Some antidepressants and changes in brain activity may affect your appetite and sense of taste. But help is available to help you cope.
Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and for a good reason. Good ingredients can act as the foundation for gatherings with loved ones, stimulate the senses, and bring a sense of comfort.
But the relationship with food can often be complicated for those who experience depression.
Well-known symptoms of depression are feeling lonely and sad, unmotivated, disinterested, and hopeless. But another less commonly known sign? A change in appetite.
Appetite and taste are closely related. Both can be affected by depression.
Let’s start with appetite. Scientists think brain connectivity and function may play a role in the relationship between appetite and depression.
Research from 2016 suggests that depressed individuals display less activity in areas of the brain related to:
- visual cues
In addition, they may experience a disconnect between the brain signals that typically prompt hunger responses when presented with an appetizing-looking dish.
Many people who live with depression report lacking the energy or motivation to cook and eat. Or they may not find pleasure in things they used to previously enjoy, such as trying out foods or dining at new restaurants.
A common side effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is loss of appetite, particularly after starting treatment.
So, where does taste come into it?
All of these appetite-suppressing factors can quickly add up, and — let’s face it — you likely won’t be able to savor ingredients if you’re feeling apathetic toward them.
Brain function may play a role. The ‘happy’ hormone serotonin and a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline are critical in depression.
Depressed individuals typically have lower amounts in their brains. However, these two elements also influence our taste receptors.
In a 2006 study, researchers provided depressed participants (experiencing a reduced sense of taste) with SSRIs to increase their levels of serotonin and noradrenaline.
The result? Their perceptions of and ability to recognize sweet, bitter, salty, and sour tastes vastly improved.
But some antidepressants have been known to cause bitter or metallic tastes in the mouth. They can also cause mouth dryness. Consider speaking with your doctor if this occurs for you.
If you are experiencing a change in your taste or appetite consider the following tips to manage your symptoms.
Keep a routine
Only eating when you’re hungry could mean you lack an appetite. Try to schedule meals for particular times so you know that your body will get the fuel and nutrients it needs.
Maintain regular exercise
For those with depression, getting out of bed or moving off the sofa can be a monumental task.
But “exercise can help improve your mood and appetite,” states Dr. Kruti Patel, a licensed clinical psychologist in Texas.
There’s no need for strenuous HIIT sessions: You can get started “by walking for about 20 minutes every day,” Patel adds.
Go for foods you like
If your taste buds aren’t what they used to be, don’t force yourself to eat foods that you can’t taste or which bring you no enjoyment.
Doing so will only make mealtimes a chore and further discourage that appetite from reappearing.
Get a good night’s rest
In managing depression andappetite, “sleep is essential,” explains Hannah Hope, a UK-based nutritionist registered with the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine.
“A lack of sleep during the night can result in waking with raised melatonin (the sleep hormone) levels, which results in reduced appetite.”
To optimize your slumber, “good sleep hygiene will help—including no blue light two hours before bed (aka put your phone away), sleeping in a cool dark room, and not eating 3 hours before sleep,” Hope says.
Have snacks to hand
Keeping snacks nearby can be an excellent way to ensure you eat when hunger pangs strike.
Healthy foods like nuts and fruit are packed with body and mind-friendly nutrients and smaller. They’re also more manageable if you don’t feel like eating much.
Plus, having easy access to snacks is beneficial “for when it feels too difficult to cook,” notes Patel.
Make meals a team effort
If the prospect of cooking and eating a meal by yourself dampens your appetite, doing this with “someone else can be easier than doing it on your own,” Patel suggests.
Consider asking friends or family members to help out.
If depression has caused your appetite to go awry, eating is the last thing you’ll feel like doing.
But, “however hard it is, ingesting the correct nutrients is essential in helping depression,” Hope states.
For instance, “to make serotonin, you need a number of different nutrients such as protein, vitamin B3, iron, vitamin C, and magnesium,” she adds.
Tucking into certain foods may help relieve symptoms of depression and bring back those hunger pangs.
Some of the best ingredients include fish, unrefined grains, and leafy greens.
Zinc-rich veggies are also a great option, as “zinc is essential for neural functioning,” says Hope.
“This is seen in multiple scientific studies [where], compared to control groups, those that are depressed have lower levels of zinc in their blood.”
But, just as there are foods to reach for, there are also those to avoid.
If you’re experiencing a loss of appetite or taste (depression-related or otherwise), don’t hesitate to visit your primary care physician.
They’ll be able to discuss and advise on the next best steps. If necessary, they can also refer you for further investigation.
A loss of appetite or sense of taste is critical to far more than just mealtime enjoyment: Not eating regularly can lead to weight loss and deprive your body of essential nutrients.
Around half of those with depression report losing their appetite at some point — potentially due to changes in brain function and connectivity, general lack of energy, or medication side effects.
Some simple approaches could help lure back your hunger and taste buds — while discussing symptoms with a doctor is also essential and will help reassert that you’re not alone.