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Sweat: A Social Embarrassment or a Healthy Function?

Sweat: A Social Embarrassment or a Healthy Function?

In our increasing silly society, we feel that even perfectly normal bodily functions are a problem. Sweating is one of these. We recoil in horror at the sight of a sweat-soaked armpit. Some people are happy to spray all manner of totally ridiculous chemical concoctions on their bodies just in case they smell like a human being. What is more, such folks are prepared to pay a small fortune to stop their physiology from performing appropriately.

We sweat for a reason. It is one of those fundamental aspects of living, like eating or excreting, that we could not live long in its absence. It has three basic purposes. Firstly, it rids the body of waste. Secondly, it cleans the skin and keeps it elastic. Finally, and perhaps most critically, it plays a key role in homeostasis. Our bodies function best at around 98.6 degrees F (37 degrees C); sweating help us maintain that temperature. Too great a deviation, either on the up or on the down side, can be a mortal danger.

A little Sweat Biology

Another way of thinking about sweat is as a judicious garbage collector. During a 15-minute sauna, sweating can perform the heavy metal excretion that would take the kidneys 24 working hours. Ninety-nine per cent of what sweat brings to the surface of the skin is water, but the remaining one per cent is mostly undesirable waste. Excessive salt carried by sweat is generally believed to be beneficial for cases of mild hypertension. Some mental hospitals use saunas in their rehabilitation programs to pacify patients.

As a metabolic by-product, the body produces urea. If the body cannot rid itself of urea on a regular basis it can lead to a range of problems from headaches and nausea to vomiting, coma and even death. We need to sweat in order to detoxify our bodies. Sweating will help us to get rid of the problematic, excessive amounts of urea.

There is also mounting evidence that sweating may play an important role in the elimination of toxic levels of heavy minerals such as copper, lead, zinc and mercury which the body may absorb if exposed to polluted environments. A Chinese study showed that the levels of heavy metals were notably lower in people who sweated on a regular basis, in this case through exercise but steam baths and saunas would likely have a very similar benefit (1).

Sweat glands themselves are long, coiled, hollow tubes of cells. The coiled part is to be found near the skin’s surface where the sweat is actually to be found. Essentially, the gland is a duct that connects the sweat gland to the pores on the skin’s surface.

Human’s have two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine is the more common type and are found all around the body. Apocrine, on the other hand, are chiefly confined to the armpits and in our genital area. They tend to end in hair follicles rather than in pores.

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Eccrine glands are smaller than apocrine. They are generally active from birth, whereas apocrine only become active from puberty onwards. Eccrine sweat glands produce a type of sweat that is free of fatty acids and proteins.

Conversely, apocrine sweat glands do contain fatty acids and protein. This makes the sweat thicker. It is also usually yellowish in color, hence the yellow stains that sometimes appear on the underarms of clothing.

Our Problem with Sweating

Surprisingly, sweat of itself does not smell. The aroma only occurs when the bacteria on our skin and hair metabolizes the fatty acids and proteins. Some folks strongly dislike this aroma, hence the desire to attempt to stop the sweating using anti-perspirants or at least mask the smell with deodorants.

In the modern world, we not only demonize sweating but our lifestyles ensure that we rarely do. We are persuaded to take extreme measures to ensure that, horror of horror, we don’t actually break out in a sweat. We spray clogging chemical mixes on our bodies to ensure that the sweating function cannot work properly. We recoil in horror at having to survive in an atmosphere wherein we might actually start to perspire.

The Dangers of too much Comfort

Our buildings, cars and other transport are often air-conditioned. We live in temperatures that only vary a minimal amount. We are scarcely, if ever, too hot or too cold. To some extent, this is all quite pleasant. What it does create, however, is people who are increasingly unable to cope with even the most basic challenge from the environment. Such a focus on extreme comfort paradoxically creates uncomfortable people. A little too cold, a little too hot, a little too humid, or a little too dry, and such people are already struggling to cope.

Civilized to Death by Chris Ryan book
How we have created a world that betrays who and what we essentially are.

The more ‘civilized’ we have become, the more we seem to wish to reject what we actually are. We see this in such ideas as veganism, for example. We see it in those who try to avoid daylight and sunshine. We see it in those who recoil in horror at the idea of sweating. Some even embrace notions of interfacing the human brain with microchips. It’s almost as if such folks don’t want to be what they are in reality. Not so much inhuman as anti-human.

We don’t sweat enough. Our sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity, our environments, both indoors and outdoors, our use of chemical suppressants, all conspire to stop the flow of healthy sweat. This leaves us clogged and dirty, with scarcely any way of allowing the body to flush out the toxins in the way it is supposed to.

A healthier attitude to sweat would be to accept it. It is part of being human. Beyond that, keeping clean by using simple soaps and water is a more natural alternative to expensive and largely unhealthy chemical sprays.

