- Is the Purpose of Sweat Solely to Cool us Off?
- Sweat is a Sign of Hormesis, Which is Good for You
- Detoxification Occurs Through Poop, Urine, and Sweat
- Sweating is Good for Relaxation and Stress Reduction
- Bonus Health Benefits of Sauna
- Are Sweaty People Healthier?
- Avoiding Sweat Can Hurt our Health
- Bottom Line: Sweating is Good for You
- Wish you could control your stress instead of feeling like it's controlling your life, your sleep, and your temper?
- Certified Stress Mastery Educator Katie Kimball Shares Actionable Ideas And Science Geek Info In This Mini-Course.
- Wish you could control your stress instead of feeling like it's controlling your life, your sleep, and your temper?
It’s ironic to write about the health benefits of sweating right now since it’s February and I live in Michigan.
In fact, as I type, we’re in the midst of a 2-week cold snap with temps in the single digits before wind chill is even taken into account!
We had to move our apples and squash out of what was my “garage fridge” cold storage and into the basement because the garage became a freezer!
I can’t wait to tell you about my winter Xero hiking boots that I tried in the snow too!
It’s so cold that your sweat would freeze on your forehead, and on Sunday one usher at church had an inch-long frozen booger hanging from his nose. (Yep, our church holds outdoor Masses even when it’s 7 degrees! Such an inspiration!)
But crazy thing?
I know, frozen boogers are probably already crazy enough. But if you’re hanging out in the natural living world, you’re going to have to get used to talking about bodily discharge like poop, cervical mucus, and more. 😉
The crazy thing about winter is that when I go for a walk with my friend for an hour, even though my fingertips might be frosty at 22F, my armpits are sweaty when I get home. When my kids walk a few blocks to go sledding and work hard digging out a snow fort, their cheeks are rosy red from cold, but their foreheads are sweaty from effort.
When we work, we sweat.
Is sweating good for you? And how complex is this process?
Is the Purpose of Sweat Solely to Cool us Off?
In high school biology, or perhaps even in elementary school science, we learn that our sweat serves to cool down the body through the process of evaporation and heat exchange.
It’s simple science: when our body is too hot, we sweat. The sweat on our skin evaporates, and the heat needed to evaporate the sweat is taken from our skin, thus lowering the temperature.
But as in almost everything you can learn about the body, there’s always complexity.
In this case, sweating (or “glistening,” I suppose if you want to be fancy) has more than one purpose.
Heath benefits of sweating include hormesis (making us tougher and more resilient at a cellular level), detoxification or cleansing (removing toxins from the body), and even relaxation/stress reduction.
Sweat is good for you, not just annoying and stinky on your workout clothes!
Sweat is a Sign of Hormesis, Which is Good for You
We’ve heard it since the 80s: “No pain, no gain!”
It turns out that a little pain, a little stress on the system, actually DOES help strengthen a body, right down to the cells.
The term “hormesis” describes “an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.”
Basically, when your body (cells) are exposed to a small amount of oscillating stress that comes and goes, the cells learn to bounce back more effectively.
When you sweat, your body is responding to some stress: either some strenuous movement or extreme heat (or for some of us, a nervous social situation). The sweat is a sign of hormesis in action.
But why is this good? It just sounds moist and uncomfortable…
Think of it this way:
When a child is raised in a sarcastic but loving family, he is often more able to deal with the verbal jabs of the mean kids at school. He’s equipped because he’s experienced some teasing at home, where he knows he’s safe.
A ballet dancer will have a rough time her first month or two on pointe because her feet need to build up callouses to be able to handle standing on her toes for a long time. After a while, the hormesis allows her to dance without pain for hours.
Lenore Skenazy uses a similar idea when she calls climbing trees an “inoculation” against risk-taking. Taking small, safe risks like climbing trees teaches the child how to take risks that are within boundaries and not bigger than they can handle.
Hormesis allows organisms to survive in harsh environments because the right amount of stress on the system in a “biphasic” way (meaning on and off, not constant) actually initiates adaptive stress response pathways that provide protection for cells against more severe stress.
When it comes to sweating, we usually experience sweat as a result of exercise, which brings with it its own hormetic stress, or heat, such as a sauna.
Saunas produce thermal stress. Researchers found that “exposure of cells to mild heat stress can protect them from being damaged by oxidative stress or toxins such as cyanide.”1
In addition, “the cardiovascular system responds to thermal stress by increasing heart rate.” This is yet another form of hormesis, short-term, that may even be cardio-protective, reducing the risk of death from heart disease.2
Detoxification Occurs Through Poop, Urine, and Sweat
Told you we have to get comfy talking about bodily fluids. 😉
Once a toxicant gets into the human body, whether it’s in your blood, tissues, or digestive system, there are only a few exit pathways available.
A small 2010 study confirms that toxicants, especially heavy metals, are found in sweat.3
The authors say, “Induced sweating appears to be a potential method for elimination of many toxic elements from the human body,” and even posit that blood and urine testing may not be sufficient to estimate one’s total body burden of toxicants since some toxic elements were found in higher levels in sweat than blood and urine.
