I’ve been studying about taste buds (at Wikipedia, that favorite source of true knowledge, and a few other sources) and have only just learned that the “taste bud map” concept, of zones on the tongue each responsible for one of the four different tastes, has been debunked. In fact, I learned that taste buds identify (at least) five different tastes: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, and Umami, a Japanese word meaning ‘savory’ – and those receptors are scattered not only on the tongue but all through the mouth.
I’ve found that I taste more when the food starts at the front of my mouth. I theorize, if you’re able to put food into your mouth with a utensil, you’re delivering it onto the tongue just behind the front teeth, and it has to travel past many taste buds on its way to the esophagus. On the other hand, if you’re getting food through a catheter, generally the food is delivered either to the back/middle of your mouth (if your teeth aren’t fastened shut) or at the far-back-right or -left side of your mouth (if your teeth are fastened shut and you’re running the catheter alongside the teeth). In those cases, the food passes by fewer taste buds – and in my case, it is skipping most of the taste buds that are ‘awake’ and reporting.
This has interested me personally, as I realized recently that I am missing many flavors when I eat these days. As I had been trying to interpret my taste sensations according to the taste bud map, I wasn’t able to understand why I felt I was missing something along the hard palate and cheeks. Now that I understand better how taste buds work and are distributed, it has clarified why, when I gulp down a piece of Chef Boyardee “Mini Ravioli”*, and it glides along the roof of my mouth, I taste and feel almost nothing there. That’s just one example; much of the food I am able to eat via utensil travels that same path, and most of it has very little character. Now I understand: the areas in my mouth that are still numb, like the hard palate and the cheeks, are not able to report anything about taste and texture.
I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for how I’m experiencing this food – “… no more character than a lump of mud” or “… no more flavor than a lump of putty”, but have realized that nothing we eat is devoid of flavor and texture. I can’t describe my current experience of sensing no taste and no texture with a metaphor, because it’s unlike anything I have ever experienced.
It is true that I can taste those ravioli on my tongue, so it’s not a completely flavorless experience, and I’m thankful for that. But it took me a while to understand why eating has so often been unrewarding. By missing some portion of the flavors and textures, I’m missing some of the built-in pleasure response to eating, which encourages us to eat as we need to. It’s not unusual lately that I have to require myself to eat, intellectually understanding it is necessary to take in food for the calories I need to sustain life and heal (and stave off depression). I sometimes am prompted to eat by hunger. But I am rarely prompted to eat by the anticipated pleasure of eating. This too shall pass, I am sure.
More about Swallowing: I have recently come to understand more clearly the struggle I have been having with swallowing since the first day of recovery in the ICU. Having just read more about the amazing, complicated process of swallowing, I understand it better and can track at least some of the actions involved.
Many times in this recovery when I’ve tried to swallow mucous or a last bit of food, I’ve felt that I couldn’t complete the swallowing process in the normal way. In particular, the muscles under the mandible (which I believe were stretched and shifted due to the genioplasty, poor things) feel numb and awkward when I swallow. I’ve theorized that some of these muscles that should be active in this process are numb and passive, and that those muscles that are working have to somehow make up for the others’ absence. However, when I asked my surgeon about this theory, he noted that the nerves involved in my surgery were sensory nerves, not motor nerves, and that my swallowing functions have not been impaired: this is just a sensation that I am having.
Unfortunately, it seems that the sensations I’m having of some difficulty swallowing are leading me to try to “help” using muscles that have nothing to do with the process. I can often catch muscles in the back of my neck tensing up as I swallow. I’m not sure if that’s a primary reason why those neck muscles are much more rigid and tense than usual right now; I haven’t identified other behaviors yet that might be contributing. I’ll give my Alexander Technique training credit for helping me identify this unnecessary muscular work, but haven’t felt that I have been successful in using it to let go of those patterns very well.
While I’m on the topic of the neck, I also realized recently that my front-of-neck muscles experienced their own trauma through the surgery and recovery. We could see yellowish areas on my neck for several days after the surgery – which I understand, perhaps imperfectly, were bruising related to the surgery. My surgeon said something to the effect that “gravity has an effect” on the bruising, and I gathered that it was ‘drifting down’ from the surgical sites and collecting in my neck. It seems my bruising was better than the norm, but it’s still something my neck has had to endure, along with continuing numbness under the jaw. I pet the muscles there every once in a while, but don’t have any idea how to encourage their healing. :)
I’m conscious that I’m working too hard at swallowing whenever I’m aware of it. If I don’t have a completely “successful swallow”, I’m left with just a little remnant of the bolus (mostly mucous, I think), hovering in the pharynx, in a distracting and uncomfortable way. Perhaps this is a normal condition of life, and I have just made myself hypersensitive to it. On the other hand, I recall experiencing this sensation at many other times of my life, so it’s not just because of the surgery. Another mystery…
Speaking of swallowing, and food that’s NOT helpful:
I’ve tried a few wedges of Laughing Cow Cheese. This is very smooth processed cheese, meant to be a tasty treat. Instead, they are torture!, and I think my experience is something like that of a dog with peanut butter in its mouth. I theorize: when you can eat cheese with a cracker, the tongue uses the dryer bits of cracker as a tool to gather up the viscous cheese into a bolus that will hold together as it is pushed by the swallowing mechanism to the back of the throat and down. Crackers don’t work well with my no-chew diet, so I’ve just eaten the cheese alone, and hence the only material my tongue has had to work with is the cheese itself. Poor Tongue; it’s very frustrated! It can’t control the cheese, but unintentionally spreads it lavishly across the hard palate and into each nook and cranny of my teeth. It takes a lot of work to get the cheese headed in the right direction, to the esophagus – and once again, I feel my neck muscles getting tense as they work too hard, “helping”. Only 50 calories taken in, and I’m exhausted. Not worth it! Hmm, I might try preparing the cheese by crushing a cracker into bits and somehow combining them… Now, melted cheese of other kinds is great; it slides right down the gullet, no muss, no fuss, no struggle...
*”Thank goodness for Chef Boyardee!” (I sing that to myself sometimes.)
Dr. Adam Burdick has been a professional musician for over two decades. Teaching, conducting, and performing in various music genres, he is also a perpetual student with interest in a wide range of topics. He loves to ponder and share his discoveries with anyone interested!