Body Odor Causes
Certainly, body odor causes many issues for the sufferer including embarrassment and social stigmatization. The most obvious stigmatization would be that people suppose that the offender doesn’t wash or look after him or herself.
Sometimes, it cannot be helped and is due to reasons which are more endemic than behavioral. Also known as bromhidrosis, ozochrotia or osmidrosis, it is the bane of many people’s lives.
It is caused by bacteria which live on your skin and through a biochemical process break down your perspiration into various acids. It is a common misperception that the smell is due to residing bacteria, it isn’t even due to the sweat itself, which is odorless – the fetid or foul smell is a result of the acid formed. There are many reasons why body odor becomes an issue for some.
Not all body odor is undesirable, for example in attracting mates, and it is characteristic to the individual, largely influenced by major histocompatibility complex molecules which form an important role in our immune system. Diet can affect smell as well as weight. There are several medical conditions which cause body odor too, including phenylketonuria (PKU), Tyrosinemia, hyperthyroidism, menopause, pneumonia, kidney failure, anaerobic infection, fungal infections and intestinal obstructions.
How Does It Happen?
Humans have millions of sweat glands – approximately three to four million. There are two different kinds of sweat glands, the eccrine glands and the apocrine glands. The eccrine glands themselves are unspecialized sweat glands located in most areas of the body, on the skin whilst the apocrine glands are specialized glands located in the breasts, eyelids, ear canal, armpits and genital region.
Eccrine glands have almost no odor because of their high salt content, inhibiting bacteria from breaking down protein or fatty acid chains into those familiar pungent odors. Apocrine glands do have an odor because they produce sweat which is high in protein.
When we perspire and bacteria in the skin flora, including many types of Corynebacterium, break down this sweat into many types of acid, which give a characteristic smell. Different acids give different intonations to the smell. Isovaleric acid, also known as 3-methyl butanoic acid, is caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus epidermidis. This bacteria is the same as that present in many strong cheeses, giving that typical pungent smell.
Another acid is propionic acid, caused by propionibacteria which gives a vinegar-like smell component to the overall body odor. This is because it is structurally alike to acetic acid and activates olfactory receptors in a very similar way. Now that we are familiar with the basic mechanism, we will look at the many body odor causes which are generally not in our control.
Pheromones Don’t Help Either!
As well as the cheese-like smell caused by isovaleric acid and the vinegar-like smell caused by propionic acid, our odor composition also includes pheromones. Until recently, it was thought that the VNO or Vomeronasal Organ in the brain was the primary source in detecting these pheromones, but it seems, according to Michael Meredith of Florida State University in Tallahassee that it is actually a remnant organ, no longer of any use to humans.
His studies conclude that our regular olfactory receptors do all the work in our sense of smell. Pheromones do not necessarily have a smell to be effective though they are volatile organic compounds which do have an odor in sufficient quantities. Some pheromones have a musky odor to them and others have different intonations. The field of haute perfumerie formulates scent masterpieces which often work with our body odor, enhancing the positive notes whilst masking the unpleasant ones. Whenever a perfume or aftershave is worn, it often changes smell on the surface of the skin, so if you wish to mask your odor, it is best to check how it smells on you first.
My Immune System Too?
As mentioned earlier the immune system also plays a role, in particular the major histocompatibility complex of the immune system, which is a genetic structure in our DNA which encodes MHC molecules. These molecules are also responsible for scent because they activate specific immune cells and reactions by releasing peptides, which are specific amino acid chains or protein fragments. These are subsequently released onto the skin surface by our sweat glands and broken down by bacteria resulting in very individual smells.
What About What I Eat?
Many foods contribute to body odor, including beets, soy food and spinach and leave a fish odor imprint. This is because these foods contain compounds which have a high number of methyl groups. These high-methyl foods are broken down in the digestive tract into trimethylamine, or TMA. Although this is one of the many body odor causes, high methyl foods cannot be taken out of the diet, as they are critical for your health and well-being, especially our detoxification mechanisms. What can be avoided, and which is significantly responsible for our odor, includes strong foods such as garlic, cumin and other spicy foods.
A Mixture of Familiar Smells
As you can see the composition of body odor is composed of a series of ‘notes’, in much the same way that a perfume is composed of various ingredients, though it may not necessarily be a scent which is regarded as pleasant. Knowing that there are many causes, perhaps this enables acceptance of this condition where sufferers have tried everything to rid themselves of their body odor but haven’t been able to do so. Clearly body odor causes many issues, but it has many explanations, and although not all aspects of the way we smell can be eliminated altogether, we must do all we can to combat our problems.