In 2012, the first study to measure BPA levels in sweat specifically found that Bisphenol-A, a hormone mimicker found in plastics, shows up in even higher amounts in sweat than blood and urine in most of their test subjects.4
It was a small but important study, and it’s also worth noting this: “There was no statistically significant difference (P-value >0.05) in sweat BPA levels depending on the method of sweat collection whether through exercise, infrared sauna, or regular sauna.”
So, do you have to exercise to get the benefits of sweating when it comes to getting rid of junk accumulating in your body? Likely not!
What kind of toxicants can you expect to get rid of when you sweat on purpose, seeking hormesis as well as a cleansing factor?
- Heavy metals including lead, cadmium, aluminum, nickel, and antimony. The latter may be excreted particularly effectively in sweat.5, 6
- Organochlorine pesticides.3
- BPA (and hopefully other endocrine disruptors like oxybenzone too!)
- Excess hormones like estrogen
I’m only finding suggestive sources on this final point like, “The potential role of sweat secretion in hormone homeostasis,” in a 2014 study,7 but I’ve written before about my post-pregnancy hormone detox via my armpits, and Jill Carnahan lists sweating as a good way to get hormones back in balance too.8
It sure makes sense that if women’s sweat smells differently throughout their cycle, sweat plays a role in ditching excess estrogen and progesterone. Could this be why menopausal women get hot flashes and sweat, to try to regulate those hormones?
RELATED: How to align your lifestyle with your cycle (note the part about excreting excess hormones during the luteal phase, the 10-14 days before menstruation. Pay attention to when you are uncharacteristically stinky — I bet it’s that phase!!)
Sweating is Good for Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Do you have friends who actually like exercise?
I’m obviously planting myself firmly in the “I don’t like to run” camp, although a brisk walk or a long stretching session makes my day.
Anyway – those running-type people often claim that exercise helps them relax, clears their heads, and makes them feel better the whole day.
As a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, I list exercise as an important form of recharge to help reduce the impact stress has on our bodies.
Both exercise and sauna, our opportunities to sweat, are sought out for relaxation and stress reduction. In the first study to “investigate the health habits of the global sauna community,” the most cited motivation to use a sauna had nothing to do with physical health benefits. Folks just wanted to relax.9
Participants seeking stress reduction ended up reporting health benefits such as improved sleep and mental well-being.
Wish you could control your stress instead of feeling like it’s controlling your life, your sleep, and your temper?
Women react to stress differently than men and need special strategies!
I was certified as a Stress Mastery Educator for this very reason – so I could bring HOPE to moms like me feeling like life is getting the better of them (and in my case, getting very angry about it).
Join me in my free stress mastery challenge for 4 quick daily trainings that are full of support to make it work in your busy life!
Build the “new, calmer you” in just a few minutes a day…
Why is sweating like crazy a relaxing activity?
There may be a scientific reason: “The increase in beta-endorphins [from increased heart rate] presumably accounts for some of the pleasure and analgesic effects attributed to sauna use. Muscle relaxation also occurs, along with increased elastic properties of the tendons and joint capsule and reduced viscosity of the synovial joint fluid.”10
In our family, my husband, a super-sweater, finds that he prefers to keep our sauna at 140°F or below so that he can relax but not feel completely drained. It’s a lot of WORK to sit there as high as 160°-170°F, because your heart rate increases similar to cardio exercise.
I don’t sweat as much as my husband and am barely glistening at 140°F, so I try to keep the dial turned up as high as I can for a full hour. It’s relaxing at first, and then I feel that hormesis!
Bonus Health Benefits of Sauna
Although it’s not clear whether these benefits are from sweating or other aspects of sauna bathing, they’re quite impressive:
- The blood pressure and heart rate during the sauna bath correspond to cardiac responses during submaximal dynamic exercise.11
- Sauna bathing reduces the risk of stroke in Finnish men and women.12
- Reduces inflammation13
- May protect from dementia and memory loss14, 15, 6
- May reduce pain in fibromyalgia patients, (small study, but promising!) and similar results with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.16
- Fewer colds/boosts immune system: “Having a Finnish sauna session twice weekly for six months reduced the incidence of the common cold by 50 percent during months 4-6 of the protocol.17
Are Sweaty People Healthier?
If all this was true, does that mean that “super sweaters” like my husband are necessarily healthier people?
Remember that hormesis should be just the right amount of stress, on and off, not constantly. Some people who sweat constantly may not be receiving the hormetic health benefits of sweating.
However, it’s certainly possible that heavy sweaters don’t have to work so hard to detoxify their systems through other means.
My husband and I (n=2) have certainly had our share of health battles and have often taken on gut-healing protocols together. In general, I have more trouble ridding my body of toxicants and experience more health issues caused by contaminants like lead. We celebrate his sweatiness when we’re in the South and I joke, “What a lot of good detoxifying you’re doing, honey!”
