What is sweat?

Jul 16, 2018
Ashley Ann Lawrie

We have all likely accepted it as a fact of life when you go out on a hot, sunny day, or you hit a workout really hard. Any of these scenarios and a host of other situations in life prompt sweating. But have you ever asked yourself what exactly sweat is? Why does it happen? Or why does it happen more to other people than ourselves? This week we are finally going to break down what sweat is, why we sweat and why you may sweat more or less than other people.

What is Sweat

Sweat is a liquid excreted from the body via our sweat glands. Sweat is mostly made of water as well as some other chemicals like ammonia, urea, and sugar. Ammonia and urea are byproducts of the breakdown of proteins in our bodies.

Notice a certain smell when you sweat? This is actually because of the bacteria on your skin. These little bacteria interact with the sweat and the byproduct can be a sticky, smelly substance. This is why you can feel sticky after working out and not showering immediately. The more bacteria and chemicals in the sweat, the more these reactions occur and the smellier you are!

Why do we sweat?

So what biological need does sweating serve? If you think about the times you sweat – you have a fever, you are outside on a hot day, you are pushing through a really tough workout – all of these are related to your body’s temperature being elevated. The body sweats because it needs to cool off.

Our bodies are like experiment beakers – they require the perfect conditions for reactions to occur. There are hundreds of thousands occuring in our body every day and each of these require an internal temperature of around 98.6 degrees fahrenheit, or 37 degrees celsius. So when we partake in activities that increase our body temperature, it needs a quick way to keep the temperature down so we can stay alive.

Sweating brings fluids to the surface of the skin. As the sweat builds on the warm skin, it actually evaporates. The evaporation is what cools the skin, taking the warm water away from the body.

So why do I sweat more/less than other people?

There are two ways that you can sweat more/less than someone else. You can either have generalized hyperhidrosis, meaning you perspire A LOT all over, or you can have focal hyperhidrosis, which usually means you sweat a lot from the armpits, feets, and hands.

For generalized hyperhidrosis this can actually be a sign of something more serious. Metabolic disorders like diabetes and hyperthyroidism, as well as infections and lymphatic tumours can all be expressed in excessive, generalized sweating. This kind of sweating can also be a symptom of withdrawals from alcohol and other substances. Lastly, changes in hormones, such as menopause, can cause generalized hyperhidrosis.

Focal hyperhidrosis is less serious and can just be something that runs in the family. This type of excessive sweating in the palms, soles of the feet, and armpits can also be an indication of a malfunction in the area of nervous system that controls thermoregulation.

Does sweat vary based on fitness or body fat percentage? A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that someone’s fitness (VO2 max in this case) and their body fat percentage accounted for only a small percentage of difference in the amount of sweat they produced.

Sweating is yet another piece of evidence that shows us that we are all unique systems. Yes – we run on similar operating systems, but our individual settings will determine how much we sweat, our metabolism, our response to certains kinds of exercise, and so many more variables.


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