The first two things I Googled after realising I had lost my sense of taste and smell due to Covid-19 were: ‘How to get taste and smell back after Covid’ and ‘What to eat when you can’t taste or smell.’ If you, like me, are among the unlucky 60% who experience anosmia thanks to the dreaded corona, I hope this article will provide a little hope and respite. Here, I and a few experts aim to share some answers to these questions, and some top tips to help with smell loss and taste loss.
The day I lost them
The realisation that the two most delicious of senses had vanished from my consciousness happened over the course of a day. It started with me being unimpressed with a new brand of coconut yoghurt. I remarked flippantly over breakfast that it didn’t taste at all coconutty, but no-one else was eating it so couldn’t comment, and I soon forgot about it. A few hours and several cups of tasteless tea later, it still hadn’t clicked; not even when I dipped a piece of carrot into hummus I’d just whipped up using a tried and tested recipe and was frustrated to find it bland and insipid. Others seemed to be enjoying it but (in true British fashion) I assumed they were just being polite.
It finally hit me that evening when the first bite of gourmet pizza smothered in barbecue jackfruit passed my lips, and my taste buds were greeted with a whole load of nothing. I couldn’t detect even the faintest morsel of barbecuey goodness, nor the vegan cheese that (usually) has a very distinct flavour. I ate that piece of pizza in silence feeling increasingly distressed, before admitting to the table (in a very sad voice, I might add) that I had absolutely zero taste and smell. It seemed I was among the unfortunate majority of Covid-19 sufferers who experience this symptom – one they now call post-infectious olfactory dysfunction (PIOD) – and I was not at all happy about it.
Like many others I’m sure, I spent the following hours eating the strongest tasting things I could think of to try and see what I could detect. Spoonfuls of mustard and marmite, the cinnamon challenge (which by the way still gives the exact same reaction even if you can’t taste it!), sucking fresh lemons, even ten pickled onions did nothing to bring my senses back, and it was the oddest sensation to feel the tang or sourness in my throat without a single iota of flavour.
Most people will have endured the maddening inability to taste and smell following upper respiratory infections like sinusitis or the common cold. In most cases, congestion in your nose blocks the ‘smell nerve’ at the top of the nasal cavity, so odours physically can’t reach your sensors. But – for me anyway – this new sense loss was totally different. Covid-19 treated me to bad headaches, fatigue and a cough but no congestion or cold-like symptoms at all, which made having no smell or taste even stranger.
What the theories say
My frantic Googling didn’t bring about a whole lot of certainty on why Covid results in a loss of senses. The virus is still new and ever-evolving, so scientists don’t know exactly why it happens, but there are theories. One suggests that the virus causes an inflammatory reaction in the nose that leads to either partial or total loss of the olfactory (smell) neurons. This explains why some people report a complete loss of smell and taste, while others have just mildly disturbed senses. The olfactory neurons take time to regenerate – a different amount of time for all of us – at which point the senses gradually return.
Another theory states that (rather than affecting the neurons themselves) it’s your neural pathways that are disrupted. According to this idea, the Covid-19 virus hijacks the neural pathways between the sensors in your nose and/or taste buds, and the part of your brain that interprets the signals. If this is correct, then your nose and mouth have no problem sensing; but your brain never receives the flavour/aroma message informing you of the specific sensations. To recover, the neurons need to find their way back along the correct pathway to the parietal lobe (the sensory part) in your brain.
Eating at all, eating well & enjoying eating
The emotional/mental side of my sense loss experience was far more significant than the physical effects. I am a real foodie and the only keen cook and baker in my house, so losing total enjoyment of both eating and culinary preparation was really distressing, particularly during lockdown when – without the usual busy social schedule – there’s not a lot to get excited about outside of mealtimes! After accidentally burning several things as I couldn’t detect the smell of charred food, it really started getting me down and my desire to eat soon diminished as I knew every mouthful would be totally tasteless. This was something I was very conscious of, as I knew I needed to fuel my body correctly to help it recover, and was desperate to have my senses returned to me in full glorious technicolour.
That’s when I turned to the experts.
First and foremost, I wanted to rediscover some joy in food. Doing this without the satisfaction of taste and flavour is a challenge, but as a nutritionist informed me, the trick is to pay attention to texture. This simple recommendation was my saviour, and I began consciously combining soft and crunchy wherever possible. Adding nuts, seeds and al dente vegetables to ordinarily-soft meals made them much more interesting (and almost enjoyable!) to eat. Vegetable-packed chunky soups with crusty bread became weekday staples too, and I was able to cram even more goodness into each one now I wasn’t concerned with the taste. I was also recommended to use chilli to help increase sensation but, after pouring chilli flakes and hot sauce all over various dishes, I soon abandoned this as having a spicy mouth without any flavour felt more than a little unpleasant!
Next, I focused on what should be on my plate. Healthy eating is relatively straightforward for normal life, but when it came to fuelling my post-Covid recovery, I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.
