March 10th 2022
Diet, hormones and anxiety: what your sweat is telling you
July 16th 2019 / 0 comment
Over half of us believe we suffer from excessive sweating, with causes ranging from the obvious (heat waves) to the ironic (your deodorant). If you’re soaked through on the regular read on…
Sweating: it’s a normal, healthy, cooling bodily function until it drenches you pre-date or starts giving off a whiff even though you showered mere hours ago. According to a survey of 2000 British adults carried out by Odaban, 54.7 per cent of us believe that we suffer from heavier than average sweating, and it’s not just a summer issue- 31.1 per cent report that they experience excessive perspiration every.single.day. From the usual suspects of hormones and humid weather to the lesser-known triggers such as gut health and body care products, here’s what could be opening the perspiration floodgates, and how to stem the flow.
The detox myth - can you really sweat out toxins?
First things first, let’s debunk the notion that you can sweat out “nasties” or last night’s bucket of rosé. Sweating has vital health benefits, but it’s not rehab, as Victoria Smith, Director of Aesthetics at Absolute Aesthetics, part of The Whiteley Clinic Group, clarifies:
“The sole purpose of sweating is to act as the body’s natural thermostat. When the body perceives a change in temperature or temperament, it stimulates the eccrine sweat glands. In order to regulate the body’s temperature, these glands release water and salt as a natural cooling mechanism. It’s a common misconception that sweating ‘detoxifies’ the body, when in fact it is the kidneys and liver that are the organs responsible for detoxing- not your sweat glands. There are some trace elements that can be excreted this way, such as heavy metals, but it is not the major reason behind why we sweat.”
When sweat evaporates it cools the surface of the skin and helps to regulate our core body temperature, which is essential in itself- it’s a key bodily function, not a juice cleanse (that won’t ‘detox’ you either, FYI). Exercise and hot weather are the most patent causes of a raised body temperature, and thus an increased rate of perspiration, but physical circumstances aren’t the only precursor of soggy armpits and clammy palms…
Emotional sweat - why you sweat more when you're stressed
If puddles of sweat are beading on your top lip before a big presentation or you’re ringing your top out prior to an anxiety-making social event, it’s not your body temperature bringing on the sweats- stress sweat is distinct from simply feeling hot according to Dr Iaisha Ali, Consultant Dermatologist at The Harley Street Clinic Diagnostic Centre, HCA Healthcare UK:
“There are two types of sweat gland- eccrine and apocrine. Apocrine sweat glands are sensitive to nervous stimulation via adrenaline, and this is why you can sweat more when you’re stressed. Eccrine sweat glands on the other hand are active when exercising or when your temperature is high.”
Some theorise that stress stink could have evolved to act as a warning sign of danger to others
If you’re anxious, you probably won’t be saturated head to toe in the way that you might be after a run or a sweltering tube commute- apocrine sweat glands are concentrated in your armpits, groin, nipples, ear canal, eyelids and around your nostrils. When they secrete sweat, unlike eccrine sweat glands, apocrine glands release an odour. Some theorise that this stress stink could have evolved to act as a warning sign of danger to others- the group will pick on the fragrance of fear when a predator is approaching camp or your cave is about to be invaded. The chances of us raising the alarm with our armpits these days are slim to none, and the fact that stress sweat brings on BO seems particularly unfair given that it’s more challenging to control anxiety levels than it is physically cool down our body. Being stressed about stress sweat creates an even more cruel and vicious cycle.
The sweat fix:
While antiperspirants and other lifestyle tweaks can help to minimise odour (more sweat solutions to follow), addressing the root cause of emotional sweating is likely to reap the most effective results and prevent sweat stress from spiralling. Odaban® sweat expert Dan Bracey advocates arming yourself with relaxation techniques for situations when you know that your nerves are likely to turn on the sweat sprinklers:
“Five minutes of slow, deep breathing can help to calm your mind, stop your mind and heart racing and reduce anxiety. Meditation apps can make your commute less of a stressful, sweaty situation too.”
Read our guide to different breathing exercises to try depending on the source of your stress, and master both breathing and meditation techniques with our step-by-step calming morning routine. If anxiety or other mental health issues are affecting your quality of life or having a significant impact on your overall wellbeing, seek support from the Mind website and consider discussing the issue with your GP- in this case, excessive sweating could be a symptom that you need greater emotional help and support.
Puberty sweat - surging hormones mean surging smells
If you live under the same roof as a slightly funky smelling teenager, cut them some slack- their apocrine glands have just switched on, as Vicki explains:
“During puberty, millions of sweat glands become more active, especially within the armpits, groin, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet.”
Dr Ali highlights that “surging hormones stimulate the apocrine glands and bacteria break down this sweat, causing odour.”
The sweat fix:
Giving that puberty is the path we all travel to adulthood, there’s no shutting that down, but you can take the edge off of localised sweating by way of an effective antiperspirant. Just don’t go too gung-ho- adding antiperspirant to already sweaty skin could make odour worse. Antiperspirant is most effective when applied to clean, dry skin in the evening, to allow it to fully absorb and form a gel film to reduce the movement of sweat out of the pore. Otherwise, daily showers, wearing loose, natural fibres instead of tight, synthetic clothing and ensuring sheets and bedding are fresh can all help, but there’s a degree of riding it out with this one. You were young once.
