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Pleasant Smells Can Curb the Urge to Smoke

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Your sense of smell plays a role in modulating behavior and interpersonal relationships; smokers report a reduction in cravings after smelling pleasant odors
  • Smells, also called olfactory clues, play a significant role in your memories and in your sense of taste. Loss of smell may be one of the initial symptoms of a degenerative neurological disease
  • Your sense of smell has an impact on your psychological health and how well others are treated, potentially since odors affect the amygdala involved in emotion and the hippocampal system involved in long-term memory
  • Smoking damages your lungs, cardiovascular system and cognition; however, while vaping is perceived to be safe, it carries additional long-term dangers affecting the same systems and, if used, should be for a short time to quit smoking
  • Additional strategies to help you quit smoking are getting healthy first to support your efforts, eating a nutritionally balanced diet, exercising and finding a health emotional outlet

Smell may be your most underestimated sense. However, while you may not consciously think about it daily, your sense of smell has a significant impact on your behavior and your survival.

It wasn’t long ago scientists considered vision to be vital to survival and your sense of smell to rank last in the estimation of importance of your senses. Recent studies have shown that despite the weak number of olfactory receptors in humans compared to other species, the cortical integration of sensations in humans are large and have important connections with memory and language.1

Your sense of smell appears to be most significant in modulating your behavior and interpersonal relationships and has a major influence on your taste and personality. Knowledge of the more classic senses, especially sight and hearing, has played a significant role as scientists begin to understand how the brain interprets impressions.

Smell and taste have received little attention in comparison. You may have thought of how your sense of smell protects you from danger, such as smelling smoke during a fire, or natural gas from a gas line break. However, researchers have now discovered those attempting to quit smoking may also benefit from pleasant smells.2

Pleasant Scents May Curb Your Desire to Smoke

Research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology focused on investigating the use of olfactory cues to reduce cravings for cigarettes. The researchers noted many want to quit, yet approximately 50% will relapse within two weeks.3

They gathered a group of participants who were exposed to smoking cues producing significant cravings. During times of peak craving, the participants were randomly assigned to sniff one of three scents they had previously sampled.

Participants were encouraged to smell the scent as often as they wanted in the first five minutes, as researchers measured their craving every minute.4 The researchers recorded a set of responses they thought were associated with the craving.

They found those exposed to scents rated as pleasant experienced a reduction in cravings for a cigarette more than those who were exposed to a neutral scent or a tobacco-related scent. The effect of reduced cravings persisted over five minutes. Additionally, 90% of the participants thought they could imagine using a pleasant scent to curb their craving in their everyday life.

This suggested olfactory cues could show promise for controlling cigarette cravings and may prove useful in combination with existing approaches in a smoking cessation intervention. Michael Sayette, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a psychology researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, commented on the results to Reuters, saying:5

"There are many approaches that people use for smoking cessation, including nicotine products (e.g., nicotine gum, nicotine patch), medication, and behavioral approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation. But quitting smoking remains an awfully difficult challenge and novel approaches, either alone or in conjunction with existing interventions, are sorely needed.

Although five minutes may not seem like a long time, it may be sufficient to offer smokers a critical window to rethink what they are doing and perhaps leave a situation where the risk of relapse is high."

Smell Is Related to Your Memories and Taste

This video describes the process of smell, and how your sense of smell is intricately related to your sense of taste. As explained by Tom Finger, Ph.D., professor at the University of Colorado Denver medical school, the sensation of flavor is actually a combination of taste and smell. For instance, if you held your nose while chewing a jelly bean, the taste would be limited.

But, open your nose midway through chewing and you suddenly recognize the flavor. As you chew, air is forced through your nasal passages, which carries the smell of the food along with it. The interplay of these two senses help you to grasp complex flavors.

This connection makes losing your sense of smell devastating as food no longer has taste. Individuals miss out on emotional connections as well.6 Richard Doty, Ph.D., professor and director of the smell and taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania, believes smell is intricately related to memories.

For instance, the scent of your grandmother's pantry is more quickly associated with memories of her home than sight of the home may be. Importantly, loss of smell is also one of the initial symptoms of degenerative neurological diseases.7

Researchers know impairment of the sense of smell is a characteristic feature of Parkinson's disease. Recent data demonstrated more than 90% of those with Parkinson's are diagnosed with significant loss of smell. Several studies have suggested this loss may have a diagnostic utility to differentiate Parkinson's disease from other movement disorders.8

There may be times when you lose your sense of smell for a short time, such as during a cold or allergies, from a polyp growth in your nose, radiation, chemotherapy and other cancer treatments or some medications.9

Psychological Impact of Your Sense of Smell

Your sense of smell also has a surprising impact on your psychological health and how others treat you. In a research project10 carried out at the Dentistry Skills Center in Oslo, dentists were interested to see if patients who were anxious or nervous would be treated differently.

The trial was conducted using T-shirts collected from participants who had undergone two different situations, one in which the participant was nervous and another in which they were relaxed. The T-shirts were placed on practice dummies while students performed treatments.

