How to Improve Your Sense of Smell — and Why You’d Want To

James Gaddy wrote . . . . . .

Superman could fly. The Incredible Hulk had incredible strength. The Flash had lightning speed. Even Deadpool had healing powers. Among superheroes, it isn’t that sexy to have one of your regular five senses heightened, much less become a mutant with a super sniffer.

Bianca Bosker, author of the new book Cork Dork (Penguin Random House), acknowledges that our noses occupy a lower tier among the senses. Even the phrase “that smells” reeks of ammonia. “We have a real bias about smell,” said Bosker in an interview. “Most of us have learned at an early age that this is a sense that does not pay to cultivate.” Best case scenario: You end up a sommelier.

Over the course of 18 months, Bosker spent a year with some of the top oenophiles in the world to try to understand what is the big deal about wine. She lugged bottles of Mondeuse noire as a cellar rat at L’Apicio, sneaked sips of Domaine Jamet while staging at Marea, tried to upsell Israeli Cabernets while waiting tables at Terroir, guzzled Burgundy at La Paulée de New York, and held blind tastings at Eleven Madison Park—now the world’s No.1 restaurant—that, on one occasion, included a $1,765 Riesling from Alsace.

In between, she met with scent scientists to see if there were a shortcut to becoming a wine connoisseur.

“I started out wondering if we can even hone our sense of smell,” she said. In other words, are we born confined to a certain amount of sensitivity, or can we get better if we really try?

Bosker traces our olfactory inferiority complex back to the days of Aristotle, who prophesied that “man can smell things only poorly … because his sense-organ is not accurate.” In the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to prove that humans had evolved beyond the need to know their noses. The French scientist Paul Broca found that as animals ascended the evolutionary chain, their limbic lobe, a part of the brain then thought to control our sense of smell, decreased in size. It was so small in humans, he concluded, “the delicacy of his olfactory sense is … of no utility in his life.” The famous tongue map—the idea that the front part of your tongue is sweet, and the back bitter—wasn’t disproved until 1974.

The scientists Bosker spoke with say the biggest problem is that most people don’t even know the difference between taste and smell.

“We assume that everything that happens in our mouth is taste, which is not true,” she explained. “We confuse one for the other, when we’d never confuse sight and sound.” One study she cited from the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center found that most people failed to diagnose themselves properly. People who complained about losing their sense of taste were three times more likely to be suffering from a smell disorder.

But there is hope. New research by the University of Dresden’s Smell and Taste Clinic found that the part of the brain responsible for processing smell can grow with exercise, sort of how bench pressing pumps your pecs. Even those with just an average sense of smell can increase the size of their olfactory bulbs via a regimen of trying out four aromas, twice a day, for about 30 seconds each.

“The first thing we have to do is get over our disdain for taste and smell,” Bosker said. It’s a curious paradox: Enlightened humans today obsess over spending time and money to find food that tastes better, whether it’s organic blueberries or third-wave coffee, and yet, she continued, “We rarely train ourselves to taste well. We let price and labels and menu descriptions substitute for our own sensory experiences.”

Here are three steps to achieving a more highly evolved nose.

Establish Your Baseline

Even if you are doing this to better appreciate wine or food, sharpening your sense of smell doesn’t start at the table.

To establish a base level of smell—your own scent-focused control group, in other words—smoking is out, for obvious reasons. Also banned: coffee, hard alcohol, hot sauce, perfume and cologne, overly strong shampoo, most salt, and toothpaste. (Don’t worry; the last only applies just before you are going to do a taste or smelling exercise.)

Many sommeliers also refuse to drink anything above tepid temperature, which also means no hot tea or soup.

“Part of that is self-deprivation,” Bosker said. “Some are superstitious and less scientific, but I was willing to give any of it a try, because I wanted to improve as quickly as I could.”

She gave up Listerine on days that she worked on her project, because it was too strong. Onions and garlic, too, fell by the wayside as she learned that those flavors lingered in her mouth longer than others. “We would always show up to tastings hungry, because your body is more attuned to smells when you’re hungry,” she continued.

