Sweating is the body’s mechanism to cool itself and in most cases it is a natural and healthy response. But some people suffer from what is called hyperhidrosis- frequent or constant excessive sweating, much more than is needed to maintain a normal body temperature.
Sweating is a normal reaction of the body when it becomes overheated. By sweating, fluids evaporate on the surface of the skin and extract warmth from the body. When this process happens spontaneously, without need, it is called excessive sweating. Usually this happens on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and the underarms, and may also happen on the head or the chest. It usually occurs at least once a week and for no obvious reason. It can be an embarrassing thing in public and makes people nervous and therefore even more prone to sweating.
Sweating is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, a part of the autonomic nervous system. When the sympathetic system is overactive or no longer in balance with its opponent, the parasympathetic system, excessive sweating can be the result.
There are two kinds of excessive sweating: focal hyperhidrosis and generalized hyperhidrosis. Generalized hyperhidrosis affects large areas of the body and happens suddenly. This type of hyperhidrosis is part of an underlying condition such as menopause, hormonal imbalance, low blood sugar, some diseases, or thyroid problems. Treating the underlying condition or adjusting medication often solves this problem. Focal hyperhidrosis is excessive daytime sweating on the palms, soles, and sometimes the armpits, for no apparent reason. The cause of focal hyperhidrosis is unknown and it is not due to any underlying condition. This type of excessive sweating is much more of a mystery to western medicine.
Treatment in Western medicine consists of antiperspirants, iontophoresis (applying electric current on affected areas to block the action of the sweat glands), medications, botox, and in extreme cases, surgery (cutting nerves of the sympathetic nervous system or removing sweat glands). These therapies can sometimes be successful in moderate cases of hyperhidrosis, but are often not the final solution.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sweating can have many causes. Sweating occurs as a result of internal heat (too much heat in the body), a deficiency of energy failing to contain body fluid, or an internal injury/weakness. A differentiation is made between spontaneous sweating and night sweating. Spontaneous sweating, which is a tendency to sweat in the daytime with no obvious cause, is due to a yang qi-energy deficiency, whereas night sweating, which is sweating at night that ceases upon waking, is most commonly associated with a yin deficiency. There are many areas a person can perspire from, and understanding the nature and location of the sweating can provide more diagnostic details in understanding the cause. Determining this underlying cause is what gives acupuncture its effectiveness in treating conditions and providing relief of symptoms.
According to more modern insights, acupuncture helps balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the autonomic nerve system, responsible for sweating. It does this by activating certain parts of the brain. Acupuncture influences the body’s internal systems to bring them back to their normal state of being, which is often the way in which acupuncture promotes healing- by correcting a bodily function that is caught in a state of dysfunction.
The advantage of acupuncture over conventional treatment methods is that the therapy is natural, non-aggressive and often very effective. Acupuncture is definitely a valuable alternative in treating this annoying and embarrassing condition and has shown its value many times over in the past.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.