The Body Issue

Ask a Rye nurse practitioner: Is my body weird?

Ryerson assistant professor and nurse practitioner Erin Ziegler answers your questions about the strange and fascinating bodies we live in

Do you ever stare long and hard at your earbuds and wonder where all that wax came from? Has your throat made that involuntary gurgling noise in a very quiet setting, prompting you to clear your throat to try and cover it up? Do these scenarios prompt you to ask yourself: ‘Am I…gross?’

Well, you might be gross, but luckily all human bodies are a little bit icky and sticky when you pay attention to them long enough. Rather than being embarrassed about your imperfections, Erin Ziegler, a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Ryerson’s Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, says it’s good to be curious about the bodily functions we don’t understand.

“It is very important to know about your body, what is normal for you. Then, if something is off or abnormal, it’s easy for you to recognize and get help,” says Ziegler. Summed up: being curious about your body is how you get to know it well.

Ziegler is the clinical director of a transgender primary care program, the Wise Elephant Family Health Team, in her work as a nurse practitioner. Her research projects focus mostly on primary healthcare for LGBTQ2IA+ individuals.

Here are four questions—asked by anonymous and curious Rye students —about the bodily functions and processes we all experience, demystified by Ziegler herself.

Older people seem to have a certain smell—not a bad smell, but just something characteristic of elderly people. What is that and why does it happen as humans age? — Grandma Sniffer

Body odour changes as we age. Think of a newborn,they have a very characteristic smell as well.

Age-related changes to body odour have nothing to do with personal hygiene, but rather odour compounds and bacteria on the skin. Bacteria interact with our sweat glands and as the types of bacteria on our skin change with age, our natural smell also changes. This is a normal part of aging.

Why do people have ear wax, and where does it come from?Q-Tip Queen

Ear wax—or cerumen—is a waxy substance in the ear canal. Cerumen is made from secretions from the ceruminous and sebaceous glands inside the ear.

While some people think it’s gross, it actually has a very important job. Cerumen protects the ear canal from infection, bacteria, fungus and water. It also helps to lubricate and clear the ear. As we age, the cerumen changes and can become more dry and flaky.

Therefore you should never try to remove it or put things in your ear. This can cause damage or an impaction (build up) of wax which can lead to hearing loss or discomfort.

Sometimes, people get throat gurgles instead of burps that are more involuntary. Are those basically slow-release burps? Why do we get them?Gassy Cassie

A burp is a release of excess air or gas from the stomach and is a normal bodily function. It happens when the sphincter in the esophagus relaxes and lets out the excess air.

But not everyone can burp. For some people this sphincter can’t relax, which can cause the sensation of a bubble sitting at the back of their throat and that throat gurgle. This can even lead to chest pain or bloating and be quite uncomfortable.

Why do some women experience so much pain with their periods? I understand that cramps happen because the uterus is contracting to push out blood and uterus lining, but how is it that such a routine bodily function can be so intensely painful for some people?PMS Princess

Dysmenorrhea is a painful and severe period or menstrual cramps. There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary.

Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by severe contractions of the uterus and usually starts in the teenage years. While it’s painful, it’s not harmful and doesn’t indicate that something is wrong. This is often a life-long condition—some people get cramps, others don't. There are lots of medication options to treat this, so if this is happening speak to your primary care provider.

Secondary dysmenorrhea are painful cramps that start later in life and are associated with other conditions like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, infection or ectopic pregnancy. For some people with secondary dysmenorrhea the pain is so severe they go to the emergency room. This is usually the case with an infection or ectopic pregnancy. For those experiencing severe pain but not seeking emergency medical attention, speak to your primary care provider for assessment and treatment.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.