A little Sweat History

Beyond just accepting that we are human and we sweat, though, we should actually be positively encouraging our bodies to perspire. The more we sweat the more we clear the toxins from our body. Cultures throughout history have embraced this notion. From the Greeks and Romans to the early Islamic culture to the northern Europeans of what we now call Finland, Estonia and Russia, all have developed forms of hot bathing that encourage the body to sweat profusely.

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Steamy Rome

The Romans had a rich and long culture of enjoying hot baths and the sweating they invariably produced. Successive emperors from Agrippa onwards built increasingly larger and larger versions of public baths. They were very cheap to use, so cheap in fact that they were often run at a loss. For all the costs though, they were considered a necessary structure within society. For centuries, Roman Emperors vied with each other to build ever bigger and better baths.

Bathing in the Roman World Book
Ancient Roman Bathing

Beyond the need for public approval, It was felt that people should be encouraged to sweat and indulge in such hygienic habits. Over the centuries, the Romans created more and more elaborate bathhouses. Some of these could cope with hundreds, if not thousands, of bathers at a time.

Interestingly, there seems to be a strong correlation between how repressive cultures are and how much they reject sweating. The early Islamic culture, for example, embraced sweating. The primary means of achieving a good sweat was the hammam. These were, and indeed are, similar to the western notion of a steam room. Later on, as Islam became stricter, such bathing habits were increasingly frowned upon by the clerics and those in power, perhaps due to the association with nakedness and sex.

Turkey and the Near East

Indulging in communal steam bathing was enjoyed and even encouraged in the early years of Islam. Over time, though, such social practices went through stages of approval or disapproval. Even today, though the hammam still flourishes, particularly in Turkey but in other Islamic countries as well, it is felt that users should employ towels draped around their genitalia in order to maintain decency. Much the same sort of concerns were expressed by Christians over the years in regard to saunas and steam baths in Europe.

Turkish Baths book
The joys of the Hamman…

To be fair to both Islam and Christianity on this point, some baths did indeed degenerate into brothels and were used for various nefarious purposes other than simply enjoying the hygienic and health aspects. Interestingly, the word ‘bordello’ originally meant a board and referred to a boarded house, or a bath house.

Northern Europe

The history of the Finnish sauna goes back centuries, maybe even millennia. The great Finnish folk classic, the Kelevala, mentions the practice of sauna-like bathing frequently. Saunas were a central part of the culture and attitudes of rural Finns from time immemorial. These days, the whole idea of sweating in a very hot and steamy environment is associated with the sauna and with Finland, but it was not always so. As we look back into antiquity, examples of variations of such practices can be found across time and cultures.

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In Finland though, the sauna became more than just being about sweating and cleanliness, it evolved into a social event in and of itself. Farmers, workers and the locals would meet up at the end of the week and share the village sauna. Thus the sauna played a key role in village life and Finnish culture. Until relatively recent times, they would also serve the very practical purpose of being the default location for delivering children. The heat and the subsequent muscular reaction were probably factors for mothers in deciding where to give birth. Much the same happened in Russia, people using Banea (a form of steam bath very similar to the Finnish Savusauna) not only for giving birth but also for wedding ceremonies.

An excellent read: Sweat

There is much information on the internet about saunas and bathing in general available on the internet. I would highly recommend, however, an excellent and quite charming book by Mikkel Aaland. It was several decades back that Aaland penned the original volume (1978). In some way the World reflected has long passed. In others, this lends the book a certain nostalgic charm. Mr. Aaland travelled the World in order to experience first hand as much bath culture as he could. This would be quite a challenge in this day and age, but back in the seventies, it was a far more difficult undertaking.

Interestingly, Mr. Aaland is now in the process of creating a film entitled ‘Perfect Sweat’. It was due out last year but, unfortunately, events in regard to the pandemic have delayed matters somewhat. There are some completed clips available on Vimeo, however. The documentary looks like it will be as fascinating and as charming as the book. I would imagine the situation to be close to unique; an author making the film after penning a book nearly half a century previously.

Sweat book by Mikkel Aaland
A great read and a font of information.

Conclusion

We live in a day and age where the simple act of sweating has become something of a social faux pas. Yet, both the medical and cultural evidence clearly demonstrates that it is not only very necessary but highly desirable too. Until recent times, we were aware that many cultures across the globe had previously embraced the idea of sweating and sworn by its health benefits. In recent years, though, the scientific evidence has become increasingly clear that this was no idle superstition. What these societies intuitively understand in years gone by, we now realise is based on scientific reality. It is becoming clearer and clearer with every new study published that a good hard sweat is one of the best interventions we can make. So, if you need recommendations, go to the sauna, go to the hammam, go to the steam room. Having a good sweat is completely wholesome – embrace the process!

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