Someone asked me the other day, “Why is daily sweating important for health?” My response was, “Is it?”
I don’t think there is any scientific evidence that sweating is especially beneficial for health. I have seen claims made, but I have not seen hard core research. But sweating is certainly used in some cultures, and to a small extent in Ayurvedic Panchakarma therapy for SOME doshas.
Some folk sweat more easily than others when its hot or when they exercise, some folks sweat with anxiety, especially in the arm pits and hands, but even all over, some folk don’t sweat at all or with great difficulty. In Ayurveda these three cases are typical of Pitta, Vatta, and Kapha dosha dominance, in that order. Out of those three cases the only dosha that needs to be “forced” to sweat is Kapha dosha. Gently forced.
While its true that sweating can feel good, (especially to people from temperate climes, because I never heard of anyone in the tropics do anything but do their best to avoid sweating). Clearly excessive sweating can be exhausting.
In Ayurveda Pitta dosha types sweat easily and profusely, so they have to be careful about getting overheated. Ayurveda sometimes uses sweating for congested cold clay-like Kapha types to make them more malleable so as to return the Kapha dosha back to the center. In this case its combined with massage. In general its Kapha types that have to do hard exercise like mountain climbing, and who should exercise to a sweat.
Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, is sort of obsessed with avoiding the unnecessary loss of bodily fluids, from saliva and sweat to semen and menstrual blood. This is because it takes energy to produce substances or precious fluids, called Jing in Chinese. The Chinese noticed, for example, that men are tired after ejaculation, and that people with diarrhea become exhausted, and that women with heavy menstrual flow can become very weak and blood deficient, and that in the summer, when its very hot and people are sweating day and night, that people become very fatigued. Sweat is seen to be in the same category as other precious fluids. Its for that reason that Classical Chinese medicine preferred exercises like Tai Qi to long distance running, and in general recommend exercising to a light sweat, not to dripping, so as to preserve Jing/Essence.
Chinese Medicine very rarely treats disease by forcing sweating. The only example I can think of is when fighting colds in which there is NO sweating. In that case we drink we drink an herbal prescription called Ma Huang Tang and then wrap up in a blanket and “sweat out” the wind cold that has lodged in the surface of the body and obstructed the pores.
Clearly cultures from around the arctic like Russia and Finland use sweating therapeutically, as some kind of remedy for the cold climate, and also as a way to soften caked on grime and dirt that is then bathed off. Its not as if 200 years ago Northern Europeans bathed frequently. Another factor to consider is that no one had central heating in the old days and that people living in the antipodes would have suffered from cold throughout the winter. And yet another factor is that, even today, the diet in Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia is rather heavy, salty, and bland, which could also be part of the cultural picture. Lots of pickled fish and vegetables, so sweating could perhaps have been a natural way to rid the body of salt. But that is the last thing you need if you live at or near the equator, or in the summer even in temperate zones.
It sounds reasonable to do a sauna in the frigid north, and a bit like how Chinese Medicine uses hot herbs to “chase out the cold.” I know that in Russia, sweating was done at the bathhouse where people beat themselves with birch leaves and twigs to promote circulation.I wonder if there are more Kapha types in Russia, Siberia, and Finland-Scandinavia? Certainly there are a lot of big people there compared to the Indians of southern Mexico for example.
It is interesting, because how Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda looks at the body is that “heat creates movement, whereas cold contracts and causes stagnation.” So it seems quite reasonable to enter the sauna or bathhouse in cold climates as a remedy to the contractile effect of the cold. It may be that Chinese medicine did not develop this for cultural reasons of modesty, and/or because the burning of the herb Artemisa Vulgaris/Moxa was so prevelant, along with cupping, and Tui Na medical massage that involves lots of movement of the joints in a way that warms them up.
In sum, I have the feeling that sweating could be useful to some Kapha types who are out of balance and overly cold and stagnant. But the best way for them to sweat is through exercise. All humans need movement, Kaphas need it desperately. And forcing sweating can be exhausting to your Jing Essence, aggravating to Pitta dosha because of over-exposure to heat, and weakening to Vata dosha.
The key point for me is that we have to be alert to rigid shoulds and unquestioned suppositions. I like to see either science or tradition. I don’t know enough about Russian bath culture to know how big of a part sweating plays, as opposed to just getting warm, and bathing. Cleary the sauna involves sweat. But it exists within a cultural and climatic context, so its not reasonable to then extrapolate a universal rule. Clearly, those of use who grew up in western society have some kind of notion that sweating is good for you. But is that because we all love the summer months, when we sweat and generally feel good? Where does this notion come from. Is it based on the Chinese style notion that life and living is a process of warm transformation, and so that cold is to be avoided? Well, if you accept that, then you better stop drinking iced beverages, for exactly the same reason!
One thing is certain in Natural Medicine, Chinese or Ayurvedic: one size does not fit all. So is sweating good for you? Perhaps it depends on the you….