Health Benefits of Sweating: What You Need to Know - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Health Benefits of Sweating: What You Need to Know

What the Research Says About Sweating and Health

Key Takeaways:

  • Confirmed health benefits of sweating include temperature regulation, electrolyte balance, and acid-base balance.
  • Improved skin health, resistance to microbial skin pathogens, and detoxification may be additional benefits of sweating.
  • It’s difficult to use sweat as an indicator of health status.
  • Exercising and regular sauna sessions can induce sweating, but their health benefits are likely independent of sweating.
  • If you sweat excessively, it’s important to replenish with whole foods, water, and possibly electrolytes.

Sweating is a natural part of life. Sometimes it feels great like during an intense exercise session or in the sauna. At other times it can be embarrassing, like when you’re speaking in public or having a hot flash. We all do it, but why and what are the benefits of sweating? 

While it may be inconvenient at times, sweating is very important to our overall well-being. We sweat mainly to keep our core body temperature in check, but other research-confirmed benefits of sweating include supporting electrolyte and pH (acid-base) balance in the body. There are  additional potential benefits of sweating like detoxification, skin hydration, and the prevention of skin infections, although more research is needed to confirm these effects. And there’s currently no research to support sweating as a means to detox from alcohol, rid the body of metabolic waste, or conserve water.

In this article, I’ll break down what we currently know about the benefits of sweating, why and how we sweat, and the best ways to induce healthy sweating like exercise and sauna use. I’ll also touch on the precautions you may need to take if you sweat excessively.  

Health Benefits of Sweating

Research has confirmed three main benefits of sweating [1]:

  • Temperature regulation
  • Electrolyte balance
  • Acid-base balance

Here’s a chart summarizing the current research on the health benefits of sweating [1]:

  Potential Benefits of Sweating
Solid Research
  • Temperature regulation
  • Electrolyte balance
  • Acid-Base balance
More Research Needed
  • Skin hydration
  • Protection from skin infections (like acne breakouts)
  • Detoxification
No Supporting Research
  • Alcohol detoxification
  • Metabolic waste excretion
  • Water conservation through reabsorption

Aside from the above-mentioned three main benefits, sweating may help to promote healthy skin and detoxification, but more research needs to be completed to confirm this.  

Let’s dive into the specifics of each of the benefits of sweating.  

Benefits of Sweating: Temperature Regulation

As humans, we must maintain our body temperature within a pretty tight range in order to survive. A higher-than-normal core body temperature can lead to a cascade of negative effects on the body and even death in severe cases. Luckily, our bodies are really great at regulating core temperature with sweating [1]. 

Let’s say you’re exercising intensely, are in a hot environment, or have a health condition or take medication that disrupts your normal body temperature. When your thermoreceptors (sensors inside the body and on the skin) detect that you’re overheating, they tell your hypothalamus (a gland in the brain) to trigger the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS secretes chemical messengers that turn on specific sweat glands (eccrine glands). Once you begin to sweat, more sweat glands are brought on board, and eventually sweat coats your skin. When this moisture on your skin begins to evaporate, your body’s core temperature decreases, and homeostasis (balance) is restored [1]. 

In addition to regulating temperature, sweating helps us maintain electrolyte and acid-base balance in the body.

Benefits of Sweating: Electrolyte and Acid-Base Balance

Electrolytes like sodium and potassium are important for a variety of bodily processes like nerve and muscle function. But they also help to maintain acid-base balance, which is vital for the normal function of all physiological processes in your body.  If your electrolyte or acid-base (pH) balance is off, you can experience a wide range of negative and even serious symptoms.  

Sweating is one of the ways the body regulates both electrolyte and acid-base balance. When sweat flows from the inside of your body onto the skin surface, the eccrine sweat glands reabsorb sodium and chloride ions to maintain electrolyte balance in the body [1]. The eccrine glands also release and reabsorb bicarbonate during sweating to keep the blood pH balanced [1].

While these are the only confirmed sweating benefits, let’s look at a few other potential benefits hinted at in the research.

