Researchers often come up with theories that don’t make much sense to me.
Like, what causes body odour, and how can you get rid of it?
The accepted theory about the cause of body odour stinks.
This theory has troubled me for several years now. But it makes even less sense now that I’m tumbling down the monoamine oxidase (MAO) rabbit hole, looking for the most significant causes of metabolic damage and oxidative stress in our bodies. More about that later.
The first time I noticed that I could get rid of body odour without using antiperspirants and deodorants
Years ago, I changed my diet and discovered that my body odour almost disappeared entirely. So much so that I gave up wearing deodorant altogether. It’s interesting how such a trivial change can improve your quality of life.
Then I started observing the occasions when my body odour would come back with a vengeance.
Such as when I had coffee. I noticed that coffee made me stink to the high heavens. I’d actually noticed that when I still used to wear deodorant. And I used to use the most potent stuff I could get my hands on. It was supposed to last for 48-72 hours, but I put it on every day. Yet I could still smell B/O after I had my 11 am coffee.
But it’s not just me. I know other people who notice coffee gives them a certain stench.
No, I haven’t had coffee for years. Unfortunately, it also makes me super anxious. So I quit it. Just one of the many things I gave up for health reasons.
Stress also makes me reek. I’m pretty sure you can smell fear washing off me in waves. Only I don’t have to be petrified for this to happen. It even comes on when I get slightly nervous. And then, as soon as I realise the body odour is starting to appear, I get self-conscious and more anxious. So I’m sure you can understand how it becomes a vicious cycle. And it’s really embarrassing.
So if I know I’m going to be in a stressful situation, I’ll try to preemptively apply a bit of deodorant. But, unfortunately, I usually forget or don’t have my precognition switched on, so I don’t go into battle with my natural coconut oil-based deodorant.
The curious case of the disappearing (and reappearing) foot odour
When it comes to foot odour, something similar happens. I only get smelly feet when I wear Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs) or sandals. Not sure why. Although I’ve never tried wearing socks with my VFFs. Maybe that would help. At least I can put my VFFs in the washing machine.
Nevertheless, my socks aren’t sterile either, so why do my feet only smell when they’re naked next to synthetic fabrics? Is it the microbes? Or am I absorbing something toxic through my bare skin in contact with the plastics?
But these observations made me question the narrative about body odour being caused by microbes on the surface of your skin making volatile, pungent chemicals from molecules in our sweat.
What do you use to prevent body odour? Do you use the same methods as over 90% of other people?
Most scientists (and deodorant manufacturers) would have you believe that there’s a certain inevitability to body odour when you hit puberty. They claim there’s no natural way to get rid of body odour. And that all you can do is mask it with antiperspirants and deodorants. Your 2 options are to block your sweat glands or kill the offending microbes.
Neither of those options now sounds like a good idea to me. They are both disrupt your skin microflora and increase the absorption of toxicants (including aluminium) through your skin.
However, I didn’t develop sterile armpits when I changed my diet. Nor do I suspect that I suddenly changed my skin flora within minutes of getting stressed or drinking a coffee.
What is the prevailing theory about the cause of body odour?
Researchers believe that odour-causing bacteria within the skin microbiome decompose non-smelly components of sweat that we all excrete through our pores or sweat glands. That’s right: sweat isn’t only salt and water. But you probably already knew that, since sweat is a great way to eliminate toxicants, including heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Sweat contains many nutrients, including salts such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium. And it contains minerals including iron, zinc, copper and selenium. In addition, you’ll find vitamin C, vitamin B1 and vitamin B2 are lost in your sweat. So the more you sweat, the more you need to be aware that you should replace those micronutrients. Sweat also contains antimicrobial peptides (which help control the skin microbiome) and enzymes. But none of those is responsible for the smell of body odour.
We also secrete proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, steroids, amino acids, fats, lactic acid, uric acid, urea, citric acid, and aldehydes through our sweat and sebaceous glands onto the surface of our skin. Many of these chemicals don’t have much of an odour — at least not one that we humans with our insensitive nostrils can detect.
But some can be pretty pungent.
Most researchers believe that body odour is caused by bacteria breaking down some of the nutrients released on our skin, like fats and amino acids, into chemicals with distinctive and usually embarrassing aromas. And the cosmetics industry focuses on:
- waging war on those microbes or
- blocking the pores through which these chemicals are expelled.
I’m sure that happens. But what if it’s not the whole truth when it comes to getting rid of body odour?
Babies and children usually don’t suffer from body odour. We’re told that this is because the specific sorts of glands responsible for releasing the precursors to smelly compounds called apocrine glands (one of the types of sweat glands you’ll find in your armpits) are inactive until puberty kicks in.
