If you’re in perimenopause, or are postmenopausal, you may find yourself puzzled over changes to your sense of smell. Maybe your favorite perfume suddenly seems too strong. Or, it may hardly have a scent at all. Formerly pleasant scents may now also take on a chemical smell, or odd odor. Your sense of taste may also, somehow, seem “off.” Foods you used to love may now be unappealing or even taste metallic.1
Sense of taste and smell naturally diminish or become altered with age, starting at around 60.2 For women in perimenopause or menopause, however, hormone fluctuations may have a similar effect, a decade, or so, earlier.3
Menopause, Sense of Smell, and Hormones – What’s the Connection?
Perimenopause and menopause are earmarked by the declining hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone. This causes menopause’s most commonly known symptoms, such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and mood swings. However, less talked about symptoms can also occur, including diminished, or a less-sharp sense of smell,4 which may also affect taste.
It’s not surprising that you don’t automatically connect the dots between plummeting sex hormones and changes to your coffee’s aroma, or muffin’s taste. However, hormones play a powerful role in your sense of smell and taste.
Your lips, tongue, gums, and hard palate all contain estrogen receptors.5 The tissues and mucus membranes in the mouth respond to decreased estrogen levels the same way vaginal tissues do, by getting dryer and less elastic. Your mouth, especially the tongue, may also take on a burning sensation because of these hormonal shifts.6
Plummeting estrogen levels cause less saliva to flow in the mouth.7 Saliva is not only important for supporting dental health, but it also starts the process of breaking down what you eat and drink into chemicals that generate distinct taste sensations.8 Salivary flow is what gives you the ability to distinguish between the sharp, cool tang of peppermint and the velvety taste of dark chocolate. This is known as “taste perception” or simply, the ability to taste and savor each aspect of the substances that enter your mouth.9
Taste and smell are intertwined. In addition to changes in the mouth, estrogen and progesterone are “protective” of the sense of smell, as well.10 Diminished estrogen has been shown to reduce the elasticity of mucus membranes in the nose, which can contribute to a limitation of airflow. This may alter your ability to parse out, experience, and identify scents accurately.11
In some women, lifetime estrogen exposure may play a role. A nationwide, South Korean study found that women who entered menopause early had less of a sense of smell than those who entered menopause later. Life events earmarked by less estrogen production, like breastfeeding, also had an effect.12 These differences, while small, were measurable.
Even so, don’t assume the number of pregnancies or months you’ve spent breastfeeding are destined to alter your taste and smell during menopause. Lifestyle choices also have been shown to have an impact.
What You Can Do to Restore Your Sense of Smell During Menopause
You can’t reduce the hormonal changes experienced during menopause that may alter your sense of smell and taste. You can, however, modify lifestyle habits that may exacerbate these changes.
Chief among them is smoking cigarettes. Smoking can significantly dull down the taste of food and reduce your sense of smell.13 If you smoke, consider making this the tipping point that empowers you to stop.
Smell training, also known as olfactory training, may help restore your sense of smell significantly.14 Smell training is often done with the help of a professional, but it can also be done on your own, at home.
To try out smell training:15
- Choose four distinctive scents (think rose water, cinnamon, camphor, and coffee).
- Actively sniff the same four scents daily for at least 20 seconds each.
- Focus on this the same way you would approach meditation, by clearing your mind of everything other than the scent.
- Try this for several weeks (it’s recommended up to 12 weeks), to see if you notice a change in your olfactory ability.
Consider Checking with Your Healthcare Provider About New Symptoms
The headiness of enjoying a fragrant garden, the soft scent of a baby’s skin, or smells of a turkey roasting adds to the quality of life. So does enjoying the taste of a delightful meal or a wine’s beautiful bouquet. If noticeable changes to smell or taste are bothering you, consider checking in with your healthcare provider and your dentist.
Often, a rectifiable, underlying condition not associated with menopause is the culprit. Allergies, sinus infections, polyps, and nasal congestion can all play a role.16
Keep in mind that complete or near-complete loss of smell may also be a symptom of COVID-19.17 If you suddenly can’t smell or taste a thing, be sure to let your healthcare provider know.
Menopausal changes associated with oral health, like producing less saliva, may make you more prone to cavities and gum disease, as well. A visit to the dentist may be all it takes to help improve your sense of taste and smell and treat any underlying issues.
The symptoms and changes menopause brings about can be, well, a lot. Alterations to your senses may feel like the last straw. While upsetting, try to keep in mind that there are things you can do to enhance your senses of smell and taste again.
Continuing to enjoy everything life has to offer you today, in this moment, is a choice you can make and there are things you can do to take back control.