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How Your Sense of Smell Subconsciously Protects You

By Chris Brown

While it may seem inconsequential, one's sense of smell is a primal tool designed to protect the body from danger and disease. The ability to smell decreases with age and an estimated 12 percent of adults live with some form of smell dysfunction. But besides limiting one's ability to conduct the "smell test" on used clothing, what exactly does a loss of smell mean for those afflicted? Smell has been long known to help humans identify danger and potential disease. However, recent studies have suggested an even greater health importance of our sniffing power than one might imagine.

Why Is Smell Important for Health

Smell has played a deep evolutionary role in keeping us safe and healthy. Bad smells warn us of spoiled food, filthy environments, and potential disease. Unhealthy environments and people tend to have unpleasant odors associated with them. These bad smells of the unclean can be an indicator of potential disease, since high-bacterial environments tend to be the root cause behind the unpleasant scents. Prior to the development of antibiotics, a bacterial infection could quickly become fatal. Identifying potential risks before exposure allowed our ancestors to avoid soiled places and remain disease-free. Nowadays, smell continues to similarly shelter you from risky interactions, even if it is without your conscious knowledge.

The Hidden Danger-Identifying Abilities of the Olfactory Nerve

A study conducted by the Swedish Research Council discovered that our sense of smell was protecting us from health dangers in a much deeper, more subconscious way than escaping a foul odor. The olfactory (smell) nerve sent warning signals to the brain at a speed of 300 milliseconds in the study, causing participants to unconsciously lean away from foul smells before their minds could process it. This is how, according to professor Johan Lundstrom of the Karolinska Institute, smell is essential to "detect dangers in our vicinity" using a method "more unconscious than our responses to danger mediated by our senses of vision and hearing." And your sense of smell has a mind of its own, literally. A whopping 5 percent of the brain is dedicated to the olfactory sense. It can remember associations of smells, so that if you encounter an animal with a distinct smell, for instance, future associations and instincts with that smell will be impacted by your experience with the animal. This can give you an instinctual survival advantage in future encounters.

Keeping your sniffer strong, by eliminating strong scents or practicing mindful smelling, can keep your instincts sharp to protect you from danger and disease. A better-than-average nose can even grant a sort of smelling superpower over others.

To learn more about your health, wellness and fitness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic in Boise, Idaho.

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