When it comes to exercise and physical activity, it's healthy to sweat. In fact, sweating plays a critical role in regulating your body temperature and cooling you down to prevent overheating, Lauren Penzi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
However, certain factors can affect the smell of your sweat and your body odor, including how much you exercise, what you eat and potential medical conditions you may have, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One odor in particular that your body can produce when you exercise is ammonia.
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Here's why your sweat may smell like ammonia when you work out and what treatment options and preventive measures are available, according to experts.
What Is Sweat?
Sweat is a clear, watery liquid that is secreted by sweat glands to help regulate body temperature and to prevent overheating, Dr. Penzi says. When your body temperature rises, whether from physical exercise, exposure to heat or even in response to feelings of nervousness, stress and anxiety, sweat is released onto the skin's surface, where it evaporates and helps cool down the body.
Sweat consists of mostly water, but it also contains small amounts of electrolytes, minerals, salt, urea, potassium, ammonia and various waste products that our body needs to get rid of, says Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, PT, DPT, physical therapist.
What Is Ammonia?
Ammonia (NH3) is a compound composed of nitrogen and hydrogen that has a similar odor to urine or sweat, Susan Massick, MD, associate professor of dermatology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In the human body, ammonia is a natural waste product that forms when the body breaks down proteins and substances for energy, VanDenMeerendonk explains. The liver plays an important role in processing ammonia and converts it into a less harmful substance called urea. Once ammonia is converted into urea, it can then be safely removed from the body through urine and the sweat glands.
"Basically, ammonia is a waste product in our body that needs to be processed and eliminated to stay healthy," VanDenMeerendonk says. "Our body needs to get rid of ammonia because having too much of it can be harmful."
VanDenMeerendonk adds that having too much ammonia, a condition known as hyperammonemia, can have several effects on the body, including muscle weakness, fatigue, neurological problems such as confusion, disorientation, lethargy, and, in severe cases, can even lead to unconsciousness.
Why Your Sweat Smells Like Ammonia
There are many things that could be causing your sweat to smell like ammonia, according to experts.
1. Your Diet Is High-Protein, Low-Carb
Those who have a diet that is high in protein and meat but low in carbohydrates can produce ammonia-smelling sweat, Dr. Massick says. If no carbohydrates are available to convert into energy, the body uses fat and then protein. However, fat takes a long time to convert to energy, putting your protein levels at risk.
Protein breaks down into amino acids, which the body will convert into ammonia, Dr. Penzi adds. The body then releases this excess ammonia through urine and sweat, leading to the ammonia-smelling odor.
You don't want to your body using protein for fuel — the body needs protein to maintain and replace tissues and to function and grow. If it has to use it during a workout, that means there won't be enough protein available to help heal your muscles.
Fix It: Maintain a Well-Balanced Diet
Consume a diet that consists of carbohydrates, protein, fruits, vegetables and fat in moderation. Eating a balanced diet can help prevent and treat ammonia-smelling sweat if diet is the issue.
“Remember that without carbs, your body will be using protein to convert into energy, which leads to higher concentrations of ammonia that your body will have to excrete,” Dr. Massick says.
2. You're Dehydrated
When you are dehydrated and your body doesn't have enough fluids, it can lead to the production of ammonia-smelling sweat, VanDenMeerendonk says. When the body doesn't have enough water, it can't adequately dilute waste products like ammonia when it's released by the body, which may lead to the smell of ammonia being stronger.
"Dehydration can cause sweat to be more concentrated leading to a potentially stronger odor," he says.
Fix It: Stay Hydrated
Drink more water and replenish electrolytes, especially during physical activity.
3. You're Exercising Intensely or Excessively
During a workout, if someone is producing sweat that smells like ammonia, it's possible that the workout itself is so high in intensity that the body is working in overdrive to break down as many amino acids for energy as possible, VanDenMeerendonk says.
As a result, this heightened metabolic activity can lead to an increased release of ammonia in your sweat.
Fix It: Exercise in Moderation
Approach exercise intensity with ease and gradually increase your level of intensity to allow the body to adapt, VanDenMeerendonk says. “This can prevent a spike in the level of excretion of ammonia through sweat.”
4. You Have a Medical Condition
Certain health conditions, including obesity, kidney disease, diabetes, hormonal fluctuations, hyperhidrosis and thyroid disorders, can contribute to the occurrence of ammonia-smelling sweat, Dr. Massick says. These medical conditions can impact the body's ability to excrete and release toxins, ultimately affecting the composition and smell of your sweat.
For instance, the kidneys play an important role in removing waste products like ammonia from the body. However, if there are issues with the kidney function, it can result in an elevated presence of ammonia in sweat, according to Dr. Penzi.
"Medical conditions such as kidney or liver problems may disrupt the body's ability to metabolize ammonia leading to a more potent odor," VanDenMeerendonk says.
Fix It: See a Doctor
If your ammonia-smelling sweat isn't improved with changes to your fueling and hydration plan or scaling back your workouts, it could be an underlying condition, which needs to be diagnosed and treated by a professional.
Is It Bad If Your Sweat Smells Like Ammonia?
While "body odor is completely natural and perfectly normal," Dr. Massick says, the smell of ammonia in your sweat, even if it's something you notice from time to time, is not something you should ignore — it means something is likely wrong.
You could be fueling improperly for your workouts, or, Dr. Penzi says, in the short term, ammonia-smelling sweat could be a sign that you are dehydrated or exercising too intensely.
If you consistently experience excessive odor in your sweat, particularly a strong ammonia smell, it could indicate a possible underlying health risk or issue, Dr. Massick says. If this is the case, see a qualified healthcare professional to address any potential issues.
According to Dr. Penzi, health conditions that can cause sweat to smell like ammonia include metabolic disorders (particularly issues with protein breakdown), kidney disease or liver issues/dysfunction.
When to Seek Help
It's important to note that treating ammonia-smelling sweat depends on the underlying cause, VanDenMeerendonk says. If addressing diet, hydration and exercise intensity do not help, it may be due to an underlying medical condition.
If you continue to experience a persistent ammonia smell even after making dietary and lifestyle changes, VanDenMeerendonk recommends contacting your healthcare provider.
Dr. Massick adds you may also seek help from a professional if you are unable to control your body odor/ammonia-smelling sweat with typical over-the-counter remedies, like deodorants. In addition, you should also seek medical advice if you are experiencing night sweats or skin irritation from sweating.
If the ammonia smell is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, including sudden onset of muscle weakness, changes in urine color, frequency or volume, fatigue, unexplained weight loss or neurological symptoms such as confusion, disorientation or lethargy, VanDenMeerendonk and Dr. Penzi say that you should seek medical attention immediately.
"If you are concerned about an ammonia smell in your sweat, talk to your primary care providers and ask their opinions based on your medical history," VanDenMeerendonk says. "Early diagnosis and intervention will save on costs in the long run, but ultimately will pave a sustainable healthy future for you and your loved ones."
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