I often noticed, after (heavy) physical activity like cycling, running, swimming or working an isotonic drink (to recover the electrolyte level) tastes less "salty" compared to when drinking it before the activity.

Is this possible or am I just hallucinating?

The object of this (if it's real) could be:

  • to save us of taking too much salt
  • to reduce the reluctance against salt if our body is undersupplied (with sodium ions)

My guess is, that the electrolyte or particularly the sodium (chloride) level in our body influences the cells/nerves that sense the taste for salt on our tongue.

Wikipedia says this:

Salts, sweet, sour and umami tastes causes depolarization of the taste cells, although different mechanisms are applied.

So, I imagine it like this:

  1. If there is enough salt in our body, the cells are saturated with e.g. sodium ions (higher polarization since there are more ions)
  2. NaCl and other salts (probably KCl too) will then dissociate into Na+ and Cl- (etc.)
  3. The Cl- will then attract more Na+ from the cells causing deplolarization
  4. Our brain converts these signals into the proper perception

But maybe I'm just hallucinating... :)


Is this possible or am I just hallucinating?

Certainly possible, but I'd peg the mechanism closer to Sensitization or De-sensitization of the neurons involved so that when you finally ingest some salt the sensation is different. The sodium and chloride levels of the ingested material wouldn't have a direct effect on the level of De-/Sensitization, but rather how low your stores are or how long you've gone without.

So, I imagine it like this....

What you broadly described is how regular sodium receptors work. They will work that way regardless of what you've been doing, and doesn't really explain an increase or decrease in your ability to taste salt - the signals will fire either way.

Check out the action of the Capsaicin receptor and how it changes sensitivity over short periods of time. I'm betting the phenomenon you're describing will be closer to this (an increase or decrease in the number of sodium receptors in response to the abundance of salts or lack-thereof) than an immediate mechanism from the drink itself.

  • $\begingroup$ Who else than MCM from Salt Lake City can answer this? :D -- So it's more the fact that consuming the salty electrolytes desensitizates the receptors, so they are less sensitive when consuming the electrolytes one or two hours later? Would you also say this is not directly related to the thesis of my first two bullet points (that we want to take salt if undersupplied and to avoid it if oversupplied)? From animals I know that they're searching for soil/plants that provide salt. So there must be some urge to get it (this is another question, actually). $\endgroup$ – try-catch-finally Jun 14 '14 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @try-catch-finally - ;-) The desensitization is one potential reason. Subjective occurrences are pretty difficult to pin down. It could be short term desensitization, or your brain could simply be paying more attention to other ingredients (water) after such a long workout. If it's within a few hours then it's probably an attention modification - de/sensitization can work on that short a time scale, but not usually. I would say that the phenomenon is not related to your thesis. I'll add another comment. $\endgroup$ – MCM Jun 15 '14 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ @try-catch-finally - Regular "taste" is depolarization. For sodium that simply involves the influx of the ions over the cell membrane of the taste buds, and that will cause a depolarization without other mechanisms. That happens when you eat something with Sodium, regardless of what you taste. Taste is left up to interpretation in the brain, and the brain is great at ignoring stuff that doesn't really matter. If the drink tastes less salty, it wouldn't be the mechanism occurring - but it would be the mechanism occurring less often, or just as often but less noticed. $\endgroup$ – MCM Jun 15 '14 at 2:16

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