If you’ve been working out a lot, you may have noticed an odd occurrence in which your sweat occasionally smells like ammonia. This can be somewhat disconcerting as that’s not typically expected and when your body changes odors like that, you may wonder if something is going wrong.
Googling the issue doesn’t always making things better as many reports inaccurately suggest that sweat that smells like ammonia is the result of the body breaking down protein. When you’re trying to build lean muscle, that can be a rather upsetting discovery. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
Sweat sometimes smells like ammonia following a long cardio workout. It smells different from regular body odor as it is closer to a urine smell than what you usually expect from sweat.
Ammonia (NH3) is a naturally occurring chemical that is a weak form of acid or a weak type of base, depending on the other chemicals in which it is suspended. It’s that stinky chemical you smell in certain cleaning products, cat spray, human urine and, upsettingly, in our sweat under certain circumstances.
It’s the nitrogen in ammonia found in urine and sweat that matters in this case. Amino acids – protein building blocks – are the only macronutrient in the human body that contain nitrogen. Bodybuilders are often trying to achieve a “positive nitrogen balance.” What that means is that they’re trying to take in more nitrogen than the amount that is leaving their bodies. After all, considering where nitrogen is found – amino acids and therefore proteins, which are required for muscle – bodybuilders can’t be short on nitrogen or they may not be able to gain muscle mass.
Your body uses amino acids for energy throughout every day, just to keep it functioning. When you exercise, it uses more amino acids. To do this, it takes the nitrogen off the amino acid molecule. What’s left is turned into glucose which is also used for energy. Your body then gets rid of the excess nitrogen through a type of kidney processing that creates urea, which leaves your body through urine. When your kidneys receive more nitrogen than they can process, it sends it out in the form of ammonia in your sweat – thus the smell.
This is a natural process and it occurs when everything is functioning properly. That said, in order to urinate or sweat, you need water. If you are exercising intensely or over a long period of time and are not adequately replacing the water you need, the urine or sweat you excrete is more concentrated with ammonia. As a result, it can smell stronger.
So in all likelihood, you’re not getting enough fluids if you can smell ammonia in your sweat. Alternately, it could simply be that you’re not eating enough carbs before your workout. After all, they’re the most ready form of energy and your body will use those before they turn to amino acids in the first place!