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9 Causes Of Body Odor: From Genes To Foods

Causes Of Body Odor

Body odor is caused when sweat is broken down by bacteria living on your skin. Your genetic makeup, being overweight, and stress can influence how you smell. Foods like garlic, cabbage, and meat, alcohol, and certain medications can cause body odor. Medical conditions such as hyperhidrosis and fish odor syndrome may also be responsible.

While many of us feel embarrassed and self-conscious about body smells, it is a natural physiological process and a fact of life. But if iffy or offensive body odor has you reaching for that can of deodorant once too often, it is a good idea to dig further. From simple biological or chemical reactions and environmental factors to an underlying health problem, there’s plenty that causes “bromhidrosis” and makes people smell bad. So, here’s the lowdown on the factors that define and alter body odor.1

1. Sweat And Bacteria

We all know that that there’s a link between sweat and body odor. Your body has two kinds of sweat glands namely:

  • Eccrine glands: Secretions from the eccrine glands found all over the body are mostly made of salt and water, odorless, and used to regulate temperature and cool your skin when you are overheated.
  • Apocrine glands: These glands, on the other hand, are concentrated near hair follicles on your scalp, genitals, and underarms and produce a viscous, thick sweat made of proteins and lipids.

When bacteria on the skin’s surface come into contact with apocrine sweat, they feed off it and thrive and also cause chemical reactions with a distinct smell – resulting in what we know as body odor. Apocrine glands tend to be stimulated when we are overheated, work out, or feel stressed or anxious, which is why you generally tend to notice body odor in these circumstances. Consistent hygiene practices and washing yourself regularly, especially concentrating on areas with apocrine glands, can keep offensive body odor in check. Incidentally, apocrine sweat glands develop only during puberty and that’s why children don’t usually have body odor.2

2. Your Genetic Makeup

Your genetic makeup also tends to influence body odor. In fact, a small variation in a gene called ABCC11 found in people of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean heritage is linked to reduced underarm smell as well as dry earwax.3 Interestingly, your genes also have a role in whether you perceive a smell to be pleasant or unpleasant. One study found that depending on variations in a gene, people rated the sweat-based steroids related to the male hormone testosterone as extremely unpleasant or sweet smelling like vanilla! Meanwhile, some people with a rare variation of the gene weren’t able to smell the steroids at all.4

3. Being Overweight

Being overweight may make body odor worse. This is attributed to the additional exertion required for all tasks and the resultant increase in sweating. Sweat may also get stuck in skin folds which don’t get enough air, giving bacteria a chance to thrive and flourish, break down sweat, and cause body odor.5

Interestingly, research also indicates that prejudice against overweight people may also cause the perception that they smell worse. A study gave people “scent samples” which were really fragrance-free while they were viewing photographs of people who were overweight, thin, or normal weight. Although the samples were fragrance-free, they were rated poorly when they were viewed along with photographs of overweight people. The same samples got better ratings when images of normal weight or thin people were shown.6

4. Excessive Sweating

Hyperhidrosis is a medical condition characterized by excessive sweating. This appears to be caused by overactive sweat glands. Other medical conditions such as anxiety, acromegaly, cancer, carcinoid syndrome, an overactive thyroid etc. can also cause excessive sweating. And since sweat is essentially the fuel for body odor-causing bacteria, more sweat can mean more chances of body odor. 7 Although the sweat produced in hyperhidrosis is from the eccrine glands and shouldn’t smell, the dampening of skin due to the sweat may make it easier for bacteria to degrade keratin or protein in the skin and lead to body odor.8

5. Stress

Stress can make you sweat – literally. Apocrine sweating occurs as a response to anxiety, stress, or pain and may result in the development of body odor.9

6. Certain Foods

The foods that you eat can also impact your body odor. For instance, vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, and onions can affect how you smell because they contain sulfur compounds that seep into eccrine sweat.10 But this smell should wear off after a while. You could also drink plenty of water to flush your system.

Consuming meat or alcohol may make you smell bad too. In fact, one study found that women rated the scent of men, obtained from their armpits, as significantly more pleasant, attractive, and less intense when they were on a nonmeat diet in comparison to when they consumed red meat.11 12

7. Some Medical Conditions

Your body odor may also say something about how healthy you are. Some medical conditions are associated with particular body odors. For instance, a bleach-like smell may point to kidney or liver disease while people with diabetes sometimes have a fruity smell. 13 If you find that your body scent is unusual of late, it’s worth getting it checked out. Bacterial overgrowth on the skin can also lead to body odor as there are more bacteria to attack the sweat you make. From keeping your skin clean and dry by bathing regularly and wearing breathable fabrics to eating foods that promote the growth of good bacteria and rein in bad bacteria, there’s much you can do to keep this balance intact.

8. Certain Medications

If you think you smell bad, you might also want to check your medicine cabinet for the culprit. Some medications such as antidepressants can cause a strange body odor. Other medication such as morphine or those used to reduce fever may cause you to sweat more, which in turn increases the risk of body odor. Speak to your doctor to find out if any medicine that you’re taking could be responsible for this effect.

9. Fish Odor Syndrome

From baking soda and apple cider vinegar to lemon or tea tree essential oils, there are many natural remedies that can keep your skin dry, control bacteria, and leave you smelling good.

Fish odor syndrome or trimethylaminuria is a rare medical condition characterized by an unpleasant fishy body odor. This smell can affect your breath, urine, sweat, and vaginal fluids. It is thought to be caused by faulty genes in some cases and unfortunately, there’s no cure for this condition. Factors such as stress, sweating, menstruation, as well as certain foods like seafood, peanuts, beans, and eggs and beans can make this condition worse. Your doctor may advise antibiotics or vitamin B2 or charcoal supplements to help with this condition. Lifestyle measures such as avoids stress, changing your clothes frequently, and using an antiperspirant can also help.14

References   [ + ]

1. Body odour. National Health Service.
2. What can I do about my strong body odor? Columbia University.
3. Secretion secrets: things you didn’t know about ear wax. British Broadcasting Corporation.
4. Genes Help Govern Your Perception of Body Odor. National Institutes of Health.
5. Obesity symptoms. Healthdirect, Australia.
6. Sense of smell may reveal weight bias. University of California, Los Angeles.
7. Hyperhidrosis. National Institutes of Health.
8. Bromhidrosis. Merck Manual.
9. Harker, M. “Psychological sweating: a systematic review focused on aetiology and cutaneous response.” Skin pharmacology and physiology 26, no. 2 (2013): 92-100.
10. Perera, Eshini, and Rodney Sinclair. “Hyperhidrosis and bromhidrosis: a guide to assessment and management.” Australian family physician 42, no. 5 (2013): 266.
11. Havlicek, Jan, and Pavlina Lenochova. “The effect of meat consumption on body odor attractiveness.” Chemical senses 31, no. 8 (2006): 747-752.
12. Can Food Cause Body Odor?. The University of California.
13. Body odour. National Health Service.
14. Trimethylaminuria (‘fish odour syndrome’). National Health Service.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.