What the Unique Smell of Your Bad Breath Says About You—and How to Make It Better

Photo: Getty Images / Oliver Rossi
Part of being a real, live human being (which I think we all still are, but it's hard to tell right now) is emitting odors through various orifices. Some of those scents attract us to one another, while others decidedly do not. Bad breath is one of the more repellent odors humans have to deal with and occasionally—it's just an unavoidable part of life.

What you consume can impact the smells emanating from your pie (or, whatever you ate) hole. There are the usual one-off suspects, of course—e.g., garlic, coffee, onions—but larger dietary patterns can be a less obvious cause of bad breath as well.

"There has been some evidence that a high protein and fat diet can cause your body to enter the ketosis state, and these ketones from the gut that get released can be foul smelling," says Lawrence Fung, DDS, founder of Silicon Beach Dental. "On the opposite side of the spectrum, a diet heavy on carbs and processed sugars can lead to cavities and can cause a proliferation in bacteria that causes periodontal disease that can cause bad breath as well."

Some studies have shown that plant-based diets can improve breath odor, according to Dr. Fung. "Proteins in cheese and meat can get stuck in teeth crevices and attract bad smelling bacteria," he says. "The best kind of diet, however, will always be a balanced diet, as we need protein for other things." (Plus, plant-based diets can make you gassy, which can ultimately affect your breath, too.) An ideal diet,  Dr. Fung says, should focus on a healthy gut as well since issues with the microbiome can also cause bad breath.

If you're looking for a specific list of breath-sweeteners, Dr. Fung recommends green tea, raw fruits and veggies, and probiotic yogurt. "Ginger has been shown to be effective as well since it contains a compound that stimulates an enzyme in our saliva that break down sulfur compounds in the mouth," he says. Chewing sugarless gum helps, too.

(Halitosis, or chronic bad breath, on the other hand, indicates underlying conditions that require decisive action.)

Despite best efforts, however, some of us might be stuck with stinkier breath than others. While most of breath odor is determined by oral hygiene habits and diet, there can be an inherited component, too. "From a study in the Journal of Nature Genetics, people may inherit a genetic mutation that can cause bad breath," he says. "This genetic mutation can cause people to produce more sulfur-based compounds in their breath."

Fortunately, if your breath is less than fresh, the only person who will be subjected to it regularly in the near future is you, thanks to COVID-19 and masks. This unique scenario also allows you some found time to try to optimize your breath (and your health) via the ultimate prescription: a healthy-balanced diet.

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