Hormonal sweat - periods, pregnancy and menopause
It’s not just puberty that can play havoc with your perspiration output- your monthly cycle, pregnancy and of course the hot flushes associated with the menopause can all cause a sudden deluge, so to speak. Dr Ali affirms that hormonal changes and imbalance are to blame, as everything from ovulation to pregnancy to the menopause provoke an increase in core body temperature, in the main thanks to rising progesterone levels, provoking sweating and the more pronounced hot flushes that many women experience during the menopause. Vicki also emphasizes that “some women may also experience an increase in sweating after pregnancy as the body releases excess fluid and hormone levels return to normal.”
The sweat fix:
Just being aware of when hormone swings might happen can help you to be better prepared for increased perspiration, particularly at nighttime. Our core body temperature naturally increases around 9-10pm, making night sweats during times of hormonal imbalance all the more likely- ensure that your bedroom is cool, bedding and nightwear breathable and try lowering core body temperature by taking a warm bath before bed. Sounds like madness, but stepping out of warm water into your breezy bedroom will help your body temperature to drop before bed, making you feel both sleepy and less sweaty. During the day, layer your clothing so that you can easily ditch the sleeves should a sudden sweat come on, and go for cotton and linen over man made fabric. A cooling mist diffuser placed by your desk or by your bedside can provide relief, and if you’re on the go a face spritz and fan can dent the drenching.
'Meat sweats' - or why you sweat what you eat
Technically not a medically recognised phenomenon, but our diet can play a part in how much we perspire, as Vicki illustrates:
“There are several reasons why some of us sweat before, during or after eating. Hot food, either hot in temperature or hot in terms of spice, can make us sweat, and the gut can also release adrenaline and other hormones in response to certain foods, making sweating worse. Foods that stimulate high insulin release, or large volumes of food eaten quickly can also make people sweat. That said, foods that make one person sweat might not necessarily make someone else sweat – such food reactions can be very individual.”
A friend of mine experiences an almost immediate sweat rush after eating particularly acidic foods (a vinaigrette consumed on holiday produced an instantly shiny nose, which is niche as far as sweating issues go), while for others a curry guarantees a sticky night. Blood sugar balance can implicate on how much you sweat too- low blood sugar can trigger an adrenaline release, making you sweat more.
We can have anywhere between two to five million sweat glands in our body, so some of us really are wired to be wetter.
Fluid wise, it seems there’s a sweet spot where hydration is concerned. Excess sweating can contribute to dehydration, so it’s particularly important to stay hydrated (the NHS recommends between 6-8 glasses a day) during periods of hot weather or if you’re exercising. Be aware that the likes of alcohol, coffee and tea are diuretics, making the body flush out fluid by way of urine and sometimes sweat, although some people are more sensitive to this effect than others. Too much liquid, on the other hand, can also contribute to excess perspiration, as Vicki underlines that ‘drinking a lot, and having a lot of fluid on board, means that you’ll sweat more’. That old moderation chestnut applied.
The sweat fix:
Limit trigger foods if you have an important occasion coming up and eat a healthy, balanced diet to avoid blood sugar crashes. Stay hydrated, but don’t overdo it, and know that there’s a reason you’re glistening when you’ve got a hangover- getting blood sugar levels and fluids back on an even keel (and taking a cool shower) could help you to dry off.
Gym sweats - some bodies do it more than others
Sweat is a natural byproduct of exercise as anyone who’s ever run for a bus will attest, but why is that lady in your yoga class dry as you drip through downward dog?
Our propensity for perspiration depends on a number of factors, but genetics are one- we can have anywhere between two to five million sweat glands in our body, so some of us really are wired to be wetter. We generally expel between 1.5 to four litres of perspiration an hour, although four is reaching elite athlete territory, and if you’re sheeny while your workout buddy isn’t breaking a sweat, Vicki has some potential points of consideration:
“On the whole men sweat more than women when they exercise. How much you sweat also really depends on the sort of exercise you do. Sudden, dynamic sprints cause both a spike in heat and adrenaline, resulting in much more sweating than gentle, long-drawn out exercises such as walking or Pilates. Consider how hot the gym is, how humid the air is, whether there is a breeze or not, the clothing and fabrics you’re wearing, how much you’ve drunk, whether or not you’ve eaten and whether you’re experiencing any hormonal changes, as this will all affect how much you sweat during exercise.”
Your weight will also make a difference to whether you’re sweating buckets, as those with a high BMI tend to require the body to work harder to cool itself, resulting in more sweat. That said, those with high levels of fitness can also sweat a lot, as they can tolerate more intense exercise, which causes the body to heat up quickly and produce adrenaline.
If your trainers are honking after sport, that’s normal too, as, despite the presumption that our armpits are the source of most of our bodily sweat, we actually have the highest number of eccrine sweat glands on our feet (our hands aren’t far behind). We produce around half a pint of sweat from our feet alone over a 24 hour period according to podiatrist Michael Harrison-Blount, and odour is caused by lingering bacteria in our socks, footwear or on our skin itself. Humid, high-temperature workouts don’t help matters in terms of both sweating and bacterial growth.
The sweat fix:
Embrace that post-exercise stickiness - it’s there to cool you down and allow you to nail your PB, and everyone sweats at different rates for different reasons- unless you’re drenching the mat pre, during and post-workout (we’ll come to extreme sweating), sweat is sweet. Just shower straight afterwards to avoid the likes of body acne and heat rash, wash your kit when you get home and choose breathable workout gear. If it’s your feet that are the sole issue (sorry), an antiperspirant such as OdorEaters could dry things up a bit, and Michael recommends wearing socks made of natural fibres and slipping insoles that absorb sweat into your kicks. He also advocates alternating trainers and other footwear each day where possible, to allow each pair to fully dry out post-wear. If that’s not an excuse for a sportswear spree, I’m not sure what is.
In addition, when you’re working out, don’t be so eager to reach for the towel- GP and aesthetic practitioner Dr Rekha Tailor impresses that it’s sometimes better to sweat it out, for your skin’s sake:
“Sweat towels can harbour a lot of bacteria, especially if that towel comes into contact with gym equipment. They can easily spread bacteria, leading to acne and nasty skin infections after rubbing it on your face.
“When exercising try to refrain from constantly drying your face and let the sweat evaporate on its own then shower as soon as you can after exercise. If you can't live without a gym towel, use a microfibre towel as these are dirt-resistant and absorb water quickly. Whatever you choose to use, ensure it is washed in a fragrance-free, eco-friendly laundry detergent.”
If you’ve just finished your circuits, a cold compress can also go far for reducing core body temperature and ebbing the sweat river.
Extreme sweating - a case for your GP
If you’re sweating profusely despite not being exposed to stress, soaring temperatures, hormonal imbalances or energetic exercise, you could be suffering from a condition called hyperhidrosis, whereby your body sweats excessively even though it doesn’t need to cool down.
The sweat fix:
Vicki explains how to spot it, and what to do if you suspect that you might be suffering:
“Excessive sweating can be embarrassing and debilitating for any individual. If your sweating is affecting your day-to-day working and personal life, and impacting on your self-esteem or confidence, then it is always worth enlisting the expertise of your GP who can refer you for further examination or treatment, especially if they think that another condition might be causing it to occur.
“Likewise, if you are experiencing any of the below symptoms while sweating excessively then I would always advise you to seek the help of a qualified GP who can investigate the matter further:
It has lasted for at least six months
It stops you from getting on with your daily activities
It happens at least once a week
It happens at night (you're having night sweats)
You have a family history of excessive sweating
You're taking medication for another condition.”
If your doctor or specialist has found no underlying cause of extreme sweating, hyperhidrosis could be the trigger, and it’s surprisingly common according to Vicki:
“Hyperhidrosis can affect men and women of all ages and it is characterised by the extreme production of watery sweat which can occur in any area of the body. It is often visible due to beads of dripping sweat forming on the skin, or as damp patches on clothes. It is a relatively common issue - thought to affect one in three people in every 100. The condition can develop at any age, although typically starts during childhood. It is also often wrongly assumed that hyperhidrosis is only an issue for people during the warm summer months, with many surprised to learn that excessive sweating can occur at any time of year, including during the winter.”
You’re not condemned to a life of sodden sheets and shirts- Dr Ali emphasises that diagnosis and treatment options can dramatically improve quality of life, whether your hyperhidrosis is localised or all-over:
“Questionnaires have been devised to identify symptoms associated with hyperhidrosis, with a scoring system to assess severity. These include questions on how much the sweating affects social activities, work, physical activity and your clothing. There are many treatments available for hyperhidrosis, including topical agents, tablets, devices and procedures to treat specific areas. Your dermatologist will know which option is the best for your circumstances depending on the levels of hyperhidrosis and how much of the body is affected. Miradry® is a treatment suitable for smaller areas such as underarms- it deactivates sweat glands to prevent excess moisture.”
Vicki notes that Miradry® is considered the only non-invasive, permanent solution for excess sweating, and will only be prescribed if a hyperhidrosis diagnosis has been made. Other temporary yet effective treatments include Botox injections in the underarm area. Many doctors, such as aesthetic doctor and founder of Woodford Medical Dr Mervyn Patterson, consider the application of Botox to combat sweating the most effective use of the injectable in aesthetic medicine, however you’ll need to have repeat treatments every six months or so, depending on your individual case, and treatment may not be available on the NHS.
If you’ve suddenly started sweating out of nowhere and you can’t identify an obvious cause, Dr Ali recommends that you stay alert to any of the following warning signs, and see your doctor, stat:
“Extreme sweating could be an indication of a more serious illness if you’re experiencing persistent night sweats accompanied by weight loss or shortness of breath, sweating on one side of the body only, sweating with severe flushing or sweating with palpitations.”
Sweating is rarely a cause for grave concern, but don’t risk it if you’re experiencing other side-effects- better to be safe, then hopefully dry.