As an avid practitioner of hot yoga, I am considerably less queasy than most people when it comes to the topic of sweat. I’m used to being soaked in my own eccrine fluids for 90 minutes every morning and am often the unwitting victim of splash-back from the overenthusiastic guy on the neighbouring mat.
If you’re the kind of person who works out at the gym regularly, chances are you’re sweating about two and a half litres a day (which, of course, is part of the reason us health journos sound like a broken record when it comes to the importance of drinking enough water every day).
While sweating may be unpleasant — or, indeed, outright rancid — we kind of need the stuff. As we all learned back in biology class, sweat is our natural way of cooling the body back down to the desired 98.6 °F (37 °C).
Without this natural balancing system we’d get a nasty case of heatstroke. That isn’t ideal, least of all in the middle of a workout.
Sweating isn’t just the byproduct of hot weather or strenuous exercise, though. There are many more subtle triggers that will cause your body temperature to rise, from digesting your lunch to gulping down one too many double espressos in the morning.
With anywhere between two to four million sweat glands all over your body (most of them are actually on your feet, not under your arms), you’re perspiring pretty much all day.
For the lucky ones among us, this kind of sweating isn’t really problematic or even noticeable and can be handled with a good deodorant.
There is, if course, the more unpredictable and difficult-to-manage phenomenon of stress sweats. As sufferers will know, an important meeting or a high-pressure environment can set of a vicious (and rather pungent) cycle of sweating.
In one of evolution’s crueler tricks, the more stressed you get about the fact that that your palms and pits are soaking, the more you sweat. This can sabotage social, professional or romantic situations, and the solution requires some serious mind control in addition to an industrial-strength deodorant.
Recent research shows that excessive sweating, technically known as axillary hyperhidrosis, may be genetic, but for the vast majority of sufferers the triggers are usually emotionally related.
If you’re in a heightened state of anxiety (on a first date, stuck in traffic on a way to a meeting, etc.) your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your temperature goes up, and your body tries to find a way to cool itself down as quickly as possible.
For those dealing with serious sweat issues, over-the-counter treatments rarely do any good. Sufferers are advised to think beyond treating the problem and start working with the triggers.
More often than not, your triggers will be completely unique to you. Some will be entirely psychological, so it’s best to find a way to manage those emotionally loaded situations (breathing exercises, meditation, therapy).
Others will be physiological. For example, there may be an imbalance of bacteria of the gut, an overactive thyroid, obesity, and so on. It’s also worth cutting back on the amount of apocrine-gland stimulants in your diet, too, as revving up your sympathetic nervous system with gallons of caffeine isn’t going to help matters (apocrine glands are the larger, smellier glands found in the armpits, genital area and so on; eccrine glands are pretty much everywhere else).
Then there’s the issue of smell. If your sweat can fumigate a room at 50 paces, you may have an increased metabolic rate or perhaps an inability to digest certain foods.
And, contrary to what your pits might indicate, sweat is actually odorless. It’s only once the nutrient-rich sweat from the apocrine glands comes into contact with bacteria breeding on the surface of the skin that your unique blend of man stink becomes apparent.
In terms of solutions, your doc may prescribe you an industrial strength aluminium-chloride antiperspirant, if he/she thinks your case is serious enough.
Some people with really chronic cases of hyperhidrosis have gone for botox jabs under their arms. The injections effectively cut off any communication between the brain and the sweat glands, though this seems a little extreme (and expensive) for the average guy.
The rest of us can get away with a good shower and an antiperspirant or deodorant, two kinds of products that are often confused. The former blocks the secretion of sweat from glands (a relatively safe job, given that your underarms constitute just 1% of your total body area) while the latter simply masks or neutralizes the smell.
Really clever products manage to do both and are strong enough to keep up with everything from a hardcore session at the gym to minor cases of stress sweats.