Smells, Pregnancy, Nausea and Partners

by Robert G. Rodriguez ("Dr. Bob"), Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H.

extreme disgustIt isn't that *big* of a thing normally...but right now smells are driving me nuts. Worse than driving me nuts...driving me to throw up. And my husband doesn't get it. He comes home smelling like bleu cheese dressing or pizza or brass doornobs or something obnoxious. All he would have to do is wash his hands well or eat something less obvious at lunch. Is there a way to get through to him that I really can't handle these odors -- short of throwing up on him? It's like I'm talking a foreign language. He just isn't getting it. And I'm past frustrated.

Let me share a story:

Tim and Elli leisurely strolled into the department store hand in hand. The air conditioning was a welcome relief from the stifling summer heat outside. The cool air within the store was particularly refreshing to Elli who was entering her seventh month of pregnancy. Tim's eyes glazed a bit as his wife began picking through some newborn outfits. He was much more interested in visiting the hardware section to check out the gadgets he'd need to finish work on the nursery. Then it hit!

Elli: "Do you smell that?"

Tim: "Smell what?"

Elli: "Oh, how can you not notice --that lilac smell...it's overwhelming!"

Tim: "Elli, I really don't understand how your hyper nose works? I'm not sure I smell anything; certainly not lilacs."

Elli: "It's coming from the cosmetic counter. Oh, I think I'm going to be sick."

Tim: "Think about something else, like baking bread. This is just mind over matter. Honestly, I don't think it's a smell...you just think it's a smell."

Elli: "Tim, I have to leave or we'll be paying a janitor to pick up after us. I am really feeling green."

Tim: "Maybe you should talk with the doctor about this. It doesn't seem normal to me. You're smelling things, and this isn't the first times, that simply aren't there. I don't remember you having these smell fits before. We've driven all the way here and you want to leave. Think about the baby outfit, that's pleasant."

Elli: "This isn't a matter of pleasant; it's a matter of feeling sick over a smell that's making me sick. We have to leave. Now!"

Returning to heat of the day, Tim and Elli trudge back to their car for the ride home. Considering this a wasted trip and Elli being too sensitive, Tim steams silence during the ride. Elli struggles to free herself from the sickening smell and feeling of nausea.

So what is this about? Is it all in Elli's head? Why are smells so intense for some women during pregnancy? Well the answer that Tim and Elli are seeking is this: it IS all in Elli's head. Actually, it is in the increased sensitivity she has to smells is a result of her olfactory and pheromone receptors becoming hyperactive during pregnancy. Her what?

Some Basic Hormone Biology

Let me introduce you to some of the members of the hormone battalion -- these hormones and other substances flow through our arteries and vein, wash over our brains, all the while manipulating our emotions and physical sense of well being. To get to the pheromones, we need to first meet DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone).

There is more DHEA in your body, whether you are male or female, than any other hormone. It bosses us around without reservation. I term it the mother of all hormones because most of our other sex hormones are derived from it, produced by various enzymes acting on the DHEA molecule. In a sense, it tells you when you can and can't have sex, and who you'll want to spend time with -- male or female.

Animal studies, which also hold true for us, indicate that DHEA is involved in your sex drive, your orgasms, your contractions while delivering a baby, and your sex appeal. By the way, oral contraceptives lower DHEA, which might cause you to wonder why they really work. However, the upside for moms is that DHEA has a particular maternal role: through the combination of smell and touch (oxytocin) babies bond to their mothers and others after birth.

Pheromones are derived from DHEA. These are signals transmitted from one individual to another through scent. In the animal world, sexual pheromones dictate courting, mating, health record, genealogy, gynecology, and desire for shoes. There is no conscious choice involved. Both men and women have Pheromone receptors (different from the "smell" receptors) in their noses -- a small cavity inside each nostril called the vomero nasal organ. However, women appear to have far more of these receptors that are linked to several places in the brain. Men have less receptors linking to a single brain site.

Pregnancy, a wild hormone heyday for women, activates the pheromone receptors making them hyper sensitive. This is more in some women than others. Simultaneously, the olfactory receptors also become sensitive during pregnancy. These sensitivities are nature's way of enabling our ancestral moms to detect good and spoiled food, good and bad people to be with, and to smell out a bargain in a neighboring village. It is worth remembering that our primordial development history there were far less smells to contend with: no perfumes, car fresheners, Outback steakhouses blowing free smells to the neighborhood, or frosted crescent roll kiosks overwhelming grandma's nose.

The downside to this new smell skill is that many pregnant women's systems respond by feeling nauseous, while those that aren't pregnant don't detect any smell at all. This biology is so powerful that pregnant women can even trigger overpowering smells with just their imagination. That is, they can imagine a particular odor, make it quite real to the brain, and become sick over it!

So you see, it's all in Elli's head. And during her pregnancy, her head is awash in new hormones. And her husband? He should wash the car while patiently appreciating the mysteries of nature's changes...oh, and work on the nursery!

Robert G. Rodriguez's credentials include a Ph.D.s in Psychology and Health Care Administration, a M.S. in Health Risk Management, a M.P.H. in Health Care Planning, a M.A. in Research, and a M.B.A. in Business & Finance. He's lectured extensively and provided "reality" and futures to many expectant couples. Robert's audiences describe him as inspirational, down-to-earth, fun, and passionate about having expectant couples be successful with their families. He is the author of What's Your Pregnant Man Thinking? A Roadmap For Expectant and New Mothers.

Copyright © Robert Garrett Rodrigues. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.