You Don’t Just Smell Through Your Nose

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, January 7, 2015
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“And ever since then, when the clock strikes two, / She walks unbidden from room to room, / And the air is filled that she passes through / With a subtle, sad perfume.” —Bret Harte, “Newport Legend”

In A Nutshell

We tend to think that we smell with our nose, but we’ve recently found that nearly every single organ in our bodies is capable of smell. More precisely, our organs have been found to contain olfactory receptors that are keyed to react in certain ways to certain scents. When receptors in the skin are exposed to the smell of sandalwood, healing and regeneration increases. When prostate cells smell rose scents, the formation of cancer cells stops. The potential is pretty staggering, considering the same receptors even exist in our kidneys, our muscles, and a lot of other places.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve heard the stories about having taste buds in our stomachs, but it turns out that as far as our senses go, that’s not even the weirdest thing we’re capable of doing.

For as long as we’ve been aware of things happening around us, we’ve realized that we’re capable of smelling things, for better or for worse. But the mechanics of just how our bodies and our brains register smells has been largely a mystery until the last few decades.

And in those decades, we’ve been finding that we have olfactory receptors pretty much everywhere. Almost every organ in our bodies, from the kidneys to the liver to the colon, has the same olfactory receptors that are found in our noses.

It seems pretty bizarre (what is there to smell in there, anyway?) but researchers have also found that our internal olfactory senses do some pretty amazing things.

Much of the work is being done by researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, and one of their most recent discoveries is that olfactory receptors in the prostate are incredibly sensitive to a particular scent called beta-ionone. You know it as what gives a few popular flowers, like roses, their distinctive smell, and apparently, it’s also what stops the development of cancer cells in the prostate. They also found that smell receptors in sperm were uniquely coded to respond to the smell of an egg.

At about the same time, Emory University researchers were finding that the smell of lily of the valley was directly linked to the regeneration of muscles; increase the amount of the muscle’s exposure to the scents, and regeneration increased dramatically.

Just as bizarre are tests performed at Johns Hopkins that have found that scent receptors in the kidneys of mice are stimulated by smell to help control blood pressure and metabolism.

It’s not only internal organs that have these uniquely developed smell receptors, either. Skin cells also contain them, although it’s at a much lower sensitivity than the receptors in your nose. (There’s also a much smaller variety of them than in many animals.)

Researchers from the German university then decided to test the reaction of the skin’s receptors to different scents; as one, they chose sandalwood. For more than 4,000 years, we have records of sandalwood being used in oils and perfumes, highly valued for not just its scent but for medicinal purposes.

And it turns out that there’s something to it. When the cloned olfactory receptors were exposed to the smell of sandalwood, there was a major, major increase in the cell replication that took place. In addition to healing injuries to the skin, there’s also the possibility that the science could be used in a new school of products to prevent aging and to help in the skin’s healing process after burns or other traumatic injuries.

The science is still rather up in the air, and it’s a pretty long, involved process discovering just what scents trigger what receptors and what they’re designed to do. But the development behind the stimulation of the body’s olfactory receptors opens a whole new set of doors for everything from reducing the effects of aging to combating cancer.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Smell Turns Up in Unexpected Places
Discovery: Human Skin Can ‘Sniff’ Odors
PBS: When Your Skin Smells Sandalwood Oil, It Heals Itself