Post-COVID loss of smell leading to weight gain & intimacy issues: Study

The first thing that struck the researchers was how sensory loss experience could be highly “disorienting”

The researchers found the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships heartbreaking

It can be devastating to lose your sense of smell, even temporarily. The loss of smell long after a person has recovered from COVID-19 can be significantly traumatic, and can be very difficult to live with, let alone manage. It is like flailing around in an amorphous space with a feeling of having lost control.

This loss of smell and taste over an extended period of time is dramatically disrupting people’s lives. These findings have been made by two UK researchers Vincent Deary and Burges Watson, who have written an article on it in The Conversation.

It is well-established by now that a key defining feature of COVID-19 is the loss of smell, COVID-19 has an impact on our smell receptors and nearly 10 per cent who have lost their sense of smell continue to report issues with taste and smell even a good six months later.

Deary and Burges were keen to study the long-term effects of the loss of smell and taste and started working with a charity called AbScent, an online support group for people with post-COVID smell problems.

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The duo tapped a lot of people in this group to understand the wider impacts of disrupted smell after COVID-19. At the time of conducting their research, over 9,000 people had joined the group. They posted their questions on the group and the “response was overwhelming”. People reportedly rushed in to record their experiences and the answers were analysed by Deary and Burgers, said the article in The Conversation.

“We ran every theme we detected past the group and got them to comment on our research paper before we finalised it. We wanted to be sure we were telling their stories correctly,” they said. And, this is what they discovered:

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Flavour of food is lost

Firstly, the researchers explained terms such as anosmia and parosmia to ensure people understand the impact. While anosmia involves total loss of smell, parosmia is where normal smells are distorted, usually unpleasantly. Taste is what is picked up by the receptors on the tongue, while flavour is the total sensory experience of food, to which smell is the major contributor, but the other senses are also involved, said the researchers.

This means that even if your taste is fine, the loss of smell will seriously affect the flavour of whatever you consume.

For most, the loss of smell has affected their lives in a big way and it has been difficult to make people understand the severity of their problem.

The first thing that struck the researchers was how sensory loss experience could be highly “disorienting”. For some, it was as if a light switch had gone off. “From 100 per cent to 0 per cent in a couple of hours… No distorted smells, no whiffs, nothing. It’s like my nose switched off,” quoted the researchers from their study.

Also, anosmia could morph into parosmia and the food COVID-survivors were eating could be fine one day but it would turn unpalatable the next day.

Difficult to live with

This “chaos narrative” – as sociologists dubbed this phenomenon – meant that smell loss was very difficult to live with, let alone manage. This loss of smell or distorted smells were leading to loss of appetite and some were battling malnutrition and severe weight loss.

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A few others reported weight gain. These people were the ones who had anosmia since they were “chasing flavour” after losing their sense of smell. The researchers explained this by first making the distinction between wanting and liking in what psychologists call the pleasure cycle.

Wanting is where you chase what you are going to consume, while liking is when you have got it and you are savouring it. In anosmia you can no longer savour, but this is not stopping you from wanting leaving you in a perpetual world of disatisfaction.

One person in the group told them that unable to  derive “satisfaction” from food, he/she was eating more to try to get that satisfied feeling… “I am gaining weight due to a constant urge to satisfy what can never be satisfied,” said one subject of their study.

Another subject told them that she was grieving for her lost senses. And for not being able to enjoy wine and cheese tasting nights or gin cocktails with her “girls”.

Impact on Intimacy

According to the researchers, what was “heartbreaking” was the effect of sensory changes on intimate relationships.

A lot of people from the group posted about their inability to smell their partner or children anymore. And, what they described as their loneliness because of it. Smell is integral to intimacy and to feel connected to a person.

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What seemed worse to the researchers was the fact that parosmia would make the natural odour of their partner odious. Earlier, they used to like the smell and make them want the person, now it was the reverse. The sense of loneliness stemmed from not being able to share this fact with their partners.

Detached from the world

Living in this no sense of smell zone, many reported feeling detached from themselves and the world. Parosmia meanwhile made them even feel that the world was a dangerous and confusing place with disgusting smells around. Luckily, for some these sensory changes were temporary. But for others even after months they seem stuck with profound sensory changes and the several problems that it brings.

While smell training may stoke sensory recovery, it is still at the infancy stage and treatments are yet to be developed to handle this critical “aftermath of altered sensing”.

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