Is sweating good for you?
Sweating may not be the best topic for dinner conversation, but its image has become a staple in our society. Athletes post pictures of their ‘sweat angels’ after a tough workout, and many fitness gurus encourage clients to upload ‘sweaty selfies’ for accountability and motivation. Sweating through a hardcore training session is completely normal, but what does it mean if your body sweats excessively or—the complete 180—you don’t sweat at all?
Why do I sweat?
Sweating, or perspiring, is how the body regulates temperature—sweat keeps us cool and comfortable and prevents the body from overheating in hot environments or during exercise.
“Optimal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Kory Gill, M.D., a family medicine physician with the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “As body temperature increases, sweat glands release sweat to decrease the temperature. Sweat leaves your skin through pores and evaporates when it hits outside air. As the sweat evaporates off your body, you cool down.”
Sweating can also occur during sickness, since the body is burning energy to fight disease. Similarly, we may also sweat when encountering stressful situations or experiencing strong emotions: one of the reasons why you may feel ‘hot and bothered’ when upset or angry.
What’s too much?
Sweating is natural to achieve equilibrium within the body, but sometimes biological mechanisms don’t function quite like they should. Excessive sweating, also called hyperhidrosis, occurs when you sweat more than necessary based on the surrounding temperature and your activity level or stress. So, if you find yourself wringing wet with sweat while sitting at your desk there’s a good chance you may have excessive sweating.
“This can affect your whole body, but it is particularly problematic in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, underarms and face,” Gill said. “Treatment can be particularly hard, depending on if the excessive sweating is localized or affecting the entire body.”
Excessive sweating occurs in both men and women, but it may happen more as you age. Certain medications for conditions like diabetes, hyperthyroidism and pituitary gland problems may also trigger excessive sweating. “While excessive sweating may not be life-threatening, it can certainly be awkward and predispose patients to embarrassment and social anxiety,” Gill said. “It’s also a harbor for disease and makes it harder to treat conditions like fungal rashes.”
Worth noting: Night sweats (episodes of sweating that soak your nightclothes or bedding) are not normal, and you shouldn’t experience night sweats due to common types of excessive sweating. “Excessive sweating at night rarely happens,” Gill said. “If this is happening to you, you should speak with your health care provider immediately to rule out any potentially serious underlying conditions.”
Treatment options: There is hope
Antiperspirants are considered the first line of treatment for excessive sweating, and they are the least invasive treatment method. “Clinical strength” products can be bought at your local pharmacy or by prescription from your dermatologist. These antiperspirants contain higher concentrations of metallic salts which aid in sweat reduction.
If you can’t find relief with over-the-counter options, there are medical treatments available, but they may be pricey. Gill said laser treatments to temporarily destroy sweat glands have been effective, but the glands will regenerate, so it’s a never-ending process. “Botox is another popular method to control the over secretion of these glands,” he said. “The only downside to Botox treatment is the cost. Most health insurance plans will not cover it, since it’s a cosmetic treatment.”
Topical treatments and other products that clog pores may reduce the amount you sweat. According to Gill, only a small percent of sweat actually comes from the pores, so these items aren’t completely knocking out your ability to dissipate heat. “We also transmit heat by convection and wind movement,” he said. “Our bodies will passively transport heat. Sweating is not the only way to do this.”
What’s too little?
Sweating more than you should may not be natural, but neither is not sweating at all. Lack of sweat can signal dehydration or be an indicator of heat exhaustion. “You may be someone who sweats less, but not sweating usually points to urgent, underlying problems,” Gill said. “Not sweating is actually a late-stage indicator right before heat exhaustion.”
Heat exhaustion can be deadly, and is one reason why most athletic programs have requirements for heat acclimation. As the heat index climbs, athletes must condition their bodies to rising temperatures to maintain normal sweat levels.
“It’s important to remember that sweat is not an accurate gauge of your fluid intake,” Gill said. “Hydration and the amount of water you consume should always be based on your time of exposure to the heat, the duration of your workout and the heat index. You should factor in both outside temperature and humidity into your plans.”