Do Sweat It: Could 'Body Odor Therapy' Ease Anxiety?


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Key Takeaways

  • Social anxiety limits millions from enjoying their life fully, but new research suggests the smell of someone else's sweat could help

  • Adding a whiff of sweat from people who watched either a horror movie or a comedy to mindfulness therapy lowered anxiety levels by 39%, compared to a 17% drop among those who only meditated

  • While calling the findings interesting, experts said they need to be replicated in larger studies

TUESDAY, March 28, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Could inhaling a deep whiff of another person’s sweat help ease crippling social anxiety?

Quite possibly, new Swedish research suggests.

The notion stems from a trial that involved just 48 women. All struggled with what’s known as social anxiety disorder — an often intense and relentless fear of being watched or judged by others when participating in common social situations.

The standard course of treatment centers on talk therapy involving meditation practices that are designed to ease some of the anxiety that arises.

But Swedish researchers discovered that when such “mindfulness therapy” is combined with the inhaling of sweat of others, the result appears to be a far steeper drop in anxiety levels.

“Social anxiety is a common disorder which entails an intense and persistent fear of social situations,” explained study author Elisa Vigna, a research assistant with the Swedish National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the Karolinska Institute. “This can lead to anxiety and fear of common situations like speaking in front of an audience, meeting new people, even talking to a cashier in a store. So, it can be very debilitating, affecting many areas of everyday life."

This is the first study that uses body odor as a treatment enhancer, Vigna noted.

The results “were very interesting and promising," she said. While a single session of mindfulness therapy alone triggered a 17% decrease in self-reported anxiety, the team found that mindfulness plus human sweat exposure prompted a 39% drop.

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health explained that while social anxiety disorder is common, it can nonetheless prove very disabling. It can ultimately undermine a person's ability to work, go to school or engage in the sort of routine daily activities that most people take for granted, such as eating in public or going to a public restroom.

Without treatment, the disorder can endure for years, or even throughout a person’s entire life.

That’s where mindfulness therapy enters the picture.

“Mindfulness is a meditation practice that helps the person focus on the present moment and be aware of thoughts and feelings without interpretation or judgment," Vigna explained. "Studies have shown that it can improve anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

At the same time, Vigna and her colleagues turned their attention to the potential role of sweat in anxiety.

The sweat that’s produced is a salty clear liquid, which typically accrues under the arms and/or on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hands. Beyond cooling the body, Vigna’s team pointed out that sweat contains at least 300 separate compounds, making it a much more dense and complex source of information than might immediately meet the eye (or nose).

In addition, the study authors noted that a considerable amount of prior research has zeroed in on the importance of smell when it comes to the processing of information rooted in key emotions, such as fear and happiness. Still other studies have suggested that patients beset by social anxiety may be particularly sensitive to the impact of body odors.

So, could the chemical signals built into sweat somehow play a role in easing anxiety?

To find out, Vigna and her team focused on 48 women between the ages of 15 and 35, all of whom had social anxiety disorder.

Over the course of two days, all of the patients underwent one session of mindfulness therapy.

At the same time, the investigators collected sweat samples from a separate group of volunteers, none of whom had an anxiety disorder. The samples were collected after the volunteers watched either a horror movie designed to elicit fear or a comedy designed to amuse.

The women were divided into three groups: In addition to mindfulness therapy, the first group was exposed to sweat produced during a scary situation; the second was exposed to sweat produced during a funny situation; and the third was exposed to clean air – no sweat added – as a point of comparison.

The result: patients in the first two groups fared far better in terms of anxiety reduction (39% drop) compared with those in the third group who had no sweat exposure (17% drop).

The study authors acknowledged they were surprised to find that the emotional context in which the sweat had been produced seemed to have no bearing on the sweat therapy’s effectiveness. When combined with mindfulness therapy, all the sweat samples had the same positive impact.

That, the team said, suggests that there might be something broadly intrinsic to the chemical signaling in sweat that is advantageous, though follow-up efforts are now underway to see how patients fare when exposed to sweat produced in a strictly neutral setting, designed to trigger neither fear nor fun.

Vigna’s take: “The results are encouraging, and we are currently conducting a larger study to confirm the findings.” She and her colleagues presented their results Sunday at the European Congress of Psychiatry, in Paris. Such research should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed publication.

Julian Beezhold, secretary general of the European Psychiatric Association, stressed that further study is required.

“We welcome this study, looking at one of the least researched senses and its interaction with mental health,” Beezhold, an honorary associate professor at Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, said in a meeting news release.

“The findings are interesting,” he added, “but will need to be robustly replicated by independent researchers.”

More information

There's more on social anxiety at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: Elisa Vigna, MSc, research assistant, National Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, department of learning, informatics, management, and ethics, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden; Julian Beezhold, FRCPysch, secretary general, European Psychiatric Association, and honorary associate professor, Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, U.K.; European Congress of Psychiatry, March 25 to 28, 2023, Paris

What This Means For You

Getting a good sniff of someone else's sweat might help you if you suffer from social anxiety disorder, a new pilot study shows.

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