The purpose of sweat


What does sweating mean?

Dear Reader,

A funny (and very smart) person once said, "Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things." This is great advice, but probably not exactly the answer you were looking for. In terms of its purpose, sweating is the body's way of cooling down when it gets overheated from hot temperatures, physical activity, spicy foods, or even embarrassment. The perspiration, or liquid released from your body, that forms on your skin when you sweat is then evaporated by the outside air, ultimately cooling you down when things get too hot. In addition, while most of the body's waste products are released via urine and feces, sweating does help rid the body of very small amounts (less than one percent of the body's total content) of "waste" products, such as salt, ammonia, and uric acid. Moreover, sweat also contains electrolytes, which are chemicals that are essential for regulating the fluid balance within the body. This is why you may see athletes chugging sports drinks to replace the sodium, potassium, and chloride that their bodies are sweating out.

In terms of the process, sweat is released by sweat glands located deep under the skin. These glands take in water and salts from nearby capillaries and cells, sending these products through sweat ducts to the skin's surface. Additionally, your body has two different types of sweat glands:

  • Apocrine sweat glands: These sweat glands are nestled in with the hair follicles in your scalp, underarms, and groin. They respond to the adrenaline produced when people get nervous or scared, producing a sweat that contains fatty oils. This perspiration also reacts with the bacteria present on your skin's surface, generating a sour smell. Essentially, apocrine sweat glands put the "odor" in B.O.
  • Eccrine sweat glands: The more common sweat gland, they're located all over the body and produce sweat that is composed mostly of water and salt. These glands are controlled by the hypothalamus — a part of the brain that acts like the body's thermostat and is responsible for regulating temperature.

The amount of perspiration a person produces is controlled by many factors, such as the environment, what activity is being performed, and a person's own regulation system. Certain medical conditions and illness can also change the amount of sweat the body produces (as anyone who's ever had a bad case of the flu knows). If you seem to perspire much more or less than others you know, or if the amount of sweat your body makes suddenly increases or decreases, checking with your health care provider could provide insight as to whether it's a sign of an underlying health problem.

Hope this information helps!

Last updated Jul 01, 2022
Originally published May 03, 2002

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