Science Claims That Stress Modifies Your Perception of Taste

Have you lately been feeling a greater need to eat sweets? However, when you eat them, do you feel like they don't taste the same as before? This could be an effect of stress sustained over time. We explain further in this article.
Science Claims That Stress Modifies Your Perception of Taste
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Work, social and economic uncertainty, and relationship problems. There are many challenges surrounding you that affect your psychological balance. For example, you experience physical and mental exhaustion, sleep disturbances, headaches, etc. However, you, may not be aware of another rather curious related effect. The fact that stress modifies your perception of taste.

As a matter of fact, it does so to the point that food becomes insipid and you even stop enjoying the process of eating. In fact, many psychiatrists often carry out a taste test on their patients to find out what type of treatment would be the most suitable, in each individual case.

The psychophysiological alterations that occur as a consequence of stress and anxiety processes are both striking and complex. Indeed, almost without your realizing it, a good number of processes and dimensions can be altered that erode your quality of life.

For example, not being able to enjoy your favorite dish means that you feel less motivated in the morning, and you may even perceive the day as being longer. Let’s take a look at why this happens.

Woman thinking that stress modifies the perception of taste
Stress hormones, such as glucocorticoids, are responsible for the alteration of taste receptors.

Why does stress modify your perception of taste?

In times of stress, it’s common that your body asks you to eat more sweet things. Nevertheless, and this is the paradox, you don’t enjoy that pastry, cake, or piece of fruit in the same way as you did before. In fact, you’re left wanting more because it doesn’t satisfy you and generate the same sensory enjoyment as previously.

Why is this? If it’s stress that’s modifying your perception of taste, the cause is glucocorticoids. These biological elements are steroid hormones that are produced by the adrenal glands. The most relevant glucocorticoid is cortisol.

When you go through times of increased anxiety, pressure and worry, your brain consumes more energy. You need or look for foods rich in sugar because of their high palatability and, above all, to feel better and experience a rise in dopamine and serotonin. Cortisol prevents this happening in many different and curious ways.

Sweet and umami taste, the most affected by cortisol

In 2015, researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia (USA) conducted an interesting study. They discovered that stress increases the secretion of glucocorticoids (GC). These have effects on numerous target tissues such as the taste buds.

  • The alteration they generate in the taste nerve associated with sweet things is especially noteworthy. There’s less stimulation.
  • As well as the sweet taste, the activity of the entire population of taste cells of the umami and bitter types is reduced.

The fact that umami flavor causes less cortisol activation has a serious impact on your diet. That’s because this flavor lets you know when a food is tasty.

Indeed, umami generates a deeper sensation of delight. It allows you to enjoy foods such as cheese with greater palatability.

Stress modifies the perception of your taste and appetite

We know that stress modifies the perception of taste and alters the appetite. Furthermore, it does so in many different ways. For instance, there are those who feel the almost constant need to consume foods high in carbohydrates and fats. In effect, they’re trying to calm their nervous system through small increases in dopamine and serotonin.

However, that feeling of fulfillment is really brief. In addition, there’s the alteration of flavor that we already mentioned. In fact, the feeling of enjoyment is incomplete and the person is left with a feeling of permanent dissatisfaction.

Some people tend to eat compulsively as a mechanism to relieve stress and anxiety. In contrast, other people, due to the effect of cortisol, experience an inhibition of appetite. The cause of this absence of hunger is in the contraction of the diaphragm. It causes that classic knot in the stomach that’s so annoying.

girl eating
There are people with anxiety or depression who can’t differentiate skimmed milk from whole milk with its high creaminess.

What can you do?

What can you do if you’re going through a period of stress that’s affecting multiple areas of your life? Firstly, you need to understand that an alteration of taste is always an indicator that you’ve been neglecting your psychological balance for a long time.

If you continue to neglect this stress, you run the risk of it leading to more complex states. Therefore, it’s important that you initiate changes. If necessary, you should consult a professional. You can also try some basic strategies:

  • Try to acquire skills to modify your thoughts and replace them with healthier ones.
  • Learn problem solving techniques.
  • Increase your emotional and behavioral coping skills.
  • Integrate relaxation techniques into your everyday life.
  • Improve nutrition. Opt for high-quality protein-rich products rich in tryptophan. For instance, fish, eggs, legumes, avocado, pumpkin seeds, etc.

If you apply these techniques and start to take control of your life, you’ll recover the correct perception of taste, as well as increase your general well-being. After all, happiness means being able to savor every moment intensely.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cay, M., Ucar, C., Senol, D., Cevirgen, F., Ozbag, D., Altay, Z., & Yildiz, S. (2018). Effect of increase in cortisol level due to stress in healthy young individuals on dynamic and static balance scores. Northern clinics of Istanbul5(4), 295–301.
  • Ileri Gurel, Esin & Pehlivanoglu, Bilge & Dogan, Murat. (2013). Effect of Acute Stress on Taste Perception: In Relation with Baseline Anxiety Level and Body Weight. Chemical senses. 38. 27-34. 10.1093/chemse/bjs075.
  • Parker, M. R., Feng, D., Chamuris, B., & Margolskee, R. F. (2014). Expression and nuclear translocation of glucocorticoid receptors in type 2 taste receptor cells. Neuroscience letters571, 72–77.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.