“When you’re feeling unwell, it can be difficult to prioritise your food choices, particularly if you’ve lost your appetite or sense of taste,” says May Simpkin, Nutritionist and Consultant to Enzymedica UK. “Energy and nutrients from good-quality food are essential to support your immune system following an illness like Covid-19, to help you regain your health and vitality.”
The most crucial one is hydration. “Water and other liquids transport the nutrients from food around your body,” Simpkin explains. “Your blood pressure is also dependent on your hydration levels, and whilst you’re recovering from illness and are less active, this is even more important.”
Next is vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (read: colourful fruits and vegetables). These, she says, help your body “not only to fight off infection but also get rid of the free radical compounds that are released as a result of illness and inflammation.” Eating lots of fruit and veg will help you to get plenty of fibre too, but of this, Simpkin warns that it’s “crucial that your digestive system is robust and able to breakdown these foods efficiently into small particles.” Only then are the nutrients able to be absorbed and used to aid your recovery. She adds that during or after Covid, “your digestive system may be a little more sluggish than normal, and can cause uncomfortable symptoms like bloating, wind and stomach cramps.” For this, she recommends a digestive enzyme like Digest Complete to support the digestive system and aid nutrient absorption.
Most of us already know that we should be eating good-quality protein like fish, eggs, tofu and pulses, but Simpkin places particular emphasis on this macronutrient in relation to the virus, saying that it is “more important than ever”. “Protein is essential for repairing and rebuilding muscle, and after a bout of illness with minimal activity, this is a crucial part of your recovery. You’ll find it easier to regain your stamina once you’ve regained your muscle integrity and strength.”
And don’t neglect your carbs either! “These are the energy foods your body needs to speed up recovery,” Simpkin explains. “You might be tempted to reach for quick fixes like cakes, biscuits and chocolate, but while they will provide the sugar boost that you’re craving, this will be short-lived, and will soon leave you tired and fatigued again. Choose complex carbohydrates that release sugars more slowly for a gradual energy release, such as rice, bread, butternut squash and sweet potato.”
Daily movement fits nicely into this too, as once you start to regain energy and strength through eating well, you’ll feel more up to moving your body in some way each day, which will do wonders for your mood and wellbeing, as well as physical recovery – it definitely worked for me!
Bringing back the senses
As for advice on how to bring back your taste and smell, I had read online (during my initial Googling phase) about ‘sniff training’, aka olfactory training. The information I found was a little haphazard, so I’ll hand over to smell loss specialist, Professor Carl Philpott from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, to shed some light.
“Olfactory training aims to help recovery based on neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself to compensate for a change or injury,” explains Professor Philpott. The idea is simple: five minutes of exposure to four different odorants, twice daily. And the specific scents to use are key. Unlike the blogs that had me smelling balsamic vinegar and raw garlic with no success, Professor Philpott emphasises very particular aromas.
“Rose, eucalyptus, clove and lemon are said to represent four of the six most significant odour qualities of the olfactory spectrum, and have been shown to improve olfactory loss after training for 12 weeks or more,” he says. “If you have no success, you should follow the same treatment with a second set of odorants (menthol, thyme, tangerine and jasmine) for a further 12 weeks. If needed, follow a third protocol with green tea, bergamot, rosemary, and gardenia for the final 12 weeks.”
This “overwhelming recommendation” comes courtesy of The Clinical Olfactory Working Group, who have evidence to suggest this may help those suffering long-term olfactory dysfunction. According to Professor Philpott, studies show around one-third of patients with PIOD experience “spontaneous recovery of their sense of smell without any treatment”, but for those of us desperately seeking a way to help bring it back, our expert praises “olfactory training as a simple and side-effect free treatment.”
I don’t know whether it was this or simply my body healing itself that brought my senses back, but at the very least, the olfactory training made me feel that I was doing something to encourage their return. It actually became a bit of a game with myself to see what I could detect each day.
Right now, I’m happy to report that my sense of taste and smell are around 80% back. They returned gradually over around 7 days, and while it wasn’t the instant rush of enticing aromas and tastes that I had been hoping for, I was still delighted on the first morning I woke up to some flavour!
Subtle smells are still absent and I still don’t enjoy hot drinks with any kind of milk (despite being a former latte lover) and am now a strong black coffee drinker and a big fan of pickled gherkins, but other than that I’m not far off normal. If you’re reading this trying to remember what food tastes like or how your perfume smells, I feel your anguish, but it will come back – eat something crunchy, go smell some eucalyptus oil and ensure you’re getting in those nutrients. The most important thing? Stay positive… just not Covid positive.
How to do Olfactory Training for smell loss and taste loss…
- Place each item into a separate bowl/jar
- Slowly and gently inhale naturally an item – sniffing too quickly and deeply is likely to result in you not being able to detect anything
- Repeat this for 20-30 seconds.
- Move on to the next smell and repeat as above
- Record your experience – any changes, what you notice etc.
- Complete process twice a day
words by Zoe Louise Lagesse
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