In Western society, we like to pretend we don’t sweat. We slather ourselves in antiperspirants — in 2011, Americans spent $2.69 billion dollars on antiperspirants and deodorants alone — and hasten to hide underarm stains.
But, paving over the fact that we perspire is a shame. Sweating is a vital bodily function that regulates core body temperature when it rises above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit — a cooling-down process that keeps us alive (overheating can be fatal).
But that’s not the only reason to celebrate sweat. This much-maligned physiological process comes with a host of health benefits, including keeping germs in check and detoxing the body.
So what exactly is sweat? And how does it promote health?
Sweat is made up primarily of water, fat, and electrolytes like calcium, potassium, and sodium — though its total makeup is determined by which type of gland produced it: eccrine or apocrine.
Eccrine glands dot the entire body (with the exception of the lips and ear canals) and produce a clear, watery sweat. Examples: The beads of moisture that drip off your forehead when you’re taking a timed exam or the sweat that appears on your palms on a first date.
Apocrine glands are concentrated in areas of the body that are dense with hair follicles, like armpits, and they produce a thicker, milker type of sweat that mixes with the microorganisms on the skin and is responsible for the range of smells we identify as body odor.
All together, the average adult can have as many as 4 million sweat glands in his or her body and produce as much as a quart of sweat every day. While no one should ignore the benefits that come with exercise, including increased cardiovascular fitness and improved mood, we seem to get similar benefits no matter how we work up a sweat. Sweat therapies, such as sitting in an infrared sauna, “offer significant benefit,” says ayurvedic practitioner, Dr. John Douillard.
Here are 5 reasons why we should regularly work up a sweat:
Sweat fights germs. “Sweat has natural antimicrobial agents that keep the microbiome on the skin in balance,” says Douillard. “Opportunistic bacteria can proliferate and irritate the skin. Sweat helps the body keep these bad bugs in check. The sweat also releases sebum, which is a fatty substance that has been shown to feed the skin bacteria.”
Sweat detoxes the body — especially BPA. Research has shown that sweat contains “a variety of toxins, suggesting that sweat really does detox the body,” says Douillard. Sweating may be especially effective at releasing bisphenol A (BPA) from the body, according to research. BPA is a chemical that interferes with reproductive, developmental and neurological function, and it is ubiquitous in the lived environment. Taking steps to reduce our exposure to BPA while supporting our body in releasing the substance through sweating may be especially beneficial.
Working up a sweat makes you happy. “Sweat has been shown to boost endorphins and make you happy, which many people feel after a workout,” says Douillard. “The sweat is thought to soothe the sensory neurons on the skin, which in turn could trigger an endorphin response.”
Sweat gives you glowing skin. Sweating helps open and unclog pores, which can help blemish-prone skin. To maximize this benefit, you can create your own homemade ‘facial sauna’ by pouring very hot water into a ceramic bowl, placing your head above the steam, and covering your head and the bowl with a towel. (With winter on its way, toss a handful of dry-skin-loving herbs in the water, like marshmallow root, rose petals, or chamomile.) Steam for 3 to 8 minutes (or stop at any sign of discomfort or overheating). Follow with an all-botanical clay mask, which will draw impurities out of your open pores.
Sweat helps heal wounds. The sweat released from those millions of eccrine glands contain stem cells that help heal skin scrapes and burns, according to research from the University of Michigan. This recent discovery might seem like a surprise, but eccrine sweat glands are historically understudied because humans are the only mammals that have them. They are not found in other laboratory rats. It begs the question: What other magical powers does our sweat hold?!
Laine Bergeson is a longtime health journalist and functional nutrition educator and coach with Healthful Elements. She believes lifestyle medicine is a blockbuster drug.