Other Potential Benefits of Sweating

While more research needs to be completed, there are other potential benefits of sweating:

  • Skin hydration: Sweat may help to maintain your skin health by bringing water, natural moisturizers (amino acids, lactate, urea, sodium, and potassium), and antimicrobial peptides (dermcidin, cathelicidin, and lactoferrin) to the skin [1].
  • Protection against skin infections: Sweat may help prevent skin infections when the sweat glands secrete certain substances like antimicrobial peptides [1].
  • Detoxification: There have been a number of studies that have found high concentrations of toxins in human sweat [2, 3]. However, older research techniques for collecting sweat samples are known to be unreliable and likely increased the concentrations of toxins found in sweat [1, 4]. There are more reliable sweat collection methods now, but toxin removal via sweat is probably insignificant when compared to detoxification by the liver, kidneys, and gut [1].

Now that you know the benefits of sweating, let’s talk about the role of sweat glands.

How Do We Sweat?

As we previously discussed, sweating is an interplay between the temperature receptors in and on our bodies, our ANS, and our sweat glands. We have three main types of sweat glands (eccrine, apocrine, and apoeccrine), but the eccrine glands are the most abundant and are responsible for the greatest amount of sweat production [1].

Here’s a chart detailing the different types of sweat glands, where they’re located, what type of sweat they produce, and their function [1]:

 EccrineApocrineApoeccrine
LocationWidely distributed on the surface of the body, densest on the palms of the hands and soles of the feetMainly in the armpits, breasts, face, scalp, and perineumArmpits
Type of sweat producedMainly water and sodium chloride (NaCl)Fat-rich but also contains proteins, sugars, and ammoniaMainly water and NaCl
FunctionTemperature regulation, acid-base and electrolyte balanceProduction of pheromones (chemical substances that are thought to affect behavior)Unknown

Sweat glands that are activated a lot may increase in size and be more sensitive to temperature, electrolyte, and acid-base balance changes [1]. 

When our sweat glands aren’t functioning properly, there could be potentially serious issues regulating temperature and electrolyte and acid-base balance. Here are some factors that can affect how our sweat glands function [1, 5, 6, 7]:

  • Medical conditions like cystic fibrosis, Addison’s disease (disease of the adrenal glands), type 1 and 2 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Severe burns, sunburns, and skin grafts
  • Eczema
  • Genetic conditions like hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating)
  • Tattoos
  • Medications
  • Antiperspirants

Likewise, certain things affect how much we sweat. For example, high ambient temperatures and aerobic training tend to increase sweating whereas dehydration delays the sweating response (1). 

Now let’s take a look at what’s in our sweat.

What is Sweat?

Sweat is a complex mixture of water, nutrients, toxins, and other byproducts. If you’ve ever tasted your sweat during an intense exercise session, the salty flavor of sweat gives a clue that sodium is a main ingredient, but other micronutrients contained in sweat are [1]:

  • Chloride
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Vitamins

Aside from these nutrients, sweat can also contain [1]:

  • Lactate
  • Urea
  • Ethanol
  • Ammonia
  • Bicarbonate
  • Glucose
  • Heavy metals
  • Antibodies
  • Antimicrobial peptides (dermcidin, cathelicidin, lactoferrin)
  • Proteins
  • Cytokines (cell signaling molecules)
  • Amino acids
  • Proteolytic enzymes (enzymes that digest proteins)
  • Persistent organic pollutants (hazardous chemical resistant to degradation)
  • Other toxins (bisphenol S, phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers)

It’s easy to think that sweat can provide clues about our health, like hydration, nutrition, and toxin status but there are limitations to what sweat can tell us. Let’s take a look at why sweat isn’t a great indicator of health.

What Can Sweat Tell Us About Our Health?

We have to be careful about drawing conclusions when it comes to sweating and health status.There are certain medical conditions like cystic fibrosis where very high levels of sodium and chloride ion concentrations in the sweat can be indicative of the diagnosis [1, 4]. But, in general, sweat really can’t tell us all that much about our health yet, and here’s why.

Sweat composition is affected by many different variables like contaminants on our skin and sweat gland activity and byproducts, so using sweat as a diagnostic tool is quite challenging [1, 4]. Researchers who collect sweat to be studied may actually be collecting eccrine gland sweat, but also the remaining gland contents, like skin cell secretions, skin cells, and contaminants on the skin, which can all artificially raise the concentrations of sweat content anywhere from two to five times [1]. 

Let’s use sweat and detoxification for example. Systematic reviews and observational studies have found significant concentrations of toxins like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat [2]. However, the sweat collection methods used in these studies likely promoted contamination and evaporation of the sweat making it hard to say how well sweating can actually detoxify the body [1, 4].

