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That Smell and What it Means

by Arwen Careaga, LAc

As I have written occasionally and often felt, one of the greatest appeals of the practice of Chinese Medicine is the opportunity to uncover clues and use them to inform diagnosis and treatment. Seemingly random symptoms that a person might find themselves “googling” in the middle of the night often have real meaning that we (and the internet) do not always suspect. In this article I will examine one question. In the language of the internet search engine, “What does it mean if I stink?”

Potentially hilarious commentary aside, odor is actually a very useful tool in diagnosis! Anything that is “off” in the human body, from odor to pain to dreams (and beyond), can be a sign of imbalance. Once the imbalance is identified, it can be rectified. For the sake of clarity and brevity I give you the following chart, pertaining to odors and what it means for the one from which it emanates:


In plain English

Likely Imbalance



Fire – Heart/Sm Intestine


(sweet or “fragrant” but too much, not as pleasant as it sounds)

Earth – Spleen/Stomach


Ex: the smell of rotting leaves in fall

Metal – Lung/Lg Intestine


Ex: odor of a basement that has recently flooded; may possibly have the smell of ammonia

Water – Kidney/Urinary Bladder


Ex: like oil that’s gone bad

Wood – Liver/Gallbladder

There may be other odors, such as excessive body odor or bad breath which are often signs of excessive heat. Odor is just one piece of a very complex, fascinating puzzle, and the imbalance itself can mean many things, and does not necessarily include damage to the actual organs. What is very noteworthy and pretty fantastic about a ‘benign’ symptom such as an odd odor or an off-smell is that they can warn us of trouble that is only brewing, not merely issues that have arrived. If you think that you have any of these imbalances please check with a qualified practitioner. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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