Except, there are exceptions to that rule. Some kids are malodorous. Body odour seems to be frequent in children in South East Asia — even when they haven’t yet hit puberty. So why do some children get body odour but not others? Is it really all down to the climate they grow up in?
Likewise, some adults don’t suffer from body odour and don’t wear deodorant. East Asians are believed to be predisposed to lower malodour. And it’s not that they haven’t gone through puberty either. Nor have they got sterile oxters.
Which chemicals are responsible for BO?
Sebaceous glands are also often fingered as being responsible for producing sebum, containing some of the waxy or fatty precursors to body odour that armpit bacteria then convert into stinky particles. You might notice overactive sebaceous glands on your face, chest or back if you tend to suffer from oily skin. But when was the last time you felt self-conscious about your face smelling of body odour? It does happen, but it’s nowhere near as common as armpits smelling funky.
Meanwhile, some foods have a reputation for making your body odour worse, like garlic, spicy foods, and curry. While people who grew up in East Asia will admit that when they move to Europe or the USA, they can smell dairy emanating from us.
Why would dietary changes, supplements and stress make such a massive difference to body odour?
Body odour is complex, and there are a vast number of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to it. Also, not all body odour is unpleasant or embarrassing.
Aldehydes are more than simply stinky chemicals...
My recent research into developments in health also implicates aldehydes as instrumental in oxidative stress inside our cells. Oxidative stress is proving to be the root cause of many disparate health conditions, which on the surface seem unconnected to bad body odour.
Aldehydes are some of the toxic breakdown products of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase.
You might have heard of monoamine oxidase if you’re interested in depression and anxiety because it’s an important enzyme involved in the breakdown of stress neurotransmitters like adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and dopamine. In addition, Monoamine oxidase (MAO) also breaks down serotonin, melatonin, tyramine, and phenylethanolamine (PEA). And there are antidepressant drugs that target and block monoamine oxidase called monoamine oxidase inhibitors for this reason.
But monoamine oxidase is the secret linchpin in pretty much all chronic diseases because it’s the number one source of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in our cells. This means that wherever medical conditions like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s depression, anxiety, and arthritis are, increased monoamine oxidase activity is lurking in the wings. And of course, as we age, monoamine oxidase activity increases by a factor of 4-6 fold in our neurological tissue and hearts!
The reactive oxygen species that monoamine oxidase (MAO) produces as a byproduct from breaking down those neurotransmitters are hydrogen peroxide, ammonia, and our friends, the aldehydes.
Does this mean that increased aldehyde production is a marker for increased oxidative stress?
Yes. I think it does.
And if you look for evidence of altered body odour in conditions like obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and even Parkinson’s disease, it’s not hard to find. Although there are specific compounds detectable for each condition.
I think focusing on skin bacteria, and personal hygiene as the causes of body odour is too narrow. Our metabolisms are likely just as much to blame for unpleasant body odours.
Instead of worrying about how we smell because of social embarrassment, what if we consider whether body odour might reflect something off in our internal milieu? Think of it as a marker of your metabolic status. One you don’t have to fork out lots of money for a lab to test.
What can you learn from how your body smells?
So if pongy body odour is a marker of increased aldehyde production or increased production of other pungent compounds involved in elimination pathways, like sulphur compounds, what can we do with this information?
Aldehydes in the body are broken down by a suite of enzymes called the aldehyde dehydrogenase family. There are at least 19 enzymes in this family. But they all share one thing in common. All aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes use vitamin B3 (niacin) to break down the aldehydes into something a lot safer.
That places a lot of additional demand on niacin. So, in addition to focusing on niacin-rich foods, like meats and organs, you could consider supplementing with it.
What’s molybdenum got to do with body odour?
A couple of aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes use molybdenum as well as niacin as a cofactor. And molybdenum is also needed for a few other enzymes, some of which are critical detoxification enzymes. Molybdenum is essential for ensuring you have enough sulfate in your body to support phase 2 liver detoxification while also getting rid of toxic sulfites.
Simultaneously, while liver, kidney, and adrenal glands are excellent sources of molybdenum, very few low carbohydrate foods are top sources. On the other hand, pulses like black eye peas contain a lot of molybdenum. This means that many people on low carbohydrate, keto, paleo, AIP, GAPs, and carnivore diets may need to supplement with molybdenum.
Not only them, but people who are getting older and even people trying to follow government dietary guidelines are also at risk of molybdenum deficiency. While anyone who doesn’t tolerate sulfites well (sulfites are a common preservative, especially in dried fruits like apricots) almost certainly could do with more molybdenum. If you suffer from any toxicity (like heavy metal poisoning) that puts greater pressure on your elimination pathways, you should consider carefully whether your molybdenum intake is adequate.
