Ask the doctors: Does eating certain food give you body odour?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 11:53am

Q: Does eating certain foods give you body odour? My friend tells me that eating garlic makes you smell the next day.

A: You really don't need a doctor to answer this. If you know people who have eaten garlic regularly for health purposes, you might notice that they suddenly lose all their friends.

I have been told that monks refrain from garlic due to its aphrodisiac properties - but if anyone takes it to improve their sexual prowess, they better make sure their partner is either on garlic too or has a damaged sense of smell! The rancid, pungent and musty odour will more likely kill the mood.

OK, joking aside, it is true that certain foods can cause one to suffer from body odour, known as bromhidrosis.

So what are the usual suspects? The journal Medscape states that the "omission of certain foods may be of value if these factors can be isolated or identified as contributory factors to the bromhidrosis. Common culprits include curry spices, onions, garlic and alcohol."

But not all of us are affected in the same way and some of us have a greater predisposition to suffer from this condition than others.

Some of these factors are not modifiable, such as being born with a genetic predisposition. Other factors, however, are modifiable. We can do something about poor hygiene, obesity and even diabetes, such as using antiperspirants and soap, losing weight and taking diabetes medications.

There also are certain genetic conditions that can make some people smellier than others. One such condition is trimethylaminuria (TMAU). People with this condition suffer from a relative deficiency of a certain enzyme that breaks down trimethylamine (which has a fishy odour) from food.

So when there is an increased production of trimethylamine in the body for whatever reason (such as consuming the usual suspects above, hormonal changes around menstruation or emotional-stress-induced sweating), the compound leaches out through urine, sweat and, yes, even reproductive fluids.

Think of it like a toilet that does not flush properly and overflows when it is blocked. Some toilets are high-quality systems that can cope with practically anything, while others are more delicate - such that if you throw in something that causes it to jam up, it creates a stink.

My opinion is that all of us have a certain predisposition for body odour, associated with our diet. Some of us are fatter than others, some of us like certain foods more than others, some of us live in more humid climates and some of us are more likely to sweat more under stress. By balancing our lifestyles which include our food choices we may be able to control our body odour.

For those of us who still suffer from bromhidrosis despite using every effort to ease it, there are certain medical interventions that include using medicated soaps and oral antibiotics as well as more drastic measures such as botox injections and laser treatment of the sweaty areas in order to reduce sweating.

Dr Durai Raj Subramaniam is a resident physician at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore