Yes, Sweat - In Praise of Perspiration - 819
Most may not admit it, but North Americans pay a lot of attention to their sweat. Yet an outsider looking in could be easily confused by the typical Westerner’s seemingly conflicting attitudes and behaviors regarding his or her own perspiration. On one hand, in a carefully constructed effort to sell antiperspirants and deodorants, our society decries sweating as being undesirable, uncivilized and a potential cause for painful public embarrassment. And, on the other, we embrace opportunities to “work up a sweat” through physical activity such as going one-on-one on the basketball court, weightlifting, and partaking in videotape exercise programs fronted by commercially successful fitness gurus. (Think “Sweating to the Oldies” and Richard Simmons.)
Yes, it’s a complicated relationship we have with our sweat, but, if we understand basic human biology, one fact is clear: Sweating is a natural, necessary function of the human body upon which our comfort, health, and, indeed, our very survival depend.
The act of perspiration performs several important functions: it helps the body remove excess water; it helps the body rid itself of excess heat, and it’s one of the main ways in which the body removes waste products like ammonia and uric acid.
As Dr. Nenah Sylver points out in her book The Holistic Handbook of Sauna Therapy, the body is always eliminating water through the skin. “When the external temperature is comfortable, the fluid output called insensible sweat (meaning ‘not easily sensed’) amounts to anywhere from one-and-one-half pints to a quart a day,” writes Sylver. “Although not enough for us to notice, this small amount is very important since, along with oil secretions, it helps to keep the skin moist and prevents drying and cracking.”
Sensible perspiration, continues Sylver, is the “plentiful, running-down-your face kind of sweat that occurs during body heating.” It is through this sensible perspiration that our body attends to temperature regulation and flushes out large amounts of water and waste that can include toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other impurities.
The skin is the largest organ of the body, weighing about six pounds and averaging about 20 square feet in area. There are 625 sweat glands in an average square inch of skin, or approximately 2.5 million sweat glands in the average person. The kidneys, bowel and lungs eliminate most of the body’s water, but, given the opportunity, the body can eliminate up to 30 percent of all waste through sweating. The skin is sometimes called “the third kidney” because of this remarkable capability to assist kidney function and prevent the kidneys from becoming overloaded.
Those 2.5 million or so sweat glands comprise two groups: eccrine sweat glands and apocrine sweat glands. Found in abundance around the genitals and under the arms, apocrine sweat glands end in hair follicles and release the perspiration through the openings for the hair. While Sylver notes that the apocrine sweat glands contain tiny muscles that create “goosebumps” when the person is cold, emotionally uneasy, or sexually aroused, author Mikkel Aaland states in his book Sweat that apocrine sweat glands are “activated only by emotional stimuli (and) carry a faint scent whose purpose is believed to arouse the sex drive.”
Eccrine sweat glands are distributed over the total body surface, but they are particularly plentiful on the hands, soles of the feet, and forehead. They lead directly to the pores or openings of the skin and release the perspiration through the pores. Eccrine sweat is clear and odorless; bacteria on the skin and hair create the odor typically associated with sweat. One of the chief functions of eccrine sweat is to cool the body as it evaporates. Eccrine sweat glands, for the most part, respond to heat; according to Aaland, however, there are eccrine sweat glands on the palms of your hands and soles of your feet that react to emotional stimuli.
“Like the baseball batter who wets his hands for a better grip, it is believed these sweat glands were intended to provide us with a good grip on clubs, rocks or vines when our survival often depended upon them,” Aaland writes. “Sweat glands on the feet provided greater traction when it came time to run.”
Given the vital functions and proven health benefits of sweating, it should come as no surprise that so many cultures place sweat baths among the cherished rituals and age-old practices that help to define and distinguish them. Whether it is in the Russian banya, the Islamic hammam, the Jewish shvitz, the Native American sweat lodge or the Finnish sauna, healthy sweating is both highly sought after and greatly celebrated throughout the world. And such facilities as those previously mentioned, writes Darren Buford in Body Sense magazine, are not only means for cleansing the physical body, but are “seen as instruments for relaxation and as symbols of transformation – a cleansing of the mind as well.”
The transformation may be due to more than just the heavy sweating that takes place in these high-temperature hideaways. According to Stephen Colmant of Oklahoma State University, “A fundamental way our brains function is through the attraction and repulsion of negative and positive ions. The splashing of superheated rocks in a sauna or sweat lodge produces an abundance of negative ions, which promote feelings of refreshment and well-being as well as improved work efficiency. If air is charged with few negative ions and too many positives, humans become anxious, fatigued and tense. The blockage of positive ion build-up and retention of negative ions have long been identified as important in the treatment of numerous psychiatric disorders.”
So revelatory were these findings that certain sauna and electric sauna stove manufacturers were compelled to reevaluate and redesign their products to ensure they met the new expectations of concerned consumers. As it turned out, many electric sauna stoves had been releasing more positive ions into the air than negatives, and poor ventilation was also cited to be a cause of positive ion build-up inside certain saunas.
If your sauna is properly designed, constructed, installed and equipped, and your health does not preclude you from using it on a regular basis, sweat baths have the potential to bring greater health, happiness and harmony to your life. In addition to providing relaxation, promoting clarity of mind, and helping to cleanse your body of toxins of both internal and external origin, following a moderate program of sweat sessions in a hot sauna has been credited with helping to relieve stress, reduce pain, increase blood circulation and cardiovascular strength, improve lung function, and strengthen the body’s immune system by increasing its white blood cell count.
As Dr. Sherry Rogers writes in her book Detoxify or Die, “Sweating is a God-given mechanism, but it must be done properly and safely to be successful.” If you are interested in tapping the full power of perspiration through the utilization of a sauna, be sure to consult with a qualified health professional before committing to a purchase or program. Through consultation with your physician, you may learn of some personal health considerations that will influence your options and impact your decision.
If that is not the case and your plans do meet with your physician’s complete approval, then always remember this sentiment expressed by sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun: “Sweat is the cologne of accomplishment.” As research findings and other evidence continue to reveal, you can certainly accomplish a lot while enjoying the seemingly simple pleasures of a sweat bath.