By AFEA member Caroline Hammond
In Five Element acupuncture, the acupuncturist’s ability to smell is as important as the ability to see and to hear. An odour can provide invaluable information about a patient and contributes greatly to a diagnosis. However, many of us confess to having little or no sense of smell. The good news is that whilst our sense of smell is not as developed as our four legged friends, it isn’t as poor as we think. We can all awaken our sense of smell by exposing our noses to a range of odours but we also need to understand how we can best ‘catch’ an odour and identify it. As everyone knows dogs are great at getting an odour, in fact smelling is how a dog ‘sees’ the world. In nature, plants and animals communicate through a world of odour and my dog picks up a message from every dog that has passed before along our path. A bit like checking her p-mails! She will take time to sniff and take in layers of information from every molecule of smell. Clearly this is not a desirable way to go about getting an odour in the treatment room and let’s be clear this is not about personal hygiene: we are talking about an individual’s personal odour or fragrance. We’ve all got one! In humans, our nose picks up distant sources of molecules. We are more likely to get the fragrant perfume from honeysuckle after we have walked past it. Fresh cut grass reaches our attention after it wafts through the window or we pick up the rotten smell of the dustbin van when it has turned the corner. Of course, we sniff to check if food from the fridge is still ok to eat and we sniff to check if clothes are fresh to wear but we are essentially blind to odours without a little air movement to help the smell molecules get to the nose. In one moment an odour can be intense and close and in the next minute it is gone. Don’t be discouraged or think that you were mistaken: it’s just the way the molecules move. Every living thing (and some dead things) produce their own odour plume. Each of us has a unique signature odour as the body secretes compounds or molecules that confer ‘self’. The human body is a porous bag of chemicals and the odours emitted reflect our changing internal physiology. We are all smelling all of the time but it’s not usually noticeable to most people unless those compounds become ‘smelly’ as in unpleasant through the action of bacteria on the skin. When we are unwell, the body’s chemistry changes as our immune system works to fight the illness. Dogs have been trained to detect specific illnesses in humans and it is hoped that they can help in the testing for Covid-19. The odour created by physiological changes in the body may relate to a particular organ or body system. Each of the five elements is related to two organs of the body: Water- a putrid odour is caustic like ammonia and its physical basis is from uric acid found in the bladder and kidneys. This odour comes at you and it can be sharp and stinging, salty or lemony. Sometimes it’s like a urinal and other times it’s more like the toilet cleaner. It can be refreshing like a waterfall or damp like an unventilated shower room. Wood- a rancid odour is like oil that’s gone off and the physical basis is the bile of the gall bladder and the oil of the liver. This odour comes at you but it’s more sappy or musky. It can be overwhelming like new cut grass or a wet dog. It might be like goat cheese or rancid milk. At times it can remind us of leather. Fire- is a scorched or burnt odour that relates physically to uncontrolled heat from the circulatory system. The odour is fleeting, rising and falling. It can smell like burnt toast or an old ashtray, a freshly ironed shirt, the dry cleaners or a hair dryer. This odour can smell like blood in the butchers or a rare steak. Earth- its odour is fragrant, sweet or sickly and relates to the process of fermentation or poor digestion. It’s a heavy, cloying odour that can make you wonder if someone has thrown up their dinner. It can be fragrantly overpowering like highly scented daffodils or a perfumed soap. It can remind us of over-ripe fruit or freshly baked biscuits. Metal- it has a rotten odour whose physical basis is stagnation in the large intestine. It’s an odour that is heavy and seems to sink in the room and linger. At its strongest, you might wonder if something has died. Decaying leaves, rotting vegetation, faeces, drains and dustbins come to mind but also dirty old keys or coins. Physiological diseases are the result of cell communication gone awry. A condition may not produce symptoms until it is quite advanced but, like a distress signal, there might be a change in odour. Similarly, when we are interacting with a patient on a sensitive subject an emotional response in them can bring about a change in odour as the endocrine system responds with hormones. The trick is to be ‘awake’ to a change in the odour but not to actively sniff it out. It’s important to develop our sensory skills to pick up the information so that we can assess the physiological and emotional state of a patient but these are skills that need training and refreshing. Smell everything! Move around so that the air can bring the odour to you. Relax! Odour has a habit of arriving when we are not looking for it. Every time we laugh with joy or express our needs, weep in despair, shout out in frustration or tremble with fear and anticipation our body is producing a plume of odour molecules to let the world know how we’re feeling. I smell, therefore I am.