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a good sweat…

Like so many things in life, human sweat is a double-edged sword.

Our capacity to sweat is really a masterpiece of thermo-engineering. Because human beings can sweat (not all animals can – dogs for instance, cannot, which is why they pant when they’re warm), we can regulate our body temperature, which is essential to our metabolism.

And, fitness trainers and sports coaches LOVE the fact that we can sweat. Breaking a sweat when we exercise indicates a boost in our circulation and respiration, calories being burned, muscle being moved, and those stodgy fat-deposits being challenged. Hooray!

But my recent trip to hot, humid, hectic and wonderful Hanoi reminded me that sweating also has its risks. Many of us on the trip came down with the same illness – extreme dizziness, nausea, vomiting, chills and feeling lightheaded. Too much alcohol? Strange food? Nope. Dr. Diana Howard to the rescue: we had all been SWEATING so much we had an electrolyte imbalance! Although we were drinking regular water, we were not replacing salt and minerals. A small portion of a salty soup and we felt better. They also had a local drink called ‘Ultra Sweat’ (weird translation and not very appealing name!) – a bit like Gatorade. No need for drugs, medications or a panic attack; simple mineral water instead of regular would have prevented it!

Here’s something else to keep in mind as summer approaches, and you may be enjoying the exertion of warm-weather sports. Sweating is good, but sweat accumulation is not good for your skin – or your hair.

It’s great that you work out, but sweat, especially if left to dry at the hairline, causes problems. The sebum which is a natural part of our shiny, oily, salty, sticky, sweat-“cocktail” is the favorite food of swarming skin-dwelling bacteria, inviting itchiness, or worse. And, the excreted minerals and salts may form milia, or tiny hard nodules under the skin. These will need to be removed by a medical professional once they form. Not fun!

There’s even some evidence now that heavy sweating around the scalp may contribute to hair loss, including hair-loss among fit, active women! No, don’t use this as an excuse to stay on the couch and eat crisps instead of going for a run or a Pilates or Zumba!. But do use it as a reminder to wash your skin and hair immediately after your work out. At the very least, immediately rinse your scalp and face with lots of plain water, which will remove some of the salts and other excreta until you can get your hands on a proper cleanser.

This, of course, is why we wear sweatbands, headbands and bandanas when we exercise. Not a bad idea, but only if you put yours in the wash immediately after your workout. It isn’t enough to let it dry out and wear it again tomorrow – that trusty do-rag is teeming with bacteria from your sweat!

Another lesson from Vietnam: the classical cone-shaped straw hat, known in Hanoi as non la (“leaf hat”), and worn by working people all over Asia for centuries. If you’ve never worn one of these classic head-coverings yourself, you may not realize the genius of the design.

The pointed peak rests a few inches above your scalp, creating a sort of elevated, natural cooling system. As people work in the hot sun, they often dip the hat in water, which further enhances the convection-cooling action. Keeping the skin and scalp as cool as possible makes perfect sense in this very rainy, often steamy part of the world, where everyone seems to have gorgeous skin and hair.

The takeaway: for total fitness inside and out, enjoy busting a great sweat, then cleanse your skin thoroughly, ASAP.

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