Flavor Funk: Where Have All the Tastebuds Gone?

Flavor Funk: Where Have All the Tastebuds Gone?

So apparently it’s a thing.  We do or can actually lose our sense of taste and smell as we age.  According to MedlinePlus:

“The number of taste buds decreases as you age. Each remaining taste bud also begins to shrink. Sensitivity to the five tastes often declines after age 60. In addition, your mouth produces less saliva as you age. This can cause dry mouth, which can affect your sense of taste.”

But the situation is a bit more complicated than this suggests.  Loss of sense of smell is directly related to sense of taste.  According to an article from the Huffington Post, and to illustrate the use of smell in this regard, read this:

“As you chew food, the flavor is released and you smell it through the back of the nose,” Dr. Erin O’Brien, a rhinologist in the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Otorhinolaryngology in Rochester, Minn said. “If you’re eating strawberry ice cream, your tongue will tell you it’s sweet, but it won’t know the flavor. The nose tells you it’s strawberry. That’s the difference between taste and flavor.”

The brain is involved in this entire process.  Its involvement is complicated so I feel compelled to include the following, detailed explanation from the NIH:

“Your ability to smell comes from specialized sensory cells, called olfactory sensory neurons, which are found in a small patch of tissue high inside the nose. These cells connect directly to the brain. Each olfactory neuron has one odor receptor. Microscopic molecules released by substances around us—whether it’s coffee brewing or pine trees in a forest—stimulate these receptors. Once the neurons detect the molecules, they send messages to your brain, which identifies the smell. There are more smells in the environment than there are receptors, and any given molecule may stimulate a combination of receptors, creating a unique representation in the brain. These representations are registered by the brain as a particular smell.

Smells reach the olfactory sensory neurons through two pathways. The first pathway is through your nostrils. The second pathway is through a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. Chewing food releases aromas that access the olfactory sensory neurons through the second channel. If the channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can’t reach the sensory cells that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of your ability to enjoy a food’s flavor. In this way, your senses of smell and taste work closely together.

Without the olfactory sensory neurons, familiar flavors such as chocolate or oranges would be hard to distinguish. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor. Some people who go to the doctor because they think they’ve lost their sense of taste are surprised to learn that they’ve lost their sense of smell instead.

Your sense of smell is also influenced by something called the common chemical sense. This sense involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings help you sense irritating substances—such as the tear-inducing power of an onion—or the refreshing coolness of menthol.”

Wow!  That was a lot of information.  What can we do with all this? There are some tactics we can employ to improve this situation; for example, there are things that speed the deterioration of our taste and smell to include various diseases, smoking, and exposure to harmful particles in the air.  According to a 2015 article on the Healthline website, the following diseases can affect sense of smell, for a variety of reasons:

  • dementia (memory loss)
  • neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease
  • tumors in the brain
  • malnutrition
  • nasal tumors or surgeries
  • head injuries
  • sinusitis (sinus infection)
  • radiation therapy
  • viral upper respiratory infections
  • hormonal disturbances
  • nasal decongestant use

Also stated in the article:

“Certain prescription medications, like antibiotics and high blood pressure medications, can also alter your sense of taste or smell.”

Certainly a lot of us are on blood pressure meds and have to take antibiotics from time to time.  If you are wondering if your meds could be affecting your sense of smell, definitely talk to your doctor.  There could be alternative meds that are just as useful for you.   For a list of some drugs that have been linked to this condition go to the following website:

Drugs Linked to Loss of Smell

This is a complicated issue and one that deserves attention.  It is important because as we lose our sense of taste and smell, it can adversely affect our lives.  Other than food not being delicious, you are probably wondering how this can be an health issue.  Let me explain.  If you lose some of your sense of taste and smell, your food will not be as enticing.  This might cause you to eat more, while trying to find olfactory satisfaction; or, it  may cause you to eat less.  Both situations can have deleterious affects on health.  Eating too much leads to obesity, which is unhealthy and is the harbinger of other illnesses and can hasten death and poor quality of life.  Eating too little can result in a lack of proper nutrition and related diseases and health issues.  Additionally, loss of smell and taste might encourage a person to load on more salt or sugar in an attempt to amp the flavor of one’s food to bring olfactory satisfaction.  Also, according to NIHSeniorhealth, the following hazards are included with this issue:

“Research shows that people with a total or partial loss of smell are almost twice as likely as people with normal smell to have certain kinds of accidents. The most common types of accidents in order of frequency involve:

  • cooking
  • eating or drinking spoiled foods or toxic substances
  • failing to detect gas leaks or fires”

So we do need to identify and address these olfactory losses when they begin to happen, for whatever reason they occur.

Certainly we should talk to our doctor about our meds, as previously stated, but what are other ways in which we can combat these olfactory losses? If you use tobacco products you definitely should stop as it reduces your ability to taste (not to mention causes many cancers). Make your meals more of a social event.  We may not always be able to eat meals with others but getting out on a regular basis and attending potlucks or meeting friends for dinner can help with improved nutrition.  Having people over or going to other’s homes will help with better nutrition and keeps us happier by being socially engaged.  Using more herbs and spices when you cook can amp up the flavor of your foods and increase your appetite and satisfy the need for more greater flavor.  Why not try new foods and experiment with tastes beyond your comfort zone to help increase your desire to eat?  How about this, according to a Reader’s Disgest article, you can try sniff therapy:

“Try sniff therapy. It is possible to train your nose (and brain) to notice smells better. Start by sniffing something with a strong odor for a couple of minutes several times a day. Do this continually for three or four months and you should notice your sense of smell getting stronger — at least where that particular item is involved, says Dr. Hirsch.”

The same article suggests eating a different food with each bite.  For example, instead of eating an entire steak at once, move on to the potato,  then take a bite of steak, return to a bite of potato, then a bite of spinach, etc. These new exposures to different scents will keep your olfactory nerves from getting bored, thus enhancing your taste experience.  Other tactics include cutting down your sugar and salt intake for a few weeks to see if that will make you more sensitive to the substances when you do eat them, thus potentially increasing the flavor quotient.  Reader’s Digest suggests that after a brisk walk or run, for 10 minutes, your sense of smell is increased.  So maybe a quick walk before a meal will help.  They also suggest humidifying your air in the winter which can help moisturize your olfactory areas, increasing the sense of taste and smell (as previously mentioned).

For some of the latest information on this topic please see the following link:

Taste Disorder Information

The main thing to be aware of are changes as they occur so that you can address them immediately.  See your doctor if you believe you are experiencing loss of taste and/or smell to see if you can make some changes to improve your condition. Let’s take care of our buds (pun intended)!

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
Vladimir Nabokov

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”
Helen Keller

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