Sweating. Everyone does it. We sweat when we exercise, eat spicy foods, log too many hours in the sun or simply wear too many sweaters at the same time. For some, sweating equals bliss, like crossing a 10K finish line or Downward Dogging in yoga class, while others think it’s just gross. Sweaty palms, anyone? But for the most part, you probably don’t think too much about sweating since it’s one of those interesting automatic body functions, like breathing and blinking, that just sort of magically happens.
But it’s not magic at all. Whether you think sweat is sexy or sloppy, it’s a necessary part of life. In fact, it’s a lifesaver.
Why do we sweat?
From stress to exercise to fighting an infection to undergoing hormonal changes — including puberty, pregnancy and menopause — there’s no denying that we can sweat a lot.
“Sweat, also known as perspiration, is the way your body cools itself down,” dermatologist Dr. Michele Green tells SheKnows. “When your body begins to overheat, you sweat to regulate its temperature. This process is called thermoregulation. Your body functions best when its temperature is at approximately 98.6 degrees F. When the temperature of your body increases and starts to get hotter, your brain emits messages to the rest of your body signaling it to sweat.”
What is sweat?
According to Green, sweat is a clear and salty liquid comprised mostly of water with traces of sugar, salt, ammonia, urea, sodium, chloride and potassium produced by two main glands in the skin — endocrine glands and apocrine glands.
“Endocrine glands produce most of your sweat. These glands cover your entire body but are mostly located on the palms, soles of your feet, forehead and underarms. They begin to function shortly after birth,” she says. “Apocrine glands are larger than endocrine glands. They can be found on the underarms, groin and breast area of the body.”
Apocrine glands become active after puberty, and because these glands are near hair follicles — like your armpits and groin area — and usually come into contact with bacteria, they typically smell worse, she adds.
Benefits of sweating
Sweating cools us down. Perspiration keeps the body from over-functioning and shutting down.
“Sweat comes out of the skin through tiny holes called pores. When sweat comes in contact with the air, the liquid turns to a vapor, which then evaporates off your skin allowing you to feel cooler,” Green explains.
Whether you think it’s glorious or gross, sweating while exercising is a given — and necessary in order for your body to cool down. According to Dr. Joseph Cruise, a board-certified plastic surgeon, sweating during exercise can aid in releasing stress. In fact, a 2009 study published in the journal Biology Letters found group workouts actually increase endorphin levels — those “feel-good” chemicals — which means sweating it out in your spin class can alleviate stress and help boost your mood.
“Sweat can also unclog pores and help get rid of toxins,” Cruise tells SheKnows. This means your beads of sweat are purging the body of last night’s wine party or can cleanse the skin by removing dead skin cells and remove bacteria from the skin.
According to Green, sweating can also reduce levels of heavy metals — like copper, zinc, nickel and mercury — found in the body. For a deep sweat session to detoxify, she recommends sitting in a sauna (which means, yes, you are willfully sweating).
But fitness expert Charlee Atkins, founder of Le Sweat, points out that sweating at the gym versus a sauna are two totally different sweats. “In a sauna, our bodies produce sweat in response to the indifference of the outside temperature to our core temperature, so our bodies release sweat to balance the homeostasis of the body,” she tells SheKnows. "Sweating in a workout is… the result of the heat muscles produce as they work."
Atkins also notes that the benefits of sweating from workouts are far more significant than saunas, as it has an effect on our cardiovascular system by building endurance, raises the metabolic rate and leads to improved health.
What to do when you sweat too much
As Atkins points out, sweat levels depend on a variety of factors, like fitness levels, weight, age, genetics and gender. So while you might not be able to stop sweating, there are ways to help reduce it.
“Spicy food and caffeine may contribute to excessive sweating,” says Cruise. “Both of them stimulate the neurotransmitters in your brain that can sometimes affect the glands that cause sweating.”
He recommends eating less spicy food and drinking less coffee as well as wearing breathable fabrics like cotton or linen to help you stay dry, especially during the warmer months. Also, to help keep sweat at bay, he suggests picking up an antiperspirant instead of a deodorant. An antiperspirant is formulated to reduce wetness — hence, fewer sweat stains.
But what happens if you sweat more than is considered “normal”? Hyperhidrosis happens when an individual sweats excessively.
“Hyperhidrosis can affect an individual’s personal lifestyle if they’re sweating for no reason at all," Green explains. "This becomes noticeable if someone finds themselves having to change clothes multiple times throughout the day due to increased sweat. One can also become socially withdrawn from others because they are embarrassed of sweating too much. They might avoid shaking hands with another individual or partaking in social activities.”
While mild cases can be treated with a prescribed antiperspirant containing aluminum chloride, both Green and Cruise suggest using Botox to alleviate excessive sweating for those with severe hyperhidrosis.
“Botox treats hyperhidrosis by blocking a neurotransmitter that stimulates sweat glands, essentially paralyzing them from working,” says Cruise. A typical treatment lasts anywhere from six to nine months before it needs to be repeated.
He also recommends MiraDry, a nonsurgical treatment that can have permanent results with just one or two treatments. It uses microwave technology to destroy sweat glands in the armpit, eliminating sweat and odor, although it’s not yet approved to use in other areas of the body.
Bottom line: Don’t sweat over sweating. It might be gross and stinky at times, but it does your body good.
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