Is your period affecting your sense of smell?


A ‘that time of the month’ superpower.

I’ll be honest, I blame everything on my cycle. Weird aches and pains? Probably ovulating. Craving salt and vinegar chips? Oh, it’s just because I’m on my period. Acting like a bit of an irritable witch? Sorry, not my fault – I’m PMSing.

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether it’s cycle-related or just, you know, a normal factor of life. This is why when I first noticed my sense of smell getting stronger just before I got my period, I wasn’t sure if the two things were actually connected or if I was just tricking myself.

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The uterus and the nose are pretty far apart, geographically. It seemed improbable that it would be related. But each month, for a few days, my super-scent returns. Suddenly, I can’t open the fridge without wrinkling my nose at the wilting veggies or leftover kimchi.

With a swirl, I can discern all of the notes in my glass of Sangiovese, just like the back of the bottle says. Clean laundry smells especially fresh and luxurious. Out of all of the senses, smell is the most mysterious. It’s almost carnal in its connection to desire and the subconscious. 

We know that animals use their sense of smell for all kinds of things. Bees, lizards and many others communicate through olfactory chemicals. According to a study, male lemmings can even smell if a female is a virgin. Okay, sure, but I’m no lemming – I’m a modern woman with an iPhone and a birth control prescription.

So, could my menstrual cycle really change my ability to smell? “Actually, it does,” says Dr Raelia Lew, a gynaecologist and the director of Women’s Health Melbourne. She tells me there is quite a bit of research that shows that around ovulation, our sense of smell sharpens. 

Dr Lew says the idea is that our smell heightens to help us pick up the pheromones of the most suitable mate. If you find yourself sniffing your partner’s unwashed T-shirts, this could be the reason why. 

For a long time, humans’ sense of smell has been severely underestimated. It was widely believed that we got our romantic cues primarily through visual or auditory signs. And because scents aren’t as blunt as, say, eggplant emojis or dirty talk, their influence on attraction is easily overlooked. 

But research suggests our pheromones could hold a unique odour print that provides information about our immune systems. Because of this, we are attracted to partners with opposing qualities to give our potential babies the best chance of health. Long story short, the reason you don’t want to hook up with someone you find stinky could be because their immune qualities are too similar to yours. 

And it’s not just ovulation that switches up our sense of smell. Dr Lew tells me that during the luteal phase – around two weeks after ovulation, when the egg is making its way down the fallopian tube – we seem to be worse at discerning smells, but more sensitive to the bad ones. “We can’t pick up smells as well, but the yucky ones still bother us more,” explains Dr Lew.

She tells me that scientists aren’t yet sure of why this may be, but they have a few theories. “One thought is that our hormones affect the olfactory centre in our brains,” she says.

“Another is to consider effects of the local nasal mucous which may become more viscous, or our tendency to fluid retain under progesterone’s influence, impairing natural mechanisms of nasal decongestant.”

So if our hormones affect our smell, what happens if we take hormonal birth control? Actually, it could be beneficial. One study revealed that the longer a woman has been taking the birth control pill, the more powerful her sense of smell becomes. This means for those of us who have been on the pill for over a decade, we’re practically Jean-Baptiste Grenouille at this point. 

While more research needs to be done for us to fully understand the link between our cycles and smell, the evidence is pretty clear on one issue: women, in general, have better olfactory capabilities than men, no matter what time of the month it is. 

I’m no scientist, but I believe the takeaway from this investigation is the next time you find yourself smelling things a little stronger, treat yourself to a bouquet of flowers or a rollerball of perfume. Now you can say with confidence, “It’s just my cycle!”.

For more on sense of smell and women’s health, head here

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