That being said, sweating may have benefits that we just don’t have direct evidence of yet [1, 4]. For example, exercise and sauna use both induce healthy sweating, and they both have research-confirmed health benefits. It could be that some of those benefits are related, at least in part, to sweating. Let’s review what the research says about exercise, sauna use, and sweat.

What Are the Best Ways to Sweat?

Aside from temperature regulation and acid-base and electrolyte balance, it’s hard to say if sweating, in and of itself, is health-promoting. We do know that sweating in response to exercise and sauna use provides health benefits through a variety of mechanisms, not just from sweating itself [1]. Let’s take a look at both sauna use and exercise and how they can positively impact your health.

Sauna Use and Health

Sauna bathing (such as Finnish or infrared saunas) is definitely a great way to get the sweat flowing. Sauna use has been found to improve:

  • Heart health in people with cardiovascular disease [8, 9, 10, 11]
  • Mental health in people with depression [12]
  • Detoxification [2]
  • Headaches [13]
  • Chronic health issues [14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19]. 

While one of the benefits of sweating in a sauna may be the removal of toxins and other impurities, there are ways sauna therapy improves your health that go beyond simply sweating and here’s how [8]:

  • Increasing nitric oxide to the blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure
  • Increasing metabolism through heat shock proteins
  • Immune system activation
  • Hormonal pathway changes
  • Enhanced stress response
  • Endorphin (hormones that have an anti-pain effect)
  • Relaxation
  • Placebo

Exercise and Health

Exercise is another great way to get sweaty and regular physical activity is a known detoxifier, but not so much by excreting toxins through sweating but by producing natural antioxidants in the body [20]. One observational study did find more heavy metals in the sweat samples from people who exercised when compared to those who used saunas [21]. But, in this study, the sweat collection method was skin scraping, which isn’t all that accurate. So it’s hard to say if sweaty exercise is a good way to detox the body from heavy metals [1, 4]. 

However, research clearly shows that exercise is an effective tool for preventing chronic diseases and it activates over 2,600 genes that promote health.

Here’s a table detailing some of the health benefits of exercise and their mechanisms [22]:

Health Benefit of Exercise Mechanism
Heart and Lung Health
  • Increasing cardiorespiratory fitness
  • Increasing oxygen transport
  • Increasing energy generation
  • Ensuring maximum oxygen uptake
Mental Health
  • Increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression (promotes brain development and plasticity)
  • Increasing circulatory insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which supports the hippocampus
  • Increasing neurotransmitters
  • Causing muscular stress, which protects against stress-induced depression
Metabolic Health
  • Increasing glucose (blood sugar) uptake by the muscles
  • Reducing insulin (a hormone that regulates glucose) resistance
  • Increasing mitochondrial expression and activity of over 2,600 genes

Whether you’re sweating on purpose, or you have a medical condition that causes you to sweat a lot, there are some points to remember. Let’s take a look at sweating precautions.

How to Sweat Safely

While exercise and sauna use are beneficial for overall health, it is possible to lose too many electrolytes during prolonged periods of heavy sweating. This can disturb the electrolyte and acid-base balance in the body, and too much sweating without rehydrating may also contribute to kidney stones [1, 23]. 

In general, micronutrient losses through sweating are minimal and can be countered by consuming a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated. Of course, drinking water is important, but you may also need to replenish with electrolytes. If you have a medical condition or take medications that affect how much you sweat, it’s best to discuss a personalized plan with your healthcare provider.

The Bottom Line on Sweating and Health

Research has only confirmed three health benefits of sweating: temperature regulation, electrolyte balance, and acid-base balance. There may be others like detoxification, resistance to microbial skin infections, and improved skin health but more research is needed to confirm.

Sweating can be induced through exercise and sauna use, both of which have important health benefits like improved heart, metabolic, and mental health. While some of these benefits may be due in part to sweating, it’s hard to draw this conclusion from the available research. Most of the benefits of exercise and sauna use probably don’t have much to do with sweating.

While sweating is probably good for us, heavy sweating doesn’t come without risk. If you sweat excessively through exercise, in the sauna, or from a medical condition like hyperhidrosis, you’ll need to rehydrate appropriately. This can be accomplished by consuming a healthy diet, making sure you drink adequate fluid, and possibly supplementing with electrolytes.

If you’re interested in a more personalized plan, contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine.

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➕ References
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