Practice the Art of Description

One helpful exercise, Bosker said, is to try to describe all the smells over the course of your daily routine. It might be coming up with tasting notes of the shampoo you use every morning all the way to the toothpaste you use at night. Push yourself to go beyond obvious descriptors: minty, fresh, cooling, sweet.

“If you’ve ever learned a language or even a word in your life, you have the ability to become a great smeller,” Bosker suggests. “When you think about learning a language, it’s not that your hearing gets better. It is about taking those foreign sounds and attaching meaning to them.”

So having the right words to describe what you’re tasting is essential to understanding it and in communicating to others, which is why you end up with florid descriptions on bottles and in wine magazines: “chalky,” “rubbery,” “velvety,” “essence of toast.”

“I realized I had to visualize and to articulate it,” she said. “Because smells bypass part of our conscious brain, we don’t really notice them all the time. But if you pay attention and try to describe it, you can understand it better.”

Exercise Your Nose

The expensive shortcut is a $400 kit called Le Nez du Vin. (If wine isn’t your thing, other kits focus on whiskey and coffee.) It’s a collection of glass vials that contain liquid versions of the aroma of grass, smoke, blackberry, and cranberry, up to a total of 54 different scents.

“Instead of sit-ups, I would smell four vials of these samples every day,” Bosker said. “Then I would alternate every week, trying to internalize what is black currant, or lemon, and then do them blind at the end of the week, to see if I’d mastered them. And at the end of the month, they were like smell flash cards.”

Apparently, it worked. When Bosker went in for her sommelier exam, she smelled the ripe raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, plum, blueberry, cassis, with a hint of pyrazines, to correctly deduce that it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, one- to three-years-old. And by the end, when she replicated a French and Italian study that used an fMRI machine to compare the brains of expert wine drinkers vs. those of amateurs, her own scan lit up like a professional. Instead of just processing flavor in an emotional way, which is how the brain of an amateur does it, she was using parts of her brain reserved for high-functioning skills, including reason, memory, and cognitive thinking.

Bosker also began picking up on information she had neglected before, “little clues that add texture and richness to daily life,” she said. She began to discern neighborhoods in New York that have a specific scent, and she became attuned to the smell of petrichor in the morning—the aroma when the earth is wet after a rain.

The only downside? In New York, she began to become aware of specific smells in subways stations. Now, she said, there are “clues that tell me where we are before we get there.” The new 72nd Street Q stop, for instance, smells of plastic and hairspray, she says. The Times Square stop, on the other hand, has notes of grease, dirty diapers, and blue cheese.

Source: Bloomberg

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Chinese-style Vegetarian Sausage

Ingredients

10 sheets tofu skin
8 pieces cotton strings

Seasoning

1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
2-1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp mushroom essence
1 cup water

Method

  1. Cut 2 pieces tofu skin into 8 quarters.
  2. Cut remain tofu skin in small pieces. Sprinkle with 3 tbsp water.
  3. Bring the seasoning to boil in a saucepan. Turn off heat and mix in the small tofu skin pieces. Mix well as filling.
  4. Divide filling into 8 portions.
  5. Add 1 portion of filling on each tofu skin quarter. Form into a roll. Tie tightly at intervals with cotton string.
  6. Steam on a greased bamboo steamer for half hour.
  7. Remove string when the sausages cool, glaze with sesame oil. Serve hot or cold in slices.

Makes 8 sausages.

Source: Chinese Vegetarian Dishes


In Pictures: Vegetarian Dishes of Resturants in London

Understanding Money Reduces Worry about Old Age

People who possess a greater understanding of finance are less likely to fret about life in their twilight years.

It seems financial literacy – the ability to understand how money works, enables people to accumulate more assets and income during their lifetime, and so increases confidence for the years ahead.

Additionally, financial literacy seemingly engenders a greater perception for risk and enables those who have it to face off later-life’s dilemmas with ease.

