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Problems with taste and smell are very common. Among people under the age of 50, about one in four will have a problem with tasting or smelling in any given year. Among people over the age of 80, these kinds of problems occur in over 60 percent.

Most of the problems with taste and smell stem from "conductive defects." Something blocks aroma from reaching the nerves that can sense it. The most common conductive defect is a sinus problem. If your sinuses are swollen, you can't smell your food. Usually the problem is allergy, but this can also be a toxic reaction (for example, to snorting cocaine). Sometimes a deviated septum or nasal polyps interfere with the sense of smell.

When the problem isn't a conductive defect, there are many, many possibilities:

  • Poor oral hygiene is a major cause of taste and smell problems.
  • Age interferes with smell and taste. Every year we lose cells in the "olfactory bulb" of the brain that processes tastes and aromas. By age 80, over 60 percent of people have impaired taste and smell.
  • Direct application of zinc-based nose sprays can destroy your sense of smell.
  • Exposure to fumes from organic solvents can interfere with smell and taste.
  • Diabetes, hypothyroidism, and disturbances of the adrenal glands reduce the ability to distinguish different smells and tastes.
  • Nutritional deficiencies, specifically copper, zinc, and nickel, can interfere with taste. However, overdoses of these nutrients cause other problems, and it is important to avoid taking zinc without copper.
  • Smoking (due to the nicotine) reduces taste perception. Smoking also accelerates loss of receptors in the olfactory bulb of the brain.
  • Major depression and schizophrenia are associated with shrinkage of the areas of the brain that are responsible for smell.

You wouldn't think that the inability to taste and smell would be the cause of experiencing bitter tastes and smells, but it often is. We retain our ability to taste and smell bitter substances sometimes even after we lose our ability to perceive pleasant tastes. That's because most poisonous substances in food and nature have intensely bitter tastes. (That doesn't mean that everything that is bitter is toxic.) The ability to detect bitter tastes protects against poisoning. If you restore your ability to perceive other tastes, you won't experience bitter tastes as often. How do you do that?

  • Zinc supplements are of limited value. Never take more than 30 mg of zinc per day. As long as the zinc tablet tastes bitter, you need to continue taking the supplement, but if you can't taste zinc, your body has enough.
  • If the problem is a sinus problem, cleansing the nasal passages with warm salt water in a neti pot can remove many of the substances that are causing bitter taste.
  • Decongestants can be helpful as long as they are not zinc-based sprays.
  • When the problem is hormonal, the treatment is the hormone. Diabetics, for better or worse, often experience restored appetite when they start using insulin. People who have doctor-diagnosed estrogen or testosterone deficiencies usually have improved sense of taste and smell after they start taking estrogen or testosterone.
  • Avoid alcohol-based mouthwashes. They don't contain enough alcohol to kill bacteria, but they do dry out the lining of the throat, which can release bitter and sulfur-smelling protein compounds.
  • Chew your food well. The more you chew your food, the more taste chemicals and aromas you release, and the less you taste bitter substances from some other source.
  • If you have dry mouth, be sure to sip water regularly. This washes away bitter proteins released as your mouth dries out, and makes it easier for you to perceive other tastes in your food.

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