Have you ever noticed that the girl running on the treadmill next to you at the gym has a shiny glow while your shirt is completely soaked? Or maybe you’ve just finished hot yoga, and everyone else is walking out of class with a few glistening sweat beads, and you feel like you just got out of the pool. What gives?
Well, sweating is completely normal. You want to sweat! Maybe just not at a job interview, or on a date, or at any other inconvenient time that it seems to creep up. But everyone needs to sweat – its a natural bodily function controlled by your sympathetic nervous system. Sweat helps to maintain a normal internal body temperature. The sweat glands kick in to produce more sweat for reasons such as a fever, feeling nervous or anxious, exercising, or a high outside temperature. Your diet can also play a roll in your sweat output as many people have a sweating response to spicy foods or hot beverages.
Contrary to popular belief, sweating does not “detox” your body. More than 99% of sweat is water, combined with some electrolytes, like salt. A small amount of toxic substances can be released through sweat, but the detox process primarily occurs in the liver, kidneys and lungs.
So we sweat to cool off, but how much is too much?
Dee Anna Glaser, MD, president of the Hyperhidrosis Society, says “the amount of sweat considered normal is quite variable and depends on the demands of the body.” There is an average when it comes to sweat, but some people produce more, and some produce less. People may sweat less than a liter, or up to several liters a day, based on what they are doing. So if you are exercising, working in a hot climate, or you find yourself in a stressful or embarrassing situation, you can expect to sweat a lot.
If you are sweating excessively, especially in a select few areas such as your hands, feet or underarms, you may have a medical condition called hyperhidrosis, where your body produces far more sweat than it needs to create. This condition affects about 3% of the U.S. population. If you find yourself sweating excessively while calmly sitting at your desk or watching a movie, you may have hyperhidrosis. In hyperhidrosis, the body’s cooling mechanism is so overactive that it produces four or five times the amount of sweat that you need. The cause of this condition is unknown, but about half of people who have it have some type of family history with it. If you think you have this condition, visit a doctor!
Besides excessive sweating due to a medical condition, if you simply find yourself sweating more than your friends during a workout or at a picnic on a hot summer day, here are a few factors that could be playing a major role in the problem:
A morning cup of coffee can do more than just wake you up — it can also make you sweat. Coffee increases perspiration in two ways. First, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, activating the sweat glands, so the more caffeine you drink, the more you sweat. Second, feeling the heat from the drink itself can make your body feel hot enough to sweat.
If you indulge in spicy foods on a regular basis, you might notice a sweat response. Spicy foods trick your body into thinking it is hot by stimulating the same nerve receptors that respond to heat. That is why a jalapeno burger or a plate of hot wings can cause your body to break out in a sweat.
Menopause and Hot Flashes
During menopause, estrogen levels are lower and can play tricks on the hypothalamus – the body’s temperature gauge. A hot flash during menopause will make your body think you are in the middle of the Sahara, even if it is snowing outside. In a desperate attempt to shed excess heat, the blood vessels in your skin dilate, and your sweat glands go into overdrive, causing you to feel flushed, sweaty, and looking for a way to cool off.
Too much alcohol can cause something called vasodilation – the widening of the blood vessels in the skin. When someone has had a few too many drinks, you may not only notice slurred speech and wobbly feet but a flushed and sweaty face and skin.
Nicotine causes your body to release a chemical called acetylcholine, which stimulates your sweat glands. It also raises the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Nicotine withdrawal can also cause excess sweating, but if you stick it out long enough to kick the habit, the sweating will subside.
Sweating can be a side effect of many medications, including antidepressants, blood pressure medications, cancer treatments, and some diabetes drugs. If your medicine is making you sweat, check in with a doctor.
All of these factors and more can determine how much sweat you produce on a daily basis while performing certain activities. Unless you think you may have hyperhidrosis, your sweat level is most likely normal. So if you tend to sweat a little bit more at the gym, you might as well embrace it. If you have a date or a business presentation coming up, I’d suggest you lay off of the alcohol, coffee, and nicotine for a few hours. Oh, and spicy foods!