7 Things Your Body Odor Might Be Trying To Tell You

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Despite the attempts of deodorant ads everywhere to convince us otherwise, people do not naturally smell like lilies and meadows. (If you do, get yourself genetically sampled and market that sh*t.) We all sweat, and we all smell to varying degrees in response to our perspiration. Ain't nothing wrong or weird about it. But unusual body odor from sweat can be a sign of various underlying bodily conditions, choices, and life stages — not just an indicator that you need to go and take a shower. Some of them are actually quite serious, too, so that stink that's bothering your roommate could be a cause for genuine concern.

Here's the basic way body odor works: in many cases, it's not actually something stinky being exuded from the pores in sweat form. "Many of my patients think that it’s sweat that smells — but sweat itself is actually odorless," Dr. Christopher Dietz, DO, Area Medical Director of MedExpress, a system of urgent care centers, tells Bustle. "However, it can indirectly cause body odor. That's because one type of sweat that our bodies produce is rich in fat. Bacteria that is naturally found on our skin breaks down this fat-rich sweat and produces the range of smells we associate with body odor."

In other cases, it's the result of certain substances emerging from the pores and causing a stink on their own terms, but that tends to be associated with either diet or certain medical conditions. No, it's not a punishment from any deity for not doing the dishes that one time, and it doesn't come from nowhere. But it can indicate certain things if you know how to read it properly.

Here are seven things that your body odor could be trying to tell you. Though to diagnose it, you may have to get up close and personal with some of your sweaty clothes, or at least ask your GP to do it for you. Get prepared to get stinky.

1. You're Under Stress

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The Mayo Clinic has a good explanation for why stress does actually make us sweat in a specific way that can increase body odor. It turns out that we actually have two different types of sweat glands, the ecrrine and the apocrine. Eccrine glands excrete the sweat we use to cool down, which is mostly water. Apocrine sweat, on the other hand, is released when we're stressed or upset, and is very conducive to bacteria throwing a sweat-based pool party. So if you're finding yourself smelling strange after long, anguished meetings, you're not cracking up; your body's reacting to the heightened stress levels.

2. You're Eating Certain Foods & Drinking Booze

The Berkeley Wellness Center has a list of foods that may be contributing to body odor, from sulfurous foods like broccoli to red meat and alcohol (the famous "booze sweat" during a hangover). The cruciferous veggies of the broccoli family, which also include cauliflower and cabbage, create sulfur build-up that's then excreted from the body in sweat form, but scientists recommend that you can actually reduce the odor after-effects by cooking them in water with salt.

3. You May Have Diabetes, Or Liver Or Kidney Problems

"Some metabolic disorders, like diabetes, can certainly affect how a person smells," says Dr. Dietz. "For example, people with diabetes have trouble breaking down glucose in the body, so you may notice that diabetics' breath often smells sweet because of a build-up of glucose."

These are all classed in the same category because they all place unfamiliar substances into your sweat because of a failure in the body's normal processes. Kidney failure puts urea into your sweat excretions, diabetes puts in acetone (yes,the stuff in nail polish remover), and liver failure means an uptick in methyl mercaptan. All of these things smell faintly different, which means they can be used as diagnostic tools, and, as you can guess, they're all medical issues, so if you detect any of those smells, it's important to talk to your doctor ASAP. "If you're worried about body odor, or notice sudden changes in body odor, it's always a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional," says Dr. Dietz.

4. You Might Have A Metabolic Disorder

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A 2011 study found that up to a third of people with unexplained body odor might have a rare genetic disorder that fiddles with your metabolism, and is known as trimethylaminuria, or, charmingly enough, "the fishy-smelling syndrome". The basic problem for people with this condition is that they lack the enzyme that breaks down a compound called trimethyamine, and so it builds up and comes out through the pores. The smell? You guessed it: fishy.

5. You Could Have A Thyroid Problem

One of the unfortunate things that holds true about body odor is that if you're prone to sweating more, you're also likely to smell more. It's just the nature of the beast. And one particular thyroid issue, Grave's disease, is associated with excessive sweating. Grave's disease is basically a case of an overactive thyroid, where the thyroid reacts to an immune system malfunction by going into overdrive. Thyroids are responsible for regulating the metabolism, so one going the speed of a race car can contribute to shakes, rapid heartbeat, poor sleep, and, yep, buckets of sweat. Thyroid-related sweating often tends to happen at night, which, incidentally, is also associated with serious infections, located most commonly in the heart valves or bones.

6. You're On Medications That Cause Sweating

The equation of more sweat making more odor is, unfortunately, pretty foolproof, and the sweat can also be caused by medication side effects. Some analgesic pain medications, SSRI antidepressants, hormonal medications, and heart-based drugs have excessive sweating as part of their known catalogue of side-effects, so you'll have to be prepared for a bit of body odor increase if you're on a course of any of those meds.

7. You're In The Midst Of A Hormonal Fluctuation

Hormonal shifts are a big cause of sweating increases, from perimenopause (the period right before menopause) to the early teen years. "Women experiencing hormonal fluctuations can certainly experience changes in their body odor," says Dr. Dietz. "When estrogen levels drop during menopause, for example, the body often mistakes this as a sign that it’s overheating. This hormonal change then leads to excess sweating, which can contribute to body odor. Other common symptoms of hormone fluctuation, like hot flashes and night sweats, can also contribute to excessive sweating and increase body odor."

People who are pregnant frequently report waves of sweatiness in response to the massive hormonal upheaval of conception and carrying a fetus, so if you're at any point in your life where hormones are rampant (or you're on medications with hormonal side-effects), you may have found your culprit.

"Most of the time, body odor is just a pesky and unpleasant part of life. In some cases, though, consistent or sudden body odor can indicate a chronic problem, like a metabolic condition or a more serious illness like yellow fever and typhoid fever, which can have distinct scents," says Dr. Dietz. If your body odor has suddenly changed and there's no clear reason why, you should schedule a doctor's appointment; it could be a sign of something more serious.

This post was originally published on March 17, 2016. It was updated on June 19, 2019.

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