These findings, from Associate Professor Yoshihiko Kadoya of Hiroshima University and Mostafa Saidur Rahim Khan of Nagoya University, stem from a study which asked people from across Japan to answer questions assessing their calculation skills, understanding of pricing behavior, and financial securities such as bonds and stocks.

Respondents were also asked about their accumulated wealth, assets, and lifestyle – and to rate the level of anxiety they felt about life beyond 65.

As the first study to investigate financial literacy as a contributing factor to anxiety about old age, it should prove useful to policy makers in Japan and other developed countries where population aging is a growing concern.

The study has thrown up several intriguing findings for economic gurus to mull over. It suggests that financial literacy is not particularly high throughout Japanese society, and that men, and those with a higher level of education are more financially clued-in than women, and those with less education respectively.

The overriding thrust is that the more financially literate earn and accumulate more during their lifetime – and thus worry less about growing old.

It also appears that financial literacy helps shape people’s perception towards risk and uncertainty – making them more capable and confident in tackling whatever problems life throws at them.

Professor Kadoya says that financial literacy increases our awareness about financial products, builds a capacity to compare all available financial options, and changes our financial behavior – all which bodes well for our perceptions of, and actual experiences during our seniority.

While financial literacy taken alone was seen to reduce anxiety – its affect was further heightened by other factors.

Married respondents had even lower levels of anxiety about growing old than financially literate singletons. This could be down to married couples together planning more-effectively for the future due to familial responsibilities.

Age also plays a significant role, with anxiety levels peaking around 40. The researchers suggest that people at this age have the most home and workplace responsibilities, but with less money and time to support them, increasing anxiety about the here and now – and the journey ahead.

Interestingly as people get older their anxiety levels drop off on gaining access to social security, government funded health care and pensions – all taking the sting out of the post-retirement blues.

Having dependent children on the other hand increased anxiety levels – presumably due to respondent’s worry for their children’s wellbeing – as well as their own.

The findings should have implications for Japan and other countries where retirees account for a large and rapidly growing share of the population.

Although Japan has a universal pension system, its benefits depend on an individual’s ability to pay throughout their working life. As in much of the developed world, it is increasingly perceived that a pension is insufficient for daily expenses without a backup pool of savings and assets – putting the financially literate at a distinct advantage.

But should we be worrying about our finances in old age at all? Professor Kadoya doesn’t think so and says governments need to develop strategies to stem an anxiety pandemic:

“People shouldn’t spend time worrying about the future. That is why governments provide pensions, housing, and medical plans. If the perception is that these are not fulfilling their purpose then governments and providers need to look at making them more accessible – if people are still worried then we need to look at educating people about these services that are supplied for their needs.”

Source: EurekAlert!

Common Drugs, Uncommon Risks? Higher Rate of Serious Problems After Short-term Steroid Use

Millions of times a year, Americans get prescriptions for a week’s worth of steroid pills, hoping to ease a backache or quell a nagging cough or allergy symptoms. But a new study suggests that they and their doctors might want to pay a bit more attention to the potential side effects of this medication.

People taking the pills were more likely to break a bone, have a potentially dangerous blood clot or suffer a life-threatening bout of sepsis in the months after their treatment, compared with similar adults who didn’t use corticosteroids, researchers from the University of Michigan report in a new paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Though only a small percentage of both groups went to the hospital for these serious health threats, the higher rates seen among people who took steroids for even a few days are cause for caution and even concern, the researchers say.

The study used data from 1.5 million non-elderly American adults with private insurance. One in 5 of them filled a short-term prescription for oral corticosteroids such as prednisone sometime in the three-year study period. While the rates of the serious events were highest in the first 30 days after a prescription, they stayed elevated even three months later.

The researchers call for better education of prescribers and the public about the potential risks, and the most appropriate uses and doses, for short-term courses of steroids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration require drug makers to list the possible side effects of prednisone and other corticosteroids, but the rate of these events among short-term users has not been well characterized.

