Many people find that when they lose their sense of smell (anosmia), they also lose their sense of taste. These two senses are intimately intertwined, and when you lose them, your quality of life can take a significant hit.
Like most things in life, you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Without a sense of smell or taste, your food becomes less appetizing, coffee doesn’t give you that comforting feeling in the morning, and you certainly can’t stop and smell the roses.
In this article, we’ll explore how your sense of taste and smell work, why some people lose these senses, and what you can do to get them back.
How Do Taste and Smell Work
Smell and taste work together to help your brain recognize specific flavors. The taste buds on your tongue identify sweet, salty, sour, or bitter, while the nerves in your nose identify different smells.
While your sense of taste can help you distinguish broad categories of flavor, it’s your sense of smell that sends signals about the specific food (chocolate, oregano, etc.).
Your sense of taste and smell are important because they clue your body in to what foods are good to eat and what’s potentially poisonous. So, when those senses are off, food can become unappetizing or taste off, and eating can become difficult.
It’s not just a matter of food becoming bland. Once your brain decides that something’s poisonous, even if it’s not, it will become incredibly difficult to eat.
So, how do your sense of taste and smell work?
Sense of Smell – Olfactory System
In your nose, there is a small area in the mucus membrane called the olfactory epithelium that contains specialized nerve cells that have the job of detecting odors. When airborne molecules enter your nasal passage, they interact with these smell receptors, and they send a signal through olfactory bulbs to your brain. Here, it stimulates your temporal lobe, which is where your stored memories of taste and smell live. This allows you to distinguish and identify different odors.https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders
Sense of Taste – Gustatory System
Your tongue is covered with thousands of tiny taste buds with taste receptors called cilia. Each taste receptor is tailored to detect either sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory. Although these tastes can be detected all over the tongue, certain areas are more concentrated for specific tastes. For instance, the sweet taste is more easily detected on the tip of the tongue, while the salty taste is more easily detected on the front sides of the tongue.
When you eat food, it stimulates the receptors on your taste buds. This triggers a nerve impulse from the receptors to the cranial nerves responsible for taste known as facial and glossopharyngeal nerves. Each taste has its own unique impulse. From here, the signal travels to your brain, where it can distinguish which flavor you’re tasting by the type of impulses it receives.https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders
How Do We Lose Our Sense Of Taste And Smell?
More often than not, loss of taste and smell actually stems from the disruption of airborne molecules interacting with your smell receptors.
This could be due to something as benign as excess mucus production blocking the smell receptors, as is typical in the common cold or with allergies. Or it could be due to a virus damaging the olfactory nerves or the cells that support these nerves. Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease may also impact the areas of your brain responsible for receiving the nerve impulses that help you determine specific tastes. Some less common causes of loss of smell include:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482152/https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/loss-of-smell/basics/causes/sym-20050804
- Poor dental hygiene
- Mouth infections
- Viral hepatitis
If you’ve lost your ability to taste but not your sense of smell, it’s typically due to conditions that affect your tongue. This can occur from conditions like Sjögren’s syndrome, radiation therapy, and severe dehydration— all of which leave your tongue dry and unable to activate taste receptors. In addition, burns on your tongue can temporarily inhibit receptors from firing, and some medications may also interfere with taste receptors such as antibiotics, antidepressants, and certain chemotherapy drugs.https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/ear,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/symptoms-of-nose-and-throat-disorders/overview-of-smell-and-taste-disorders/
Neurological conditions may also impair your sense of taste by interfering with the part of your brain that distinguishes different flavors.https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/784121
Both taste and smell may also be impacted by nutrition deficiencies in zinc and vitamin D, and naturally decline as part of the aging process.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27178656/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315864/https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/4/984/htm
How To Get Your Sense of Smell and Taste Back
The strategy that works best for getting your sense of taste and smell back will depend on why you lost them in the first place. If you haven’t been able to determine the cause, then you may want to schedule a consultation with your doctor. However, if you think you may know, you can start with the following:
Nutritional Deficiencies: Zinc and Vitamin D
If you think that your loss of smell and taste is due to nutritional deficiencies in either zinc or vitamin D, trying out these supplements is a good place to start. Unfortunately, many people are deficient in vitamin D and don’t realize it. Zinc deficiency is less common but may still present due to poor absorption.https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamind-HealthProfessional/
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Research shows that taking alpha-lipoic acid supplements may support the health of olfactory nerves, specifically after infection. As mentioned previously, one of the reasons you lose your ability to taste and smell is due to viral infections, which can damage the nerve cells in your nose or the cells that support these nerves.
Alpha-lipoic acid may support the regeneration of these cells by acting as an antioxidant and stimulating the release of nerve growth factor, which enables the growth and maintenance of nerve cells.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12439184/
If you lose your sense of smell because of excess mucus in your nasal passage (typically from a common cold or allergies), you can use a Neti Pot to help clear your nasals of allergens and excess mucus.
A Neti Pot looks like a small teapot that’s full of saline solution. Following the directions on the product, you gently heat the saline solution until it’s warm and then allow it to flow through one nostril and out the other.
It’s important to always use distilled water when using a Neti Pot.
Protein Rich Plasma (PRP) Treatment
Protein-rich plasma treatment involves taking your own blood, centrifuging it, and then separating the red blood cells from the plasma. What’s left is a plasma that’s rich in nutrients and can be injected back into your body in specific areas as needed.
Some doctors are beginning to use PRP injections as a way to regenerate olfactory cells in the nasal passageway. Due to its neuroprotective, regenerative, and anti-inflammatory effects, PRP may be one of your best options if none of the above work. However, you would have to work with your doctor to receive these injections, and they can be quite pricey if your insurance doesn’t cover it.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32337347/https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316260225_Anosmia_treatment_by_platelet_rich_plasma_injection
What’s the difference between anosmia and phantosmia?
Phantosmia is a condition where a person perceives a smell that is not actually there. Anosmia, on the other hand, is a condition where there is a complete loss of smell, whereas hyposmia is characterized by a decreased sense of smell.
What do taste and smell have to do with each other?
People often lose their sense of taste when they lose their sense of smell because these two senses interact with the same part of the brain that helps them identify specific scents and flavors. The sense of smell helps you get more specific with the flavor you’re tasting.
Why does food taste bland when you have a cold?
When you have a cold, the buildup of mucus blocks the smell receptors in your nose that are responsible for identifying airborne molecules which create a scent. When this isn’t working properly, your brain can’t identify the distinct flavors of foods due to the interplay of senses in your brain.
Can you permanently lose your sense of smell and taste?
Some conditions can cause a permanent loss of the sense of smell and taste. However, it is much more common that these issues resolve over time once the instigating factor is resolved, like a cold, allergies, or infection from a virus.