The results of the study showed those who smelled of fear and anxiety received poorer treatment from the dental students. Human and animal studies have demonstrated the perception of odor is modulated by experience and your psychological state at the time. For instance, if you're hungry, some odors may arouse different emotions than if you're not.11

Odors may also influence psychological and physiological states as they affect the amygdala involved in associative learning and emotion, and the hippocampal system a part of long-term memory and episodic memory.12

You may have heard of inattentional blindness, during which an individual is so focused they failed to notice something happening in the area. Psychological scientists wondered if inattention may also increase in a person's ability to miss smell.13

After two experiments testing their basic hypothesis and demonstrating smell blocking effects, they moved on and used 20 students to focus on a visual task in a room with a strong smell of coffee.14 Even though there were three open containers of coffee beans, only 30% said they smelled the coffee. However, when they left and came back, all the participants could smell it.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, 19% of the population over age 20 experience smell disorders. When those who lose their sense of smell from aging alone are considered, one out of every eight from between the ages of 53 and 91 will be affected over a five-year period.15

Hazards Associated With Smoking Not Limited to Your Lungs

As with exposure to any toxin, one or two cigarettes likely won't cause lasting harm. It is the ongoing exposure that triggers serious side effects. Many don't begin to feel these until years after they begin smoking. However, once you start experiencing symptoms, significant damage has already been done.

In addition to the long-term effects listed below, smokers tend to have smelly clothes and hair, bad breath and stained teeth. It may lead to premature wrinkles, gum and tooth loss and sudden weight changes.

Smoking causes progressive harm to your musculoskeletal system and bone mineral density16

Men who smoke have a 25% increased risk of any fracture and a 40% increased risk of hip fracture17

Smoking leads to slower healing after injury18

Smoking leads to an increase in chronic back pain and disabling lower back pain19

Smokers are more likely to develop cognitive impairment than nonsmokers20

Smokers are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease21

Smoking increases your risk of tooth loss and decay22

Smoking increases your risk of age-related macular degeneration and increases your risk of age-related cataracts23

Steer Clear of Vaping

There is a perceived notion smoking an e-cigarette is safer than traditional combustible cigarettes. This may be the result of the often-odorless vapor, making it difficult to detect. E-cigarettes are also being advertised to stop using traditional cigarettes.

While it may help some adults to quit completely, the perception that vaping is harmless is not confirmed by research. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) reports a small decrease in the estimated number of smokers globally since 2000, the numbers who are vaping have only continued to rise, from 7 million in 2011 to 35 million in 2016.24

The prevalence of vaping doubled from 2017 to 2018. A large federally funded survey25 conducted by the University of Michigan in their Monitoring the Future Study26 found twice as many high school students were using electronic nicotine delivery systems in 2018 as compared to 2017.27 Juul is the most popular product, likely a result of the wildly addictive nature of their nicotine salts.28,29

The combination of rising rates of individuals vaping, with the high addictive properties of Juul salts, makes it clear the tobacco industry’s new target consumers are teens. The outgoing FDA commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, continued to speak out against the tobacco industry as he resigned his post.

In a 15-page response to the commissioner's30 plan to address the vaping epidemic, Altria, owner of Malboro and other large brands of cigarettes, promised to hold pod-based sales for FDA approval. According to Altria,31 "Our companies include some of the most enduring names in American business …"

Despite the tobacco company’s long and lurid history of lies and deceit, the FDA was willing to give Altria the benefit of the doubt. Holding true to the letter of their promise, they removed pods from some existing companies, but defied the spirit of intent when they invested in Juul to take advantage of Juul's market value and lend Altria's asset distribution channels.

Quit Smoking Safely

Vaping may be a short-term alternative to smoking combustible cigarettes if you're trying to quit, but the product also carries significant health risks. Research has demonstrated two-thirds to three-quarters of ex-smokers were able to stop unaided,32 so if you're thinking of quitting, try going cold turkey. However, I believe the secret is to get healthy first, which in turn makes quitting far easier.

Exercise is a big part of this plan, and research shows people engaged in regular strength training double their success rate at quitting smoking compared to those who don't exercise.33 Healthy eating is another crucial aspect. If you want a quit here are three basic tips to help you get started.

Nutrition — Read through my comprehensive free nutrition plan to get started eating right, which will teach you about intermittent fasting and other tools to get you healthy before you quit, as this can radically increase your likelihood of successfully quitting.

Exercise — Develop a well-rounded exercise regimen. It is your ally to fighting disease and quitting smoking. Strength training is an important part, but also remember to incorporate HIIT exercises like Peak Fitness, core-strengthening exercises, aerobics and stretching.

Stress reduction — Find a healthy emotional outlet. Many people use exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques for this, and these are all great. I also recommend incorporating the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), as this may help clear out emotional blockages from your system (some of which you might not even realize are there), thus restoring your mind and body's balance and helping you break the addiction and avoid cravings.

If you smoke, I do advise quitting. You should also know about astaxanthin, which has been found to help prevent oxidative damage in those who smoke.34 This might be one way to at least help lessen some of the smoking-related damage for those who are unwilling or unable to quit.