Ah, August. You know it's finally arrived from the smell of hot garbage emanating from the streets, and because the minute you step outside, you're covered in a fine sheen of nature's highlighter: sweat. Even though this August has been somewhat cooler than usual in parts of the United States, many people are still finding the sweat struggle to be very, very real. But luckily for us, sweat has a surprising number of health benefits, and not all of them have to do with cooling us down.
Sweat primarily functions as a cooling mechanism; it's triggered not by movement or how fast our hearts are beating, but by sensors in our brains that detect hot or humid environments. The brain prompts sweat glands to excrete liquid to evaporate and cool the body's temperature. But beyond that, sweat has other intriguing functions, from bodily regulation to medical aid, that go far beyond its capacity as a stink-causing social faux pas.
Sweat regulation itself is an important part of bodily function, and it's possible (and medically worrisome) to sweat too much. Excessive sweating is known as hyperhidrosis, and can be caused by everything from menopause (think: hot flashes) to thyroid or hormone issues. Hypohidrosis, the inability to sweat enough, is also a recognized condition that occurs as a consequence of issues like alcoholism and various genetic disorders, and has serious implications for the body's ability to regulate its own temperature. Even when sweat continues on its merry way in a normal fashion, though, it's actually a pretty exceptional compound, with some pretty interesting health benefits. Best give it the respect it deserves.
Sweat Helps Get Rid Of Toxic Elements In Your Body
While much of sweat's purpose revolves around temperature — and possibly around signaling hormonal messages, like stress or attraction, to others — it also has a cleansing function. Sweat can help rid the body of toxic materials, which are very different from the catchall "toxins."
"Toxins" is a buzzword that can refer to anything that sounds chemical or problematic, even if it's completely natural and normal. It can lead to dangerous misunderstandings; for instance, the idea that colonics can "flush out toxins" makes them sound beneficial, when in reality they simply strip the body's waste processing organs of their vital microflora (AKA your gut bacteria), introduce potentially damaging bacteria, and significantly raise the risk of perforating your bowels. (Colonics, in case you hadn't picked up what I mean, are a bad idea.) Toxic materials, on the other hand, are scientific compounds proven to have negative effects on human health above certain concentrations. Humans are exposed to toxic materials regularly, such as gasoline or acetone, and can often deal with them in small doses, but sweat turns out to have an important role in getting them out of the body.
Numerous experiments have shown that toxic elements come out in sweat, and that sweat seems to function a little better in some circumstances in getting toxic materials out of the body than blood or urine, the other two methods the body has to rid itself of toxic materials. We also sweat out some phthalates, which are found everywhere from shampoo to sex toys and are linked in some cases to medical issues. A lot of the time, doctors test toxicity levels in the body through blood and urine tests, but it turns out that sweat may be a more accurate test.
But, so that we're crystal clear: beware of anybody who tells you that "sweating out toxins" is a thing — scientifically speaking, it's toxic materials that you're oh-so-efficiently getting rid of.
Sweat Contains Antibiotics
Sweat's antibiotic properties are not at all well-known — which is a shame, because they're awesome. It was discovered in 2001 that sweat contains a small amount of the antibiotic dermcidin, and when the antibiotic was tested against several different types of bacteria, it killed them all. Scientists thought that dermcidin was likely a method the body used to fight off bacteria on the skin itself, but we didn't previously understand why it was so lethal to bacteria.
But then, in 2013, scientists at the University of Edinburgh discovered how it worked. It turns out that dermcidin attacks the cell walls of bacteria, adapting itself quickly to break through different kinds, and that bacteria themselves find it very hard to fight against it. The really exciting thing about this is that dermcidin turned out to be effective against a type of bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, which tends to create havoc in hospital wards because it's highly resistant to traditional antibiotics. Meanwhile, our bodies have been producing a better weapon to fight against it all along.
Sweat Helps To Heal Wounds
You may think the antibiotics thing was weird, but hang on: It gets weirder. According to a study published by the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Marine Biotechnology EMB in Lübeck in 2014, it turns out that the body's sweat glands also help the body heal itsef by producing stem cells. Yes, you read that correctly. This has huge consequences for the future of healing wounds and curing disease.
It turns out that sweat glands, like many other glands in the body, are a source of stem cells that can be used to produce many other different types of cells. When sweat gland cells were isolated and left to multiply by the researchers, they produced stem cells that could be put onto a small layer of material and inserted into skin wounds. The wounds that had this stem cell advantage healed faster and more securely than the ones without.
Stem cell harvesting is a big part of many treatments, particularly for some kinds of leukemia and lymphoma, where they're taken from bone marrow. Sweat glands are a lot more accessible than bone marrow, so if the right kinds of stem cells could be taken from them, it could make it a lot easier to help people with those illnesses. In the meantime, though, scientists are focused on using that information to help heal skin wounds. Researchers at the University of Southern California are currently working on producing stem cells derived from sweat glands to help with skin repair, skin grafts, and even the regrowth of hair. In the future, a patient with a serious injury might help stimulate their healing with their own sweat glands.
Sweat Could Change The Way We Treat Diseases
Sweat carries a lot of different information as it lies and evaporates on the skin, as we've discovered. Increasingly, scientists are focusing on harvesting that information to help with diagnosis and treatment of diseases that normally need a lot of invasive testing.
In the past two years, sweat diagnosis tools have experienced a significant boom. A patch for measuring blood alcohol levels through sweat was developed by the University of California San Diego in 2016, using reactive chemicals to detect alcohol in sweat and send accurate readings to a nearby smart device. It might mean the end of the breathalyzer, but that's only the beginning. Penn State has also dived into the sweat-testing fray, developing a device that can easily measure salt concentrations in sweat by glowing fluorescent. Excessive salt in sweat can mean anything from cystic fibrosis to Addison's disease, and early diagnosis is often crucial to treatment, so in this instance, sweat may actually save people's lives.
Sweat is particularly an issue for diabetics, as it can communicate the body's glucose levels. The Center for Nanoparticle Research released a study earlier this year that proposes a device that measures that sweat easily to detect glucose levels, measure them, and use them to produce personalized treatment plans. Tattoos that detect glucose levels are being developed by MIT, but they involve actually getting tattooed; the CNR's version is a small disposable strip that gathers a tiny amount of sweat for analysis. Outsourcing diagnosis, monitoring and treatment to sweat could make life a lot easier for people with a variety of different diseases; the day where people wear skin sensors rather than submit to needles or costly exams might not be too far away.
So there we have just a few of the health benefits of sweat, aside from how it helps you cool off in the summertime. The future of medicine looks like it might be pretty sweaty, indeed.