Here’s why you should analyse your diet to make sure you don’t have multiple deficiencies
Whenever I perform a dietary analysis with my clients, I find that the clients with the best overall micronutrient intakes already follow an autoimmune (AIP) or Wahls Protocol diet. Meanwhile, people with the most worrying nutrient intakes at the outset are calorie restricting.
It’s an eye-opener for many people when they discover that their diets aren’t supplying them with all the nutrients they need to stay healthy and happy. But if you’ve ever read my post on how the UK Dietary Guidelines guarantee that you’ll end up with malnutrition, you’ll be less surprised.
Don’t believe me? I did some dietary analyses on 4 different diets and compared the nutrient contents in this post. Those diets were:
- a typical care home diet served in England based on the UK dietary guidelines,
- a diet based on what was available using World War 2 rations,
- the carnivore diet, and
- the autoimmune protocol diet.
Can you guess which of these diets was most nutrient-dense and which was least? Check to see if you got it right here.
I also have severe doubts that recommendations for molybdenum intakes are adequate, given that they’re based on 2 studies carried out on 8 healthy, young men who should have relatively low monoamine oxidase activity, and thus much lower aldehyde production and less need for molybdenum cofactor.
How to permanently get rid of body odour
To permanently get rid of body odour, focus on reducing your oxidative stress. But you’ll also need to ensure that your intake of dietary antioxidants is adequate.
We’ve already outlined the importance of molybdenum and niacin in this post. But you mustn’t forget:
- vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin),
- retinol (vitamin A), of which the top source is liver,
- the rest of the B vitamins,
- vitamin C,
- vitamin K2,
- complete protein (from animal sources), and
- long-chain omega 3 fats (EPA and DHA), which are found in the highest concentrations in oily fish and brains.
Some other powerful nutrients aid in mitochondrial function and may also help get rid of body odour in armpits. These include PQQ, D-ribose, and CoQ10.
The best way to ensure you’re getting these nutrients is to eat an unprocessed diet that focuses on high-quality animal proteins, including organ meats like liver, kidney and heart, pastured red meat, small oily fish, and shellfish. But you may also need to take some dietary supplements, particularly if you’ve been exposed to significant levels of toxicants. Because toxicants deplete your nutrients. Just make sure you get these from a trusted source.
You can also reduce the demand placed on your monoamine oxidase enzymes and thus reduce their activity by paying attention to the levels of tyramine and aldehydes in your diet. Tyramine and aldehyde levels increase in fermented, dried, and aged foods, like ham, cheese, and soy sauce. So foods with the lowest tyramine and aldehyde levels are fresh foods. This includes organ meats, meats and fish. When meats are frozen within a few days of the animal being killed, the tyramine levels remain very low.
Perhaps people eating a fresh, nose-to-tail, raw carnivore diet are on to something…
Other health tips to naturally get rid of body odour by reducing your aldehyde levels.
Some other methods of reducing monoamine oxidase activity involve reducing your physiological stressors. However, please bear in mind that emotional and psychological stress are only 2 types of stress. Therefore, anything that requires us to mount a stress response is a potential stressor.
So this includes over-exercising, eating foods that don’t agree with us, sleep deprivation, spending too long at temperature extremes (short bursts of sauna and cold exposure are healthy if you can tolerate them), toxicant exposures, and much more. If something can push your heart rate through the roof, then you’re mounting a stress response to it.
In a twist of irony, the antiperspirants, perfumes and skincare products you’re using to combat foul odour may be contributing to toxicity enough to contribute to bad body odor. Not only is your skin an effective way for toxicants to be absorbed, but those toxicants will also tend to bioaccumulate over time. While skin bacteria that play essential roles in preventing the overgrowth of bad bacteria may be disrupted by many commercial skincare products. Your hygiene habits may even be hurting you.
I think it’s also fascinating how our bodies use our sweat to eliminate toxins. So while you may be sure that waging war against excessive sweating is your goal, this is an opportunity to consider this approach again. Without the ability to sweat, we overheat, and our capacity to detoxify is compromised. Both of these can threaten our health and may increase the production of unpleasant smells over the long term.
So rather than focusing on the volume of unstinky sweat you’re producing, focus on reducing the overproduction of aldehydes and other toxic metabolic byproducts that have an unpleasant smell.
So could molybdenum and niacin be some of the missing links if you’ve failed to see all the progress you’d like to see on a low carb, paleo, primal, carnivore, keto, AIP or another diet?
It’s possible. But at least now you have an idea about what you can do about it.
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