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The Pregnant Nose Knows: Dealing with Your Super Sense of Smell

Nearly every pregnant woman experiences it: an increased awareness of how things smell. From certain foods to skin products to body odor, a wide variety of things trigger nausea and even feelings of anger, happiness, or depression. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of adaptive mechanism to blame for a pregnant woman’s sensitivity to certain smells. Nor, do “pregnant women have olfactory processes different from non-pregnant women,” according to a 2005 study in BJOG: an International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Yet regardless of studies, certain odors can send pregnant women running straight to the bathroom. This perceived heightened sense of smell seems to affect pregnant women most during the first trimester and can also accompany morning sickness—or at least start the gut churning.

What is it about being pregnant that causes women to gag at certain odors and not others? According to Dr. Bill Sears, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine and author of over 30 books on childcare, the same reason is to blame that causes most other pregnancy complaints, from mood swings to food cravings: hormones!

That’s right, hormones. And since hormones are to blame, the physical cause of heightened olfactory sensitivity can’t really be explained—even though pregnant women through the ages have complained of significantly adverse reactions to certain smells. So, with everything in your body off kilter, it’s no wonder that smells that used to be delightful are now frightful!

Odors Not to Order

Just what sorts of smells send pregnant women into a gagging fit? “Just about anything that doesn’t smell like pickles or ice cream,” says Dr. Sears. Olfactory sensitivity in pregnancy is quite individual. Sad to say, you won’t know what sets your gag reflexes in motion until the smell hits your nostrils. However, many pregnant women seem to mention certain smells to be particularly heinous, says Dr. Sears. These odors include beans, spaghetti sauce, fish, and eggs.

According to a 2004 study published in Chemical Senses, over 40 percent of pregnant women tested in the first trimester reported increased sensitivity to the smell of cooking odors, cigarette smoke, spoiled food, and perfume. While there may not be scientific evidence that pregnant women have a heightened sense of smell, the experiences of many expecting moms beg to differ.

Some pregnant women even report phantom smells, where they can detect an odor despite its lack of physical presence. Luckily, only around 14 percent of pregnant women tested in the 2004 Chemical Senses’ study reported any abnormality in the occurrence of a phantom smell in the first trimester. However, the most commonly reported phantom odor resembled that of rotting substances or feces. (Yuck!)

For the peace of mind of expecting moms everywhere, phantom smell is pretty rare. As far as odor aversion goes, there’s a lot you can do to be nice to your nose.

How to Cope

Regardless of the culprit, it is best to avoid the offending odor as much as possible, says Dr. Sears. To be on the safe side, try to avoid all strong odors, especially those with a harsh chemical smell. One way to do this is to have someone else do the cooking while you’re dealing with morning sickness, suggests Dr. Sears. This way, once you emerge from the bathroom with a calm tummy, you won’t be thrown back into an upset as soon as the scent of grease or food hits your nose.

Fish is vital to the expecting mom’s health, Dr. Sears adds, but sensitivity to the smell of fish can make it rather difficult to consume. He suggests taking a DHA supplement instead, allowing pregnant women to gain the benefits of eating fish without having to actually choke it down.

Another way to deal with an aversion to certain smells is to introduce new foods as replacements. For instance, if the scent of scrambled eggs sends you heaving at breakfast, try replacing them with a bowl of cereal or oatmeal. If you used to love tuna sandwiches for lunch, replace the fish with turkey or chicken.

You can also keep a pleasant-smelling air freshener on hand to battle noxious odors. Just make sure the air freshener scent doesn’t upset your stomach as well!

Many of the ways to deal with olfactory sensitivity are the same or similar to those for dealing with morning sickness. When a bout of odor-related nausea strikes, try eating something salty, such as saltine crackers or pretzels, to calm the stomach. It may also help to eat several small meals throughout the day rather than three large ones. This helps to keep your blood pressure stabilized and your stomach from being empty—two things that potentially lead to morning sickness. You can also try lying down at the onset of nausea, leaving the area from which the culprit odor is coming from first, of course.

Rest assured, this odd period of pregnancy won’t last long. Most women cease having olfactory sensitivity (and the resulting morning sickness) early in their second trimester. Until then, hold your nose!

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