Don't sweat it. You've probably heard this phrase a lot. For most, there is a negative connotation associated with sweating--that sweat leaves you wet and uncomfortable, smelly, with embarrassing stains, or that people might perceive you as nervous or stressed out. The truth is, there are actually lots of good reasons to sweat, and the causes of it have a lot to do with our body's natural processes and are very positive for our health. It also turns out that some of us are naturally predisposed to sweat more than others, and that the types of sweat we produce are very different.
Let's take a closer look at the who, what, when, where, and why of sweat--afterwards, don't be surprised if the next time you've worked up a sweat, you find yourself actually enjoying the process.
WHAT? A lot of people assume that sweat is just water, but it's more than that! OK, so it's actually 99% water--but let's not discount the remaining 1%, which is comprised of carbs, protein, and urea (a vessel for excreting nitrogen from our bodies).
Did you know that there are actually two kinds of sweat glands? And one of them is found primarily in the underarm! First, we have the eccrine sweat glands--these are found throughout the body and their primary function is to regulate your body temperature by continuously delivering water to the surface of your skin. That's right, they don't even stop. They're always working! The second type of sweat glands are primarily found in the underarm area. These are the apocrine glands, and they secrete the "milky" sweat that interacts with bacteria responsible for body odor. Contrary to the eccrine glands, they only work part-time.
PRO TIP: Change the way you think about sweat. Your body is constantly expelling and replenishing its supply of water to fulfill necessary functions that keep your body temperature regulated and eliminate toxins!
WHO? Not everyone sweats! It's rare, but some people have a condition called anhydrosis that leaves them incapable of sweating. You might be more familiar with the opposite condition: hyperhydrosis, which causes excessive sweating and can lead to uncomfortable social situations. Most of us land somewhere in between these two extremes, where the apocrine sweat glands are not always "on" but rather are activated by factors such as exercise, stress, or climate.
PRO TIP: Though many have feelings of shame and discomfort associated with sweat, it's important to remember that (almost) everyone sweats. It's normal to sweat, even excessively at times--don't feel bad about it!
WHEN? Oddly enough, we're always sweating, even if we don't realize it! The eccrine glands are always active, but the sweat evaporates upon reaching the surface of the skin so we don't notice it. The more pressing question is "When do the apocrine glands turn on?"
For most of us, there are four common triggers. 1) Exercise--when the body kicks in to overdrive, sweat glands turn on to compensate! This is one of the fastest ways to generate large quantities of sweat, and why we so closely associate sweat with physical activity. 2) Lack of airflow to the underarms--ever notice a sudden clamminess under the arms when you've bundled up? Without ways for air to escape from the underarms, you create a microclimate under the arms that is conducive to sweating. 3) Stress--yep, stress can trigger adrenaline which in turn activates the sweat glands. 4) Climate--you might have guessed this one! Again, the body loves to sweat when it's hot outside to keep your body temperature at a safe and constant level.
PROP TIP: To reduce sweat production, wear loose fitting and comfortable clothing, and avoid synthetic fabrics that encourage sweating. When stressed, take a moment to treat yourself to a coping skill to reverse or slow the sweat production process. It can be very difficult to find calm when stressed or under pressure--think of sweating as a mindfulness tool that's presenting you with an opportunity to relax.
WHERE? Amazingly, there are up to 5 million sweat glands in your body. That's the equivalent of the population of San Francisco working all day to keep your body sweating! While eccrine glands cover the whole body and are found in lower concentrations (about 650 per square inch), the apocrine glands are much more tightly packed into very specific areas of our bodies: underarms, nipples, ear canals, eyelids, genitalia, and nostrils.
PRO TIP: Remember that you've got a whole army of glands working for you! The human body is a true marvel, and the constant activity of our millions of sweat glands is a testament to that!
WHY? Sweating is the body's natural process of keeping your body temperature regulated, detoxifying your body by expelling solids and metals, and transferring salt back into the bloodstream to maintain proper salinity levels. With all the apparent benefits of sweating, it's easy to see that it's actually a positive and healthy function! Unfortunately, the antiperspirant industry discounts the benefits of sweating and attributes feelings of shame to the process.
PRO TIP: Avoid antiperspirants which contain aluminum that clogs the sweat glands and makes it impossible for your underarms to produce sweat. Use an alternative like Schmidt's Deodorant that allows your body to sweat but contains plant-based powders to absorb wetness and help keep you dry. Also, don't overestimate the value of detoxing the underarms. While this is a helpful process, it's no substitute for keeping your kidney and liver in top shape--they perform the majority of the body's detoxifying functions.