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The real story about sweat and perspiration

The 2009 Wimbledon Men's singles final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will be remembered as one of the greatest tennis matches in history. However, while most of us marvelled at the two champions' brilliant shot-making, a few keen observers noted a stark difference in the amount of visible perspiration on the two athletes.

Nadal - the fierce warrior - was oozing sweat at all times, while Federer - the smooth aristocrat - looked perfectly cool, even during the immediate post-game interview!

So, why do people perspire, and more specifically, why do some people perspire more than others? Sweat and perspiration remain hot scientific and social research topics, but there are a number of facts that assist our understanding of this most human phenomenon.

Basically, perspiration helps us regulate our body temperature. On a typical summer's day, your body will secrete just enough sweat to cool your skin to make you feel more comfortable. Your sweat glands (two to four million of them!) perform this essential function, known in some circles as "evaporative cooling".

Influence of weather on perspiration

People can stay cool during summer so long as the water on the skin surface is able to evaporate in the air. In drier more arid climates, this is usually possible. However, in areas with high relative humidity, your perspiration may have nowhere to go and thus remain on your skin. Time to head for an air-conditioned room!

Fitness levels determine ability to handle sweat

Believe it or not, fit, athletic people are more effective "sweat-ers" than overweight or obese folk. They activate sweat glands earlier during vigorous activity when body temperature is still low. Having lower body fat, especially visceral fat, is a big advantage. Excess fat insulates perspiration, so bigger and heavier folks' core temperature rises sooner and takes more time to lower. Now you see why people carrying excess weight sweat profusely and must take precautions in hot weather.

Medical and psychological reasons for excess perspiration

Overactive sweat glands cause wetness, but for 2-3% of the population, excessive and unpredictable sweating is unrelated to outside temperature and physical fitness. Hyperhydrosis is a recognized disease whose primary cause is mostly undefined, although understanding the sympathetic nervous system - which controls the sweat glands - may offer ideas and solutions in the future.

Sweating can also be triggered by psychological trauma: stress, nervousness, anxiety, social angst. We know that "sweaty" palms can be a job interview and date killer. So, to avoid awkward situations, consider using anti-perspirants, deodorants, and strategic clothing. While not permanent solutions, most people can control or at least hide excess sweating in this manner.

You may have heard of surgical interventions to combat excess sweating that involves partial removal of your nervous system. Steer clear of this procedure. Instead, consult your physician if you believe sweating is adversely affecting your quality of life. Also, be wary of lotions, medication, and treatments that claim to cure excess perspiration. Start with the basics; re-evaluate your diet and exercise habits and see if small lifestyle changes can improve the situation.


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