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The link between body odour and your health – Why we smell and what it means
Understanding sweat and body odour
Your body odour is completely natural and all of us have our own distinct scent.
What is sweat?
Sweat is mainly water, but it also contains some salts. Sweat is made in glands in the deeper layer of your skin. These glands are all over your body but there are more of them in your armpits, palms, forehead, and on the soles of your feet.
Why do you sweat?
The main function of sweating is to regulate body temperature by helping to cool it down when it’s too high. When the water in your sweat evaporates, it cools down the surface of your skin.
You might also sweat when you eat hot or spicy food, have a fever, or experience emotional distress.
If you sweat excessively, there could be an underlying condition causing it. Some of these conditions could include:
- obesity or high levels of body fat
- hormonal changes that happen during menopause (hot flushes)
- infections or other illnesses linked with fevers
- an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
Some medications may also cause you to sweat a lot. These can include some medications used to treat depression like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants.
Why does sweat smell?
Sweat doesn't actually have a smell on its own. Your sweat glands secrete protein, which forms an odour when it is broken down by bacteria living on your skin. When they do this, they also produce waste products and it’s these waste products that cause the unpleasant smell. The reason the smell is usually stronger in your armpits, groin and feet is because those areas are usually hidden away from light, and they’re warmer and damper.
What does it mean if your body odour changes?
You might notice a change in your body odour if you start a new medication such as antidepressants. Some research suggests that a woman’s body odour changes depending on where she is in the ovulatory cycle.
You might also notice a different odour if you change your diet. Foods containing sulphur (like broccoli and cauliflower), spices, or drinking coffee and alcohol can all affect the way you smell.
Illnesses that cause body odour
Changes in body odour could also mean you might be sick or have an underlying condition. Conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease can make body odour worse.
If you have diabetes and your blood sugar levels get too high, your breath may start to smell fruity. If this happens suddenly, and you’re also urinating a lot, it’s important to see a doctor straight away.
Another condition that causes a change in body odour is trimethylaminuria. Trimethylaminuria is a metabolic disorder where the body is unable to breakdown trimethylamine. Trimethylamine is found in eggs, fish, liver and legumes. As the trimethylamine builds up, it’s released through sweat, breath, urine and reproductive fluids, leading to a scent that has a fishy odour.
It doesn’t seem to contribute to any other health problems, and symptoms can be reduced with some dietary changes and specific soaps.
Read more: How much water do we need? (cbhs.com.au)
Does your body odour change when pregnant?
Many pregnant women notice a heightened sense of smell, but a woman’s own body odour might change during pregnancy too. The hormonal changes associated with pregnancy are to blame.
Hormonal changes can increase sweating, and your own heightened sensitivity will be picking up more smells than usual anyway, so try not to worry too much about it.
Your body will sweat more as it tries to keep you cool while all the extra blood pumps through your body to carry nutrients to your growing baby. Extra sweat can mean smelly feet, smelly armpits, smelly groin – in fact all the usual places where bacteria and sweat come together. Some pregnant women may also experience night sweats.
Almost all women have more vaginal discharge during pregnancy. Normal discharge is pale and creamy, doesn’t smell bad and doesn’t cause an itch. See your doctor straight away if your discharge is abnormal or contains any blood.
Body odour after pregnancy
You’re likely to keep sweating more than usual for a few weeks after you’ve given birth, especially at night, as your body decreases the levels of estrogen and progesterone you needed during pregnancy. Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Body odour when breastfeeding
Smell is an important part of the bonding process between mothers and their newborn babies. Glands around the nipple secrete a smelly fluid after a woman has given birth, and scientists believe that newborn babies respond to this smell. It’s even been shown that breast milk odour can calm premature babies and provide a measure of pain relief.
How can you manage body odour?
To limit body odour, it’s a good idea to not eat too much strong smelling or spicy food and limit how much coffee and alcohol you’re drinking.
It’s also important to follow these hygiene practices:
- wash your armpits, groin and feet at least twice a day with soap and dry thoroughly
- use antiperspirants and deodorants
- change and wash your clothes regularly
If you have a problem with excessive sweating, or you have concerns about your body odour, it’s best to see your doctor for advice.
And finally, does shaving underarms reduce smell?
Shaving can prevent too much heat building up under your arms, which in turn may limit excessive sweating.
And it seems shaving or waxing (ouch!) under your arms, combined with soap and water, really can reduce body odour.
An experiment on American men in 2015 found that wet blade shaving or waxing followed by washing with soap and water, resulted in a significant reduction in odour when compared with soap washing alone or hair removal with scissors. The effects were noticeable even after two or three days.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified Health Care Professional.
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