Sweat. It’s something that heralds embarrassment for most people, except in sweaty “safe zones” like the gym or sauna. Yet it’s a critical part of our anatomy, and there’s so much more to it than merely an indicator of how many burpees you did at the gym.
In fact, it can be a treasure trove of information when it comes to our health and state of well being. Scientifically, the complex balance of electrolytes and metabolites contained within our body fluids can be directly measured to get a surprisingly accurate picture of the processes taking place within our bodies. Samples can tell doctors whether we’re suffering from an illness, whether we have a chronic infection, and even whether we’re in a state of constant stress or trauma.
But beyond the lab, there’s plenty of cues you can take from your sweat (or the stinky guy working out next to you) to gauge your health… all without stepping into the doctor’s office. Here are five things sweating says about your health, and how to recognize the cues:
1. Sweating when you shouldn’t be
For the most part, the amount of perspiration we expel throughout the course of any given day varies based on the activities we partake in. And when our bodies are functioning as they should, the volume of sweat expelled reflects our state of health.
But then there are times when you’re still pumping the stuff out and you’re not even really doing anything. If you find yourself sweating around the clock for no particular reason, you may have a condition called hyperhidrosis. Essentially, this is a condition that describes someone who sweats when they really shouldn’t be, and it suggests that you may need to schedule a visit to the doc to determine why your sweat glands are out of whack.
2. Sweating bucketloads while exercising
While sweating too much when you’re not exercising is a cause for concern, if you’ve always found yourself sweating a lot more than the next person while you are exercising, there’s no cause for concern. Generally speaking, in fact, the more you perspire during exercise, the fitter you are.
A Japanese study published in the Journal of Experimental Physiology found that people who have greater levels of fitness tend to perspire both more and sooner than people who are less fit. So if you find yourself with a big ol’ sweat patch on your t-shirt only five minutes into a workout, be happy in the knowledge that you’re doing something right.
3. Stinky sweat
Nobody wants to be that guy or gal who has everyone around them wrinkling their nose. And if your sweat is super stinky, no amount of deodorant will cover up that pervasive odor.
Chances are, your sweat stinks because you’re stressed out. Our sweat smells markedly different depending on our state of mind, and as a rule of thumb the sweat you produce while doing a stress-free workout or any form of exertion (ahem!) tends to be a lot less smelly than the sweat you make while in a tense meeting or during a presentation.
This is due to the fact that your body has multiple types of sweat glands that produce different types of sweat. It’s the eccrine glands that are responsible for secreting sweat as a form of cooling, and that sweat is generally just composed of salt and water. When you stress, however, your apocrine glands kick into overdrive, producing sweat that’s mostly located in your armpits and which is composed of a heady mix of protein, fat and bacteria… all of which makes for one potent aroma.
Another reason why your sweat could be just a little bit too smelly to handle is if you’ve got a cold or illness of some kind. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science found that people who are sick emit an unpleasant odor that is designed to act as a deterrent for healthy individuals to stay away. Researchers concluded that “this chemosensory detection of the early innate immune response in humans represents the first experimental evidence that disease smells and supports the notion of a ‘behavioral immune response’ that protects healthy individuals from sick ones by altering patterns of interpersonal contact.”
4. A distinct lack of sweat
While it’s fair to say that too much sweat can mean underlying health problems, the same can be said for too little sweat. If you’re working out, exercising or generally just exerting yourself and notice that you’re not really pumping much sweat out, there could be something wrong.
If this is you, it could be due to a condition called anhidrosis — essentially the exact opposite of the excess sweat-inducing hyperhidrosis. Anhidrosis can be caused by a range of factors, but it’s most commonly due to either genetic predisposition or certain forms of skin trauma that directly impact the sweat glands. Either way, an inability to sweat means your body will struggle to regulate internal temperatures, which can be dangerous at the best of times.
5. Excessive perspiration after caffeine
If you’ve noticed that you sweat just a little too much for comfort on your morning commute or during the first meeting of the day, it could be due to some heavy handed coffee drinking. The high levels of caffeine in coffee stimulate the central nervous system, which in turn switches on your sweat glands and encourages them to switch into sweaty overdrive. In addition, the heat from the drink itself can raise your internal temps, further increasing the rate at which you sweat.
If this sounds like you and you’re sick of arriving to work saturated, maybe lay off on the coffee and caffeinated tea.