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The health benefits of sweating, a 'superpower' you share with athletes

The ability to sweat has allowed humans to dominate the world, "The Joy of Sweat" author writes.
Novak Djokovic
Tennis player Novak Djokovic of Team Serbia wipes away sweat between points during a match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 28, 2021.Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Sweating, a bodily function we usually try to hide from the world, is having a moment at the Tokyo Olympics.

Perspiration is a symbol of glory — a badge of honor — as dripping, glistening athletes cross finish lines and push the limits of human endurance.

“It’s a moment when the taboo is lifted, if only briefly, and everyone is celebrating sweat,” Sarah Everts, a science journalist who has been researching this aspect of biology, told TODAY.

“Your body is literally trying to keep you alive, so why don't we celebrate that more? I do hope that the Olympics will be this kind of tale of sweat love that perhaps remains in the culture.”

Beads of sweat form on the body of Belgian field hokey player John-John Dominique Dohmen during a training session for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.Jae C. Hong / AP

Think of sweating as a superpower, with up to 5 million glands in your skin devoted entirely to cooling you down and preventing heat stroke, said Everts, author of the new book, “The Joy of Sweat: The Strange Science of Perspiration.”

When your body gets the cool down directive, they suddenly open up and dispatch floods of salty water to your skin, where it evaporates and whisks body heat out into the atmosphere — a “flamboyant” way to regulate body temperature, Everts said. Most other animals don’t have the luxury of sweating. They pant or cover themselves with other bodily fluids, like urine, to evaporate away the heat.

Sweating has allowed humans to live in almost any hot part of the world, exercise during the day and run marathons. But we’ve come to hate the way perspiration looks, feels, smells and betrays the body’s emotional secrets — since people also sweat when they’re anxious or nervous.

“The moment your body gets that directive to open the floodgates, there's nothing that you can do,” Everts said. “So it's kind of a huge level of honesty in this era where we like to curate how we present ourselves to the world.”

The detox myth

Sweating in a sauna has some wonderful physical and psychological benefits — more on that later — but getting rid of toxins is not one of them. The detox myth sticks around partly because people feel so great afterwards.

Here’s what really happens: Perspiration is made from the watery parts of blood — the fluid coursing through veins minus red blood cells, platelets and immune cells, Everts noted.

“So if you were to get rid of all the nasty chemicals circulating around your system in your blood, you would have to get rid of all the watery parts of your blood. That would leave you utterly dehydrated and probably dead,” she said.

Instead, kidneys are the body’s dedicated detoxifiers, filtering blood and dispatching unwanted chemicals into urine.

But all sorts of things do come out in sweat, including hormones, vitamins and glucose “because they happen to be floating around in blood,” Everts writes in her book. A few toxins that haven't yet been filtered out, but are on their way to the kidneys, can be swept up in sweat — but not because that’s how the body intentionally gets rid of them, she noted.

Why we ‘crave a good sweat’

Most every culture has a sweating ceremony, from hammams in the Middle East to banyas in Russia and, of course, saunas in Finland.

It just feels good to sit in a small space where the temperature can reach 195 degrees Fahrenheit — partly because the heart gets a workout, leading to a rise of endorphins and other “happy hormones” responsible for making people feel good after exercise; and partly because the experience can be cathartic, helping people relax and forget the outside world, Everts said.

A person's skin temperature in a sauna rises to about 109 degrees Fahrenheit, a few degrees above normal, Everts writes.Frederic Cirou / PhotoAlto via Getty Images

“It's such a glorious thing to experience,” she noted. “It's also kind of a great psychological challenge where you think to yourself, ‘Oh my God, it's so hot. Am I going to survive?’ And then you do and you feel so glorious afterwards.”

On a physical level, the pulse of a sauna goer spikes to 120-150 beats per minute — the equivalent of an exercise session without moving at all — as the heart tries to pump the hot blood from the interior of the body to the surface of the skin to cool it down

A long-term Finnish study found going to the sauna four times a week reduced a person’s risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

“Of course, it's not doing all the benefits of a gym membership. You're not building muscle, you're not burning as many calories as you would during a physical workout,” Everts said. “But for your heart, it's a nice workout.”

Ask your doctor before starting a sauna routine whether it would be a good option. And spend a moment appreciating your ability to sweat.