We all know that feeling of having a bad taste in our mouth, or the way a stuffy nose makes even the most fragrant garlic pizza taste like cardboard. But did you know that our sense of smell and taste naturally declines as we age?
Often the change is so gradual you barely notice it. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that it can affect your health — studies find people with impaired ability to smell and taste tend to follow less healthful diets. It also puts you in danger: Your sense of smell serves as an early warning system for things like rotten food and gas leaks.
Here’s how to sustain smell and taste so that every bite (and sniff) tells you what you need to know:
1. Serve food that looks like itself. Forget fancy-schmancy presentation. If you’re serving fish, keep it looking like a fish. Your sense of taste is stronger if your brain can connect what you’re eating with how it looks.
2. Put on your seat belt. A common cause of loss of smell (which then directly affects taste) is automobile accidents, even low-speed crashes, says Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Any impact can shift the brain within your skull, tearing delicate nerve fibers that connect your nose to your brain.
3. Go for a brisk, 10-minute walk or run. Our sense of smell is higher after exercise. Researchers suspect it might be related to additional moisture in the nose.
4. Drink a glass of water every hour or so. Dry mouth — whether due to medication or simply dehydration — can adversely affect your sense of taste, says Evan Reiter, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Eye & Ear Specialty Center in Richmond.
5. Shuck a dozen oysters. Among their other benefits, oysters are one of the highest food sources of zinc, and zinc deficiencies contribute to a loss of smell as well as taste.
6. Make a list of any medicines you’re taking and ask your doctor about their effect on smell and taste. Hundreds of medications affect taste and smell, including statins, antidepressants, high blood pressure medications, and chemotherapy drugs like methotrexate, also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. If your meds are on the list, talk to your doctor about possible alternatives or lower doses. Don’t, however, stop taking your medication or cut your dosage on your own.
7. Stub out that cigarette and make it your last. Nothing screws up the smell receptors in your nose and the taste receptors on your tongue like cigarettes. Long-term smoking can even permanently damage the olfactory (a.k.a., sniffing) nerves in the back of your nose.
8. Eat only when you are hungry. Our sense of smell (and thus taste) is strongest when we’re hungriest.
9. Humidify your air in the winter. Our sense of smell is strongest in the summer and spring, says Dr. Hirsch, most likely because of the higher moisture content in the air.
10. Eat in a restaurant or with other people. Dr. Hirsch calls this the “herd response.” He cites studies that find that eating in the presence of other people makes food taste better than eating alone.
11. Stay away from the diaper pail and other stinky smells. Prolonged exposure to bad smells (like the sewer plant up the road) tends to wipe out your ability to smell, says Dr. Hirsch. So if you must be exposed to such odors on a prolonged basis, wear a mask over your nose and mouth that filters out some of the bad smells.
12. Add spices to your food. Even if your sense of smell and taste has plummeted, you should still retain full function in your “irritant” nerve, which is the nerve that makes you cry when you cut an onion, or makes your eyes water when you taste peppermint or smell ammonia. So use spices like hot chili powder to spice up your food.
13. Blow your nose and clean it out with saline spray. A simple thing, but it can help, because a blocked nose means blocked nerve receptors.
14. Chew thoroughly and slowly. This releases more flavor and extends the time that the food lingers in your mouth so it spends more time in contact with your taste buds. Even before you start chewing, stir your food around. This has the effect of aerating the molecules in the food, releasing more of their scent.
15. Stick to one glass of wine or beer. Dr. Hirsch’s research finds the sense of smell declines as blood alcohol levels rise.
16. Eat a different food with every forkful. Instead of eating the entire steak at once, then moving on to the potato, take a bite of steak, then a bite of potato, then a bite of spinach, etc. Recurrent new exposures to the scent will keep your olfactory nerves from getting bored, thus enhancing your taste buds.
17. Make an appointment with an allergist. Stop trying to treat recurrent allergies or runny nose with over-the-counter products. See an expert. There are a range of lifestyle changes and medications that can have you breathing clearly (thus improving your sense of smell and taste) in just a week or so.
18. Reset your taste for sugar and salt by cutting them out for at least a week. Processed foods have so much sugar and salt that you’ll practically stop tasting them if you eat these foods often. Try this experiment: Check the salt content of your favorite cereal, and if it’s more than 200 mg sodium per serving, switch to a low-sodium brand for two weeks. Once you switch back, you’ll suddenly taste all the salt you were overlooking. Same goes for sugar.
19. Avoid very hot foods and fluids. They can damage your taste buds.
20. 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.