Body odor (aka BO) can be an uncomfortable topic, but it's important to address. Many think that it's the result of poor hygiene — lack of showering, not using deodorant and wearing the same clothes for long periods of time — but body odor may also arise from disorders or nutrient deficiencies that cause a strong, unpleasant smell.
Not getting enough of a certain vitamin, such as vitamin B12, can cause some people to have excessive, odorous gas but not necessarily an unpleasant body odor. Mineral deficiencies, particularly of zinc and magnesium, are more likely to contribute to body odor.
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Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about body odor and how it relates to your diet.
Zinc is a mineral that supports your immune system, your sense of taste and smell, prostate health and adrenal function. Zinc also plays an important role in managing the waste produced in your body after it digests carbohydrates.
Dietary zinc deficiency is common and affects an estimated 2 billion people, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. But this nutritional deficiency isn't common in the United States.
A diet low in zinc may deter the detoxification process, which could result in body odor. Zinc oxide, a chemical compound that contains zinc and oxygen, is commonly found in deodorants due to its antimicrobial properties that fight bacteria and sweat. Using zinc on the skin may be helpful in combating odors, according to a July 2014 review in Dermatology Research and Practice.
Symptoms of zinc deficiency may include hair loss, diarrhea, weight loss, taste abnormalities, impotence, eye and skin lesions and delayed healing of wounds, according to the National Institutes of Health.
You can get more of the mineral by eating foods high in zinc, such as oysters, beef, pork, lamb and dark-meat chicken. Fortified whole grains, nuts and legumes are rich vegetarian sources of zinc.
2. Vitamin C
Scurvy is a disease caused by severe vitamin C deficiency. While uncommon in developed countries, older people, low-income groups and others may be at higher risk, according to a July 2020 study in Nutrients.
Putrid-smelling sweat is a symptom of scurvy, according to a September 2011 review in The Journal of Biochemistry.
You can get more vitamin C by eating plant foods such as citrus fruits, potatoes, tomatoes and spinach, according to the Mayo Clinic. Taking vitamin C can also improve the absorption of iron.
3. Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
You can develop an unpleasant fishy smell even without eating a lot of seafood. This may be the cause of a condition called trimethylaminuria.
In those with trimethylaminuria, the compound trimethylamine builds up in the body and is released through sweat, urine, reproductive fluids and breath. The result is a strong fishy odor, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. If you have trimethylaminuria, taking riboflavin (vitamin B2) supplements is recommended.
A deficiency may not have caused the disorder, but extra riboflavin in your diet, along with reduction of trimethylamine-containing foods, such as cruciferous vegetables and seafood, could help. You can get riboflavin from beef, tofu, milk, eggs and nuts, according to the USDA.
Diet Tweaks for Better Body Odor
A vitamin deficiency may not be the main cause of your body odor, but dietary intervention could help clean up your scent. Incorporating certain foods and limiting others could help eliminate stenchy odors.
Fresh green plants, particularly parsley, kale, spinach and wheatgrass, contain lots of chlorophyll — the compound that makes them green — and may deodorize your body.
Citrus juice, particularly from lemons and grapefruit, contains acid that flushes water quickly through your system. The fiber in these fruits also moves the contents of your digestive tract more quickly, so food has less time to ferment and cause odor.
Certain foods can also change the way you smell, according to Harvard Health Publishing. If body odor is a concern, try limiting foods like garlic, onions and cruciferous vegetables.
- Linus Pauling Institute: “Zinc”
- Mayo Clinic: “Zinc”
- National Institutes of Health: “Zinc”
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Microbiota and Malodor—Etiology and Management”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “What you should know about magnesium”
- Nutrients: “Effect of Dietary Magnesium Content on Intestinal Microbiota of Rats”
- T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Magnesium”
- National Human Genome Research Institute: "About Trimethylaminuria"
- Dermatology Research and Practice: “Zinc Therapy in Dermatology: A Review”
- MyFoodData: “Top 10 Foods Highest in Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)”
- The Journal of Biochemistry: “The scent of disease: volatile organic compounds of the human body related to disease and disorder”
- Mayo Clinic: “Vitamin C”
- T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Riboflavin — Vitamin B2”
- Nutrients: “Global Vitamin C Status and Prevalence of Deficiency: A Cause for Concern?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “What's that smell? Get rid of body odor”