Your Body Odor Is Sending You Messages—Here’s What They Mean

Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell
You were likely taught from a young age to mask your natural scent (so instead, you literally smelled like Teen Spirit), but it's high time you paid more attention to what's wafting from you armpits. Why, you ask? Your body odor can raise red flags about your lifestyle and the state of your overall health.

But first things first. Along with erasing your body's natural aroma, non-natural deodorants and antiperspirants can eliminate bacteria that are actually doing your body good. "While the gut microbiome is getting a lot of attention lately, few people are thinking about the billions of bacteria living on the body," says Parsley Health nutritionist Adrienne Dowd, RD.

The most common cause of a change in body odor is an imbalance in its microbiome caused by the classic perspirant and deodorant combo you use day after day.

Mother Dirt founder Jasmina Aganovic agrees: The most common cause of a change in body odor is an imbalance in its microbiome caused by the classic perspirant and deodorant combo you use day after day. "If you think about current approaches to controlling body odor in that area, they fall into two buckets: antiperspirants that stop sweat so that there is no food for the odor-causing bacteria and deodorant that kills the bacteria," she explains. "This is very much a scorched earth approach, and not in line with our natural biology." To remedy this, Mother Dirt products actually add bacteria to the body—yep, like probiotics for your pits. "With balance, comes fewer issues, like body odor," Aganovic says.

Whether you give a bacterial product like Mother Dirt a shot, switch to a non-toxic deodorant, or brave going au naturel, getting reacquainted with your personal perfume is the first step. Once you know what your natural scent smells like, if you suddenly start noticing that your natural body odor is off from its norm or seems to be consistently pungent, you should evaluate your lifestyle. Diet, alcohol, and stress can all cause your B.O. to change.

For example, if you feel like your odor is more intense than is standard, check in with what you're eating on a regular basis because there are many foods that cause body odor. (Yes, your armpits can smell like onions.) "While some healthy foods can cause body odors—such as garlic, onion, cruciferous veggies—a diet high in processed foods can have a much more dramatic effect on your scent," says Dowd. "Processed foods are high in chemicals your body must process and excrete."

"While some healthy foods can cause body odors, a diet high in processed foods can have a much more dramatic effect on your scent."

Down also recommends making some overall healthy swaps to help troubleshoot your B.O. issues. Along with eating a diet rich in organic, plant-based foods with good quality proteins, drink plenty of clean filtered water (at least half your body weight in ounces). Also, sweat it out (literally!) with regular exercise and infrared saunas. Sweating is so good for your body and the aim here is to improve the bacteria and sweat your body creates (and therefore by default, how it smells), not eliminate it altogether.

Next up is booze. (Ugh, sorry.) If you're indulging in happy hour too often, your body will tell you so (in more ways than one, probably). "Our liver and skin are our natural detoxifiers and when you drink too much alcohol, it’s excreted through your pores," Dowd says. This one has an obvious fix, and luckily, sober socializing is on the rise (think zero-alcohol dance parties!) to better enable the change.

"Sweat produced when you are stressed, anxious, or scared has a different scent than when you are happy."

Your oh-so-smart sweat can also point to issues beyond your body and into your mind. "Sweat produced when you are stressed, anxious, or scared has a different scent than when you are happy," says Dowd. "And you guessed it, it smells worse." To manage stress sweat—which causes bad odor because it doesn't evaporate as quickly as do other types of sweat—it's best to cut it off at it's source. So book a spin class, pop your earbuds in for some QT with your Headspace app, phone a friend—do whatever you need to do to find your personal Zen.

While bad B.O. is most often a sign of one of the above issues and can all remedied via lifestyle changes, Chris Callewaert (a.k.a. Dr. Armpit) cautions that it can occasionally signify something more serious about your health. "Several genetic and acquired disorders of carbohydrate, amino acid, and fatty acid metabolism are characterized by distinctive body odors," he says. (These include diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe form of the disease, as well as isovaleric acidemia, a protein-processing disorder commonly referred to as sweaty feet syndrome.) "In addition, several dermatological diseases can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria on the skin, which can lead to malodors," notes Callewaert. (Like ulcerating skin cancers or bacteria-causing pitted keratolysis.) 

A doctor's visit can provide peace of mind, he advises, for anyone worried that their odor is seriously funky.

Your body has a lot to say. To decode its many messages, find out what the color of your period blood means and get tips for spotting the health issues potentially lurking beneath your manicure

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