“Although physicians focus on the long-term consequences of steroids, they don’t tend to think about potential risks from short-term use,” says Akbar Waljee, M.D., M.Sc., the study’s lead author. “We see a clear signal of higher rates of these three serious events within 30 days of filling a prescription. We need to understand that steroids do have a real risk and that we may use them more than we really need to. This is so important because of how often these drugs are used.”

Waljee is an assistant professor of gastroenterology at the U-M Medical School and research scientist at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, as well as a member of the Michigan Integrated Center for Health Analytics and Medical Prediction (MiCHAMP), the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and the VA Center for Clinical Management Research.

As a specialist in inflammatory bowel diseases, he prescribes steroids often to patients seeking relief from chronic digestive tract issues. But the new study focused on short-term use and risks.

Who’s using short-term steroids?

Using anonymous insurance claims data that IHPI purchased for use by U-M health care researchers, they found that half of the people who received oral steroids had gotten them for just six diagnoses, related to back pain, allergies or respiratory tract infections including bronchitis.

Nearly half received a six-day prepackaged methylprednisolone “dosepak,” which tapers the dose of steroids from highest to lowest. Dr. Waljee notes that sold as individual pills, oral steroids can cost less than a dollar for a seven-day course, but the prepackaged form can cost several times that. He also notes that the prepackaged form starts with a relatively high dose that may not always be necessary.

Users of short-term steroids were more likely to be in the older age range under age 65, white, female and to have multiple health conditions. More than half lived in the southern U.S.

The researchers excluded from the study anyone who took steroids in the year before the study period began, anyone who took inhaled or injected steroids during the study years, and anyone who took oral steroids for more than 30 days, as well as people who had cancer or transplants.

Differences in danger

Dr. Waljee and his colleagues found higher rates of sepsis, venous thromboembolism (VTE) and fractures among short-term steroid users using multiple different statistical approaches to ensure their findings were as robust as possible.

First, they compared short-term steroid users with non-steroid users, looking for the three serious issues in the 5 to 90 days after either the clinic visit closest to when the steroid prescription was filled, or a routine clinic visit for non-steroid users. This gives what’s called an absolute risk.

They saw that 0.05 percent of those who got steroids were admitted to a hospital with a primary diagnosis of sepsis, compared with 0.02 percent of non-steroid users. For clots, it was 0.14 percent compared with 0.09 percent, and for fracture, it was 0.51 percent compared with 0.39 percent. However, this analysis was unable to account for all the individual differences between steroid users and non-users.

For that comparison, they then looked at rates of the three complications among short-term steroid users before and after they received steroids. Sepsis rates were five times higher in the 30 days after a steroid prescription, VTE clot rates were more than three times as high, and fracture rates were nearly twice as high as those that did not take steroids.

Finally, the researchers compared the steroid users with a sample of non-steroid users who had the same respiratory conditions. The difference in rates of all three health problems were still higher, as expressed by a quantity called the incidence rate ratio. Steroid users had more than five times the rate of sepsis, nearly three times the rate of VTE clots and two times the rate of fracture.

The consistent findings across the three approaches are important given the frequent use of these drugs and potential implications for patients. Waljee notes that the reason for this broad effect of steroids on complications may have its roots in how the drugs work: they mimic hormones produced by the body, to reduce inflammation but this can also induce changes that put patients at additional risk of serious events.

Studies in populations like the one in the BMJ paper can help guide researchers looking for dangerous side effects once drugs are on the market. Waljee notes the FDA is also conducting these initiatives through the “Sentinel Initiative”. These studies can also provide insight into the possible mechanisms that might drive these side effects.

“When we have a medication that’s being given to a large population, we can pick up signals that might inform us of some potentially harmful side effects that we might otherwise miss in smaller studies,” he says. “Analyzing large data sets like this is a goal of groups like MiCHAMP and can help us see these trends sooner, highlighting the importance of this type of research on Big Data.”

In the meantime, based on the new results, he advises patients and prescribers to use the smallest amount of corticosteroids possible based on the condition being treated. “If there are alternatives to steroids, we should be use those when possible,” he says. “Steroids may work faster, but they aren’t as risk-free as you might think.”

Source: EurekAlert!


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