, still retching, points at the specimen that I’m still standing beside. The professor approaches and her face immediately crumples into disgust.
    “Oh no,” she says. “That one must have rotted!”

    Several classmates, curious, approach, and all react the same way. A second girl vomits and the prof asks us to stop torturing ourselves. Evidently, the bird is absolutely putrid, and no one can stand being near it.
    No one except me, apparently.

    I stand there, breathing calmly through my nose, and comment that I only smell olives. My friend gags and begs me never to say that again, as she actually /likes/ olives. I offer to finish the dissection on my own, as I clearly don’t mind and I was interested in the specimen (it was a woodpecker!). The professor denied my request and the specimen was disposed of with extreme prejudice.

    After that, I started paying more attention to smells and people’s reactions to them. And it seems like my sense of smell isn’t very good.

    I asked my family, and my aunt agreed that her nose doesn’t work well either. We have the same shaped nose (even the same crooked bridge), so it /could/ be physiological, but I suspect my aunt may ALSO be ADHD, so it’s hard to say.

    1. Hi Amy,

      That’s funny! You paint a vivid picture!

      “Don’t say olives.” lol

      I imagine being faint of scent could be an advantage sometimes!

      Thanks for commenting,
      g

  2. yes this is interesting and correct as i am very sensitive to certain smells but then others i don’t smell at all. the older i get the more sensitive i am to smells and notice the wonderful scent of flowers blooming . i must admit when i was young i never noticed any scents around flowers or anything floral. my adhd was not being treated back then either. i cannot even wear perfume or scented anything nowadays.

    1. HI Kim,

      Thanks for your comment. As we get older, we get slower (at least I do…ha). Maybe that has something to do with it.

      “Forced mindfulness.” 🙂

      g

  3. deborah snyderdssdot@yahoo.com

    Hi Gina,

    Your “Roller Coaster” has great info. Thanks for it.

    By the way, the sense of smell is fascinating to me also; I first learned nine (9) years ago that Smell is the first sense “to go,” in Dementia (or the type my Mom had: LBD) a harbinger of sorts as the disease itself then progresses.

    Also I suspect my mother had had ADHD (although of course it was never diagnosed not in a girl growing up in the 920s and 30s.)

    Anyway then I wondered if the sense of Smell does not hint at a variety of brain diseases; where all else is NOT equal but as each leaves us more than perplxed: stumped.

    1. Hi Deborah,

      Yes, I suspect a poor sense of smell does hint at a variety of brain disease.

      Here’s an interesting tidbit, from the UK’s NHS:

      Anosmia is the medical term for loss of the sense of smell
      “Sense of smell ‘may predict lifespan’,” BBC News reports. New research suggests people unable to smell distinctive scents, such as peppermint or fish, may have an increased risk of death within five years of losing their sense of smell.
      The study found adults aged 57 or above who could not correctly identify five particular scents – peppermint, fish, orange, rose and leather – were more than three times as likely to die in the next five years.
      The authors speculate loss of smell does not directly cause death, but it could be an early warning sign that something has gone wrong, such as exposure to toxic environmental elements or cell damage.
      While this study is interesting, it does not prove that loss of sense of smell (anosmia) is a predictor of early death. Researchers used only five scents to identify people with anosmia and only tested people’s sense of smell once, which makes the results less reliable.
      There are many reasons for temporary loss of sense of smell, including viral infections, nasal blockage and allergy, so you shouldn’t panic if you suddenly stop “smelling the roses”. But you are advised to see your GP if there is no obvious reason for a sudden loss of smell.

      http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/10October/Pages/Does-losing-your-sense-of-smell-predict-death-risk.aspx

  4. Great article! I KNOW that I do this. This is especially if I am interrupted while “my head” is in the middle something. I am trying to be more mindful about moments like this by actually pausing and focusing. Life is actually more enjoyable that way! 😉 It is difficult to remember though and I have asked my spouse to remind me to pause so I change my focus. It is tough though!

    1. It sounds tough!

      I know sometimes my husband seems to forget to breathe! Or at least he’s breathing in a very shallow way. When I hug him, he seems to relax and breathe more evenly and deeply.

      Strange creatures, we human.

      Thanks for your comment, Christine!
      g

  5. Betsy Davenport, PhD

    Seems there are numbers of people with ADHD who are sensitive to smells. How can this be, while others, such as your husband in your story above, is less sensitive to smells (if not paying attention)? Smells penetrate the attention of some people, and can’t garner attention in others.

    I guess the oft-mentioned regulator is the culprit. It is no more useful to be assaulted by smells than to not be able to enjoy them. If one can’t filter smells in, or out, at will, it’s a brain problem like the others related to this funky disorder.

    1. Yes, exactly, Betsy. The regulator.

      If I dare to put lotion on my hands before getting in the car with him — even a tiny bit, with a faint “natural” scent” — he’s a regular drama queen, opening the windows, etc.

      I get it. I can be the same way with synthetic fragrances. It’s just odd how his sense of smell comes and goes.

      g

  6. Gina, loved your article on sense of smell.
    Very interesting and insightful.

    I have a super duper sense of smell. I use the scent-free detergents and never use the plug-in or room fresheners. But I find those room fresheners or strong chemical cleaners in many of my client’s homes.
    Now I see some connections.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Holly,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, it’s funny. I’ve known some folks with ADHD who seem to “self-medicate” with synthetic fragrances in the home. I imagine some folks use them in order to attempt masking unsavory pet odors, etc. Yet, one day I picked up my friend’s first-grader at school. I arrived early, so I waited outside and peeked in through window. There was my friend’s little girl (later diagnosed with ADHD), surreptitiously sniffing on her scented magic markers!

      tx
      g

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