A good friend of mine told me, quite tactfully, that lately I have bad breath…and a strange body odor. I haven’t changed any habits. What gives?


It’s well-known that certain foods and drinks—think onions, garlic, coffee—can give your breath a foul odor (halitosis). Health conditions, including dental problems and sinus infections, also can lead to bad breath. But there’s a common cause of halitosis (and body odor) that often isn’t considered—maldigestion. Fortunately, there are simple solutions that can help.


Maldigestion happens when the normal digestive process doesn’t function as it should. This can be caused by several factors, including lactose intolerance or medical conditions such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. But it grows more common as we age even in people without such conditions. Foods that are not digested properly create vaporous compounds that can seep out of the stomach or large intestine through the digestive tract’s mucous lining instead of passing through and being processed by the digestive tract as they should. If this happens, not only does your body not benefit from absorption and utilization of all the nutrients in the food, but the malodorous compounds that are created are emitted either through the lungs as bad breath…or through our largest organ, the skin, as body odor.


The first step to correcting maldigestion is to chew foods slowly and thoroughly before swallowing. Digestion begins in the mouth as chewing increases food’s surface area, allowing it to be more easily processed by acids and enzymes when it reaches the stomach. Chewing also stimulates saliva, which contains digestive enzymes that primarily break down starches. Step two is to consider what foods you put in your mouth and when you do it. Reason: Our stomachs are designed to process a healthful mix of complex (unrefined) carbohydrates, fats and proteins, preferably some of each at the same meal. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are best consumed on their own as a snack because the sweets can be held in the stomach too long if combined with a meal containing heavy proteins and fats and end up fermenting. Consuming sweets at the same time as more complex fats and proteins is asking for digestive trouble. Step three is to consider stomach acid. A healthy concentration of stomach acid is essential to, among other things, activate enzymes such as pepsin, which breaks down amino acid bonds in protein. Limiting fluids around mealtime helps maintain the correct concentration of acid. What to do: I recommend that if you want any sort of drink (including water) during meals, sip only enough to help you swallow or clear your palate. If you've chewed your food thoroughly, you shouldn’t need lots of liquid to get food to pass comfortably down your esophagus. It’s also best to not drink from about a half-hour before meals until an hour or so afterward.


Drugs that suppress stomach acid, such as proton pump inhibitors (omeprazole/Prilosec, esomeprazole/Nexium, lansoprazole/Prevacid) and antacids (calcium carbonate/Tums), can have the same bad effect as diluting stomach acid. If you need such medication, for instance to treat heartburn or a stomach ulcer, discuss with your doctor using the medication at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible length of time and try to take it away from meals rather than around mealtime. Note: If your bad breath and/or body odor persists even after you’ve tried these remedies…or if you notice other bothersome signs such as greasy bowel movements or excessive malodorous intestinal gas…check with your doctor to see whether another health issue could be causing your problem.

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