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.


“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.

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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.




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

  1. The last part of this story resonated with me. All my life I have struggled to smell things other smell. I even have my husband tell me if any smells are off. Once directed to smell, sometimes I can faintly catch it. Was always worried why I can’t smell well.

    Finally treated for ADHD with medication and didn’t expect smell to change, but on my medication I can smell things I never did before and/or more smells without having to focus super duper hard to maybe catch a mind is blown

    1. Ruth!!! Thanks so much for your comment.

      My husband the molecular biologist says I was a scientist in a past life. In other words, I don’t have the PhD or the training but I “think like” a scientist.

      But in this point, even I was wondering… this EXTREME? lol

      But according to your olfactory sense, maybe no!

      Take care

  2. Gina wrote about Western doctors who think: ‘we “get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet.” ha!’ Yes indeed, ha! Now you’ve got me going (again) Gina!

    Certainly here in the UK there has been no new land for agriculture since the last world war so the soil is totally deficient in minerals and nutrition, and intensive farming uses mostly chemical fertilisers since organic options are costlier. Produce is harvested before it’s naturally ripe, followed by long periods in temperature-controlled storage, and more chemicals added to prolong and extend shelf-life. Depending on the preparation and cooking method (higher temperatures and long cooking times usually means less goodness) so by the time food is on your plate you’d be lucky to find any vitamins or minerals at all. Ever wondered why food manufacturers add vitamins to fruit juice, or breakfast cereal? Yes, it’s because most refining and processing methods destroy any natural nutrients and so so artificial substitutes are added. Sorry for my rant! (Please don’t get me started on what happens with meat and poultry products)

    As for “getting slower as we get older…”
    I’m 62 and although my adrenaline-sports days are over I still have a quick tongue and a fast mouth :), and I will verbally annihilate anyone foolish enough to challenge me in that sport, although I will usually try to do it kindly and with humour 🙂

    My philosophy for increasing seniority is “Don’t Let the Old Woman in…!”

    That’s one of only two resolutions I make every new year.
    The other one is “Have More Fun!”
    Please feel free to adopt them if you wish. I will probably forget them one day, as I have done with whatever things I was supposed to be doing today before I started this pleasant albeit rather self-indulgent distraction… I hope readers will forgive me, (if indeed anyone has actually made it this far…)

  3. So many interesting things to read on this blog and I learn something new every time. Thanks Gina!
    For the possible interest and I hope amusement of any readers, let me share with you my experiences with smell sensitivity. I’ve always been able to detect smells before most people I know (very handy if anyone has left the gas on…). I always know what my neighbour is cooking, even if it’s just toast. From inside my apartment if there’s an open window behind a closed door in a room, I can smell the difference between a bus, a car, and a motorcycle passing by on the street. I can smell differences between types of paper and card. I can smell when it’s going to rain. I can smell people passing a metre or two away in the street, people at a distance on trains and buses: their shower products, hair products, their applied scents, and the fresh fruits and vegetables in their shopping bags.
    One of the most unpleasant assaults on my olfactory senses are
    the synthetic chemical manufactured “natural aromas” supposedly designed to make a home smell “fresh”. I’m also very sensitive to most hair “products”.
    If I’m within a couple of feet from a person, regardless of whatever products they use, I can tell quickly and easily if they have a naturally sour smell or a naturally healthy smell, and I know when someone has used a dirty bath or face towel.
    Perhaps weirdly, I can usually differentiate between and often recognise different cats by the smell of their fur.
    Best of all, I knew without doubt and almost immediately when I had found my life partner, because of his smell. (That was 19 years ago. I thought it pretty cool then and I still do now 🙂
    Much of the time I can tell you the colour of a smell, also the colour of different days of the week and months of the year. For example: Monday is blue, Tuesday is yellow, Wednesday is green, Thursday is orange, Friday is red… they’ve always been these colours.
    It’s all rather fun!

    1. Josie! lol! You are a kick in the pants.

      My husband calls me The Molecular Nose, so I’m reading and thinking…yeah, me, too, me, too….

      Until I got to the part where you “know when someone has used a dirty bath or face towel.” Got me beat there, sister.

      And no Synesthesia for me. How fascinating.

      I totally get recognizing your life partner via your olfactory system. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Hi Gina,

    Not sense of smell for me, but Zinc. I take Concerta. A few years ago, at a work dinner, we had oysters for appetizers. I like oysters but had not had them for several years. About 20 minutes after the oysters, I realized I had the whole body, electric buzz going on. Practically vibrating in my seat. It took me a couple of days and some research to realize that the high zinc levels in the oysters were the new variable. I don’t know all the interconnections, but somehow the increased zinc in my system heightened the efficacy of the methylphenidate, almost as if I had taken a double dose, or a fast release version. I haven’t revisited the zinc-methylphenidate connection yet, but I am watchful as to where I am in the Concerta release cycle if I’m expecting to have clams or oysters. Other shellfish don’t seem to create any effect. Always interesting to see how these cross reactions occur, and are so different for different people.



    1. Hi Paul,

      That is SO very interesting. I read the papers on ADHD and zinc many years ago — out of Turkey, I think. I don’t recall seeing much since.

      But, you know, most Western doctors seem to believe that we “get all the vitamins and minerals we need from our diet.” ha! Depends on the diet.

      It’s not so much a MPH-zinc connection as there is the nervous system’s need for vitamins and minerals to move neurochemicals hither and yon.

      Of course, some people with ADHD got wind of that research and decided to double-down on the zinc. Not good!

      Zinc and copper work in balance. Not too much of either.

      Zinc deficiencies and “copper overload” tend to happen in folks who forgo red meat (even dark-meat chicken) and perhaps over-consume breads and cereals.

      Eugene Arnold is a prominent ADHD researcher who has examined the role of diet in various ways. Here is one paper on zinc and ADHD.

      thanks for your comment,

  5. 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,

  6. 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.” 🙂


  7. deborah

    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.

  8. 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!

    2. Hi Christine! Enjoyed reading your comment and please see my new comments above (or wherever they go) as perhaps my two new years resolutions may help your focus 🙂

  9. 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.


  10. 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!


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