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Why We Smell Bad When We're Nervous

We understand why we perspire when we're exercising--as our sweat evaporates, it cools off our body. But why do we sweat so much when we're under stress? And this is the really stinky kind of sweat, the kind we apply deodorant to try to stave off.

And we're under more stress than ever: Americans spent almost $3 billion on deodorants and antiperspirants in 2011, an increase of 13% from 2008, when the current recession first hit.

Stress sweat may have an evolutionary function, in that it sends strong, stinky signals to the people around us, causing them to react negatively to us and keep their distance, because we may become dangerous. In the February 5th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Sumathi Reddy quotes chemist Charles Wysocki as saying, "The more I study this the more I'm amazed at how much information is being conveyed from one individual to another by their odor."

While we're no longer facing off strangers from another tribe, this can have a function in modern business meetings as well. Your odoriferous is certainly not relaxed, and he may even be lying. Reddy quotes biomedical engineer Lilianne Mujica-Parodi as saying, "(Body odor) enhanced the brain's perception across the board, not only to things that are obviously a threat but also to things that aren't obvious but might be threats." She found that the activity in the amygdala region of the brain, which processes emotions such as fear, is more active in people exposed to stress sweat than it is during exercise sweat.

Sweat from exercise or from being overheated is produced by eccrine glands, which are located just under the skin all over the body. But sweat caused by stress, fear, anxiety and sexual arousal is produced in the apocrine glands, found only in certain areas, such as under the arms. In addition to water and salt, the main ingredients stress sweat also contains fatty substances and proteins that interact with bacteria living on the skin to create body odor.

Stress sweat is triggered by hormones like adrenaline. Reddy quotes researcher George Preti as saying, "It's highly tied to the fight or flight response." Researcher Johan Lundström discovered that when we smell a stranger's body odor, our neural fear network becomes activated.

Women are more attuned to this than men are, probably because they're generally more sensitive to smells. When researchers tested 40 different fragrances to see if they could cover up other people's body odor, they found that this worked for men most of the time, but almost never for women (perhaps because they are the physically weaker sex?)

Reddy quotes Wysocki as saying, "We concluded that body odor must be something special for women." This could be one reason that women wear perfume.

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