It’s not unusual to experience sweaty or smelly feet from time to time, especially during hot weather or after intense exercise. But if you find yourself dealing with excessively smelly feet on a regular basis, it could be a sign of an underlying issue – potentially even anxiety.
Anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by persistent and excessive worry, nervousness, and fear. It’s quite common, affecting over 40 million adults in the United States alone. When anxiety is chronic, it puts the body in a constant state of stress. This stress response can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including increased sweating and potentially smelly feet.
Here’s a closer look at the link between anxiety and foot odor, and what you can do to combat smelly feet caused by stress and anxiety:
How Anxiety Triggers Excessive Sweating and Odor
Anxiety activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. This prepares the body to respond to perceived danger or threats. One way it does this is by increasing sweating.
Sweating is controlled by the eccrine glands, which cover much of the body, including the feet. Their activity is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. When you feel anxious or stressed, signals from the brain can stimulate these glands to produce more sweat.
This sweating serves an important function – it helps cool the body down and provides moisture to the skin. However, excess sweating on the feet can also lead to increased bacteria growth and a buildup of smelly substances.
The main culprit behind foot odor is a bacterium called brevibacterium, which lives naturally on the skin. When you sweat, this bacteria breaks down the sweat and releases substances like isovaleric acid, causing an unpleasant odor. More sweat means more food for the bacteria, resulting in more foot odor.
In addition, anxiety may cause changes to the composition of your sweat, making it more favorable for bacteria growth. Stress sweat is thought to contain more nutrients than regular thermal sweat, feeding odors caused by bacteria.
Other Possible Causes of Smelly Feet
While anxiety is one potential cause of excessive foot sweating and odor, there are other possibilities to consider as well:
- Hyperhidrosis – This condition characterized by abnormal excessive sweating could lead to increased foot odor. It may be caused by an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
- Poor hygiene – Not washing the feet daily, drying properly between the toes, or wearing clean socks can all contribute to foot odor.
- Athlete’s foot – A fungal skin infection that thrives in damp environments like sweaty feet. This can produce a distinct unpleasant odor.
- Bromodosis – A specific diagnosis for foot odor caused by bacteria breakdown of sweat components. May be genetic.
- Diabetes – High blood sugar associated with diabetes can lead to sweating and increased bacteria growth causing foot odor.
- Obesity – Being overweight puts extra pressure on the feet which generates more sweat, allowing odor-causing bacteria to multiply more rapidly.
If anxiety doesn’t seem to be the root cause, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if smelly feet are persistent. They can help determine if an underlying medical condition may be contributing to excessive foot odor.
Managing Smelly Feet Caused by Anxiety
If your foot odor does seem connected to anxious symptoms, there are some practical steps you can take to help combat smelly feet:
- Practice relaxation techniques – Techniques like controlled breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation activate the body’s relaxation response, counteracting anxiety and excessive sweating.
- Apply antiperspirant/deodorant – Over-the-counter antiperspirants for feet can control sweat and bacteria growth. Look for aluminum chloride as an active ingredient which curbs sweat.
- Use antibacterial soap – Washing feet daily with antibacterial soap helps wash away bacteria responsible for foot odor. Antibacterial soaps contain ingredients like triclosan to reduce bacteria.
- Soak feet – Foot soaks with solutions like diluted vinegar, tea tree oil, or Epsom salts can help neutralize odors and inhibit bacteria growth.
- Dry feet thoroughly – Use a hair dryer on a cool setting to dry your feet fully after washing, especially between the toes. This removes moisture that allows odor-causing bacteria to thrive.
- Change socks daily – Put on a clean pair of moisture-wicking socks made of breathable fabrics like cotton each day to help keep feet dry.
- Use foot powder – Dusting antibacterial foot powder on clean dry feet helps absorb moisture and prevent fungal or bacterial growth.
- Wear breathable shoes – Choose leather or mesh shoes and avoid wearing the same pairs two days in a row. This allows shoes to fully dry out between uses.
- Treat hyperhidrosis – If excessive sweating related to hyperhidrosis is causing foot odor, consider seeking treatment through prescription strength antiperspirants, iontophoresis, BOTOX or other therapies.
- Treat anxiety – If anxiety is the underlying source, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or other anxiety treatment methods may help reduce stress-induced sweating and odor.
When to See a Doctor
Make an appointment with your healthcare provider if:
- You have persistent foot odor that isn’t relieved with over-the-counter products and hygiene practices
- Foot odor is accompanied by skin changes like peeling, cracks, sores, or discharge
- Odor persists after treating suspected causes like anxiety, hyperhidrosis, or fungal infections
- You have additional symptoms like itching, burning, pain, or swelling in the feet
A podiatrist can assess your feet and determine if any underlying medical conditions may be contributing to excessive foot sweating and odor. Depending on the cause, prescription antiperspirants, oral medications, injections, or other treatments may be recommended.
It’s normal for feet to get a little stinky every now and then, but chronic bad foot odor could potentially indicate an anxiety disorder or other issues like hyperhidrosis. The sweating and nervous system changes triggered by anxiety create conditions perfect for odor-causing bacteria to thrive on the feet.
While good hygiene goes a long way, addressing the anxiety itself through various wellness strategies, therapy, or medication may be needed to fully stop anxiety-related smelly feet. Speak to your doctor if foot odor persists after trying at-home remedies. And if anxiety is the cause, remember – smelly feet are nothing to feel stressed about. By managing your anxiety, you can get your feet back to smelling fresh in no time.