RELATED: Our Gut Thrive in 5 Experience
Avoiding Sweat Can Hurt our Health
With all these health benefits from the simple act of sweating, isn’t it ironic that we work so hard as modern humans to stop ourselves from sweating?
Antiperspirants are a huge industry, and the less sweat, the better.
Keep in mind that our bodies have precious few pathways to get rid of the junk that builds up inside, and that sweating may actually be the most effective to excrete certain toxicants. Blocking that system causes all sorts of problems, and since aluminum is often something we need to detox, its presence in antiperspirants creates a vicious cycle.
I took tiny baby steps towards ditching the conventional products for my own armpits many years ago.
Sure, you’ll still sweat on other parts of your body when you block the armpit sweat with antiperspirants, but you miss out on a lot of opportunities to detoxify AND you add aluminum (and often other unsavory ingredients) right into a very thin, sensitive, lymph-node-loaded area of the body. Not worth it to me!
Bottom Line: Sweating is Good for You
Sweating is obviously a natural bodily function, and our body is wise. Sweat has many purposes and health benefits, including:
- Cooling down the body
- Hormesis, just the right amount of stress to build resilient, healthier cells
- Excreting quite a few toxicants, particularly some metals, endocrine disruptors, and pesticides. (I predict we’ll learn about more as research continues; there aren’t a lot of studies on sweat constitution yet!) Sweating by exercise or heat/sauna have the same effect on cleansing the system.
Saunas bring along a host of other health benefits, but it’s not clear whether we can attribute things like reduced risk of stroke, heart disease death, inflammation, dementia, and even the common cold to the sweat itself or other factors in sauna bathing.
It’s time to embrace the sweat rather than blocking it via antiperspirants, and if you really want to turn up the heat and garner all these health benefits, a sauna is the way to go.
- Mattson M. P. (2008). Hormesis defined. Ageing research reviews, 7(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2007.08.007
- Laukkanen, T., Khan, H., Zaccardi, F., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2015). Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 542–548. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8187
- Genuis, S. J., Birkholz, D., Rodushkin, I., & Beesoon, S. (2011). Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study: monitoring and elimination of bioaccumulated toxic elements. Archives of environmental contamination and toxicology, 61(2), 344–357. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00244-010-9611-5
- Genuis, S., Beesoon, S., Birkholz, D., Lobo, R. (2011, December 27). Human Excretion of Bisphenol A: Blood, Urine, and Sweat (BUS) Study. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/185731
- Crinnion, W. (2011). Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicantinduced and other Chronic Health Problems. Environmental Medicine, 16(3). [PDF File] http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/16/3/215.pdf
- Eiser, A. (2019, April 1). Sauna Bathing and Healthy Sweating: II. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Letter to the Editor, 94(4). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.12.021
- Peng, Y., Cui, X., Liu, Y., Li, Y., Liu, J., & Cheng, B. (2014). Systematic review focusing on the excretion and protection roles of sweat in the skin. Dermatology (Basel, Switzerland), 228(2), 115–120. https://doi.org/10.1159/000357524
- Carnahan, J. (n.d.). How to Reverse Estrogen Dominance Naturally – Detox, Food, & Supplements. Retrieved from www.jillcarnahan.com/2018/12/06/how-to-reverse-estrogen-dominance-naturally-detox-food-supplements/
- Hussain, J., Greaves, R., Cohen, M. (2019). A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 44, 223-234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.03.012.
- Hasan, J., Karvonen, M.J., Piironen, P. (1976). Special review. II. Physiological effects of extreme heat. As studied in the Finnish “sauna” bath. Am J Phys Med, 46, 1226-1246.
- Ketelhut, S., & Ketelhut, R. G. (2019). The blood pressure and heart rate during sauna bath correspond to cardiac responses during submaximal dynamic exercise. Complementary therapies in medicine, 44, 218–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.05.002
- Kunutsor, S., Khan, H., Zaccardi, F., Laukkanen, T., Willeit, P., Laukkanen, J. (2018, May). Neurology, 90(22) e1937-e1944. https://n.neurology.org/content/90/22/e1937
- Laukkanen, J. A., & Laukkanen, T. (2018). Sauna bathing and systemic inflammation. European journal of epidemiology, 33(3), 351–353. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-017-0335-y
- Laukkanen, T., Kunutsor, S., Kauhanen, J., Laukkanen, J. (2017, May) Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in middle-aged Finnish men. Age and Ageing, 46(2), 245–249. https://doi.org/10.1093/ageing/afw212
- Knekt, P., Järvinen, R., Rissanen, H., Heliövaara, M., & Aromaa, A. (2020). Does sauna bathing protect against dementia?. Preventive medicine reports, 20, 101221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2020.101221
- Matsumoto, S., Shimodozono, M., Etoh, S., Miyata, R., & Kawahira, K. (2011). Effects of thermal therapy combining sauna therapy and underwater exercise in patients with fibromyalgia. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 17(3), 162–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.08.004
- Ernst, E., Pecho, E., Wirz, P., Saradeth, T. (1990). Regular sauna bathing and the incidence of common colds. Ann Med, 22, 225-227. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2248758/