COVID-19 Took My Sense of Smell, then LSD Brought it Back
Alright, so here’s what happened. I got COVID-19, though I’m fully vaccinated. Ten days after a fairly mild case, my sense of smell hadn’t really returned. I could smell a couple of things, faintly—soy sauce, a few perfumes—but there were huge gaps. It was in some ways nice that our cats’ litter-box emitted no odor, but it was also disorienting.
On Twitter, a friend, @hormeze, alerted me to some reports of people who had spontaneously restored their sense of smell upon taking psychedelics. It sounded weird. But given that I’m fairly comfortable with psychedelics, I was willing to give it a try. Also, I noticed that, in online patient accounts of anosmia, the early trajectory seemed to determine completeness of recovery; people who got it back quickly got it all back more consistently. So I wanted to take whatever actions I could, early.
And it totally worked. Fully and near-instantaneously. Like a light switch turning on.
Before I go into the details, a word of caution. Psychedelics are not harmless toys. I’m an advocate of their use under specific circumstances, and feel that it’s absurd that they’re illegal, but they should be approached with respect, especially if you’ve never used them before, and if you have any history of psychosis in your family you should probably rule them out entirely. Read this and the stuff here.
That said, LSD was essentially a miracle cure for my anosmia. This is a big deal. Anosmia has afflicted many thousands during the pandemic, and it isn’t some minor annoyance. Loss of smell is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression, which, to me, is no surprise at all. Usually, morning has a smell, evening has a smell, rain has a smell, concrete does, your lover, your dinner, your body. It’s a key part of sexual attraction. It’s how you discern nutrition from poison. Unless you’ve always been nose-blind, reality without scent seems plasticky and simulated.
I took a fairly routine amount, probably around 125µg. This put me in the category of ‘definitely tripping but still reasonably acquainted with the material attributes of existence,’ which is where I wanted to be. (Note: as with any drug, tolerance is variable; please do not assume that 125µg will be manageable for you.)
My idea was that I’d do some scent training while on LSD, to—hand-wavey lay neuroscience incoming—stimulate whatever olfactory neurogenesis might occur. Before tripping, I laid out my fragrance collection, along with a few ingredients from the pantry. All-in-all, there were about fifty things to smell, and, as the LSD started kicking in, I started making my way through the selection.
At that moment, my sense of smell was still somewhat there but mostly not. However, something odd was happening; I could detect some of the fragrances’ nuances that I couldn’t pick up earlier that day, and what I detected shifted from moment to moment. It was like I was listening to a piece of music with random instruments dropping in and out of the mix. This was still a kind of anosmia, but a different kind, and it almost felt as if my olfaction was re-negotiating reality in real time.
And then another weird thing happened. For a couple of hours, I got acute short-term parosmia (distorted smell.) My nose felt dry, and a weird puke-y smell filled my mind. According to some research I’d done, in anosmic patients parosmia sometimes precedes recovery, so, though this was quite unpleasant, I felt hopeful that this was some part of the regeneration process. I cleaned the house, my wife took me shopping, we went to Home Depot, and then had dinner.
We got home soon after, about seven hours after my trip began, and I returned to my fragrance collection. Cue triumphant music: all of them were now smellable, in high-definition. My anosmia was gone. Moreover, some were more pleasant than before; iris was more palatable to me than it ever had been. This was a moment I won’t soon forget. Some fragrances—especially Dzing!—gave me full-body chills.
The next day, my sense of smell was still there, but it fluctuated; it was partial in the morning, then full in the evening. Since then, it’s been back basically 100%. (And the improved understanding of iris has persisted.)
I have no idea how this works. Over on my Twitter, there’s some interesting speculation. I’m just posting this to raise awareness, both for anosmia sufferers and for smarter people than me who might be able to figure out what the mechanism of action is. Questions that occur to me include: is this COVID-specific? What if LSD can regenerate other sensory deficits? What if we can make ourselves into super-tasters through psychedelic scent training? Inquiring minds wish to know.
I used to have mild tinnitus. LSD cured it completely, although it returns again if I drink alcohol.
Sasha, I connected with your post here from Astral Codex 10, and was very interested. Thank you for posting your experience. My experience is that LSD produces a somewhat stable/associative state (versus an unstable dissociative state), and you can use that stability/associative state for many things (including re-calibrating sensory processing, resolving trauma, etc ...). There is a good chance that some of these infections produce a physiologic disruption of communication separate from structural injury (i.e. a physiologic/processing dissociative state). This could be in addition to or separate from structural injury. Structural injury wouldn't be expected to regenerate quickly, but a focal physiologic shock/dissociative state (i.e. scrambled smell processing) could resolve fairly quickly with the right inputs. I work with people in shock (physiologic and psychological) and find that these sensory things are fairly common in that population (heightened or lowered sensation) and often resolve. The state produced by LSD exogenously as a supplement (from the outside) can also be stimulated as an internal state with the right type of brainstem stimulus. Your key item was to couple that associative state with a specific goal and sensory stimulus ... that's what many people miss. That's a really interesting application. Have the results held so far?