Dear Asking For a Friend,
I am a 40-something woman, and I am experiencing some symptoms of perimenopause — hot flashes and trouble sleeping. But I am also noticing that my body’s odours are changing. My sweat is way more stinky and I am certain there are also changes happening ‘down there.’ Does your body scent change with hormones?
No one wants to feel embarrassed by body odours — but stinky sweat and a smelly vagina can happen when you go through big life changes, like perimenopause. What’s happening, exactly?
There are two hormones crucial to the human reproductive system: estrogen and progesterone. They work in a coordinated pattern during your menstrual cycle and collaborate to produce healthy cell function. But by your late 30s, the body doesn’t produce as much progesterone, and the amount and quality of follicles in your ovaries also diminishes, which leads to a dip in estrogen production and fewer ovulations.
So when you get into your 40s, your menstrual cycle length and flow can be irregular and unpredictable. Estrogen can also drop or spike higher than normal.
The ‘Rocky Road to Menopause’
Harvard Medical School calls perimenopause the “Rocky Road to Menopause” for a reason. It can be fraught with uncomfortable symptoms. Fluctuating hormones can trigger night sweats and hot flashes, creating more body odour than you’re used to, along with disrupted sleep.
Dr. Jerilynn Prior, a professor of endocrinology in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and the scientific director at the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research, has spent years helping women understand these changing life phases.
“We need those high hormone levels in order to be fertile,” she says of child-bearing physiology. “We also need balanced estrogen and progesterone through our menstruating years for bone health and brain health and breast health… you name it.”
But perimenopause is a whole different story.
“Everything is chaos in perimenopause, all of the usual expected things are out of kilter and that’s on purpose because the body is changing,” Prior says. “It’s trying to get rid of those extra follicles that we don’t need anymore, so when we’re in our 80s in a nursing home, we don’t get a period.”
She’s written her own take on perimenopause, Estrogen’s Storm Season, to get the message out that perimenopause can be a physical and emotional rollercoaster that’s often dismissed by doctors.
“It’s such a horrible feeling to have your doctors not understand or send you to a counsellor when your body has changed, not because you’ve turned psycho,” she says.
Just as in adolescence, perimenopause can be filled with high levels of anxiety or stress, which can make you sweat, too. Anxiety sweat is produced by the apocrine glands, found in areas where you have hair, like your armpit and groin, and it’s a fatty milky fluid that is odourless until it combines with bacteria on your skin.
The stink is completely normal
Getting informed is the first step to coping and self-care, Prior says.
She recommends breathable cotton underwear, frequent bathing and doing things to relax and de-stress. She cautions against using deodorizing wipes and sprays that can cause irritation, or douching that can lead to infection.
“If you’re perimenopausal, meaning if you’re having some irregularity of periods or having nights with hot flashes, new sleep problems, new migraines, increased cramps, shorter cycles, this is part of a process that’s perfectly normal,” says Prior.
If there’s something more suspect, like a sweetish smell and white discharge from your vagina, you could have a yeast infection, and it’s time to check things out with your doctor.
The good news is that the chaos doesn’t go on forever. Prior says that when you reach menopause — which begins after a year of not having a period — hormones, anxiety and stress settle down, and so does the body odour.
“The smell is closely connected with hormone levels and with menopause those hormone levels have become nice and low and quiet,” she says.