Looking for a way to detox from holiday indulgence or kick off your New Year’s health resolutions? There is an answer that people have been turning to for thousands of years to help feel better: saunas. Saunas have been used for at least 9000 years among people groups worldwide as a way to form social bonds, rejuvenate, and promote health and healing from a number of ailments (1). Aside from thousands of years of history supporting their use, a number of modern studies have been completed to determine the effectiveness of saunas at promoting a number of health benefits, including detoxification!
How can saunas help detox? Isn’t exercise efficient enough?
Saunas can help eliminate toxins from the body that are most harmful, including heavy metals and harmful chemicals such as BPA that the body stores in fat cells (4, 5, 6, 7, 8). While the exact mechanism of this process isn’t yet well-defined, there are a few different aspects thought to contribute to the effectiveness of saunas. The first is that sweat is another form of natural detoxification, similar to the way the kidneys and liver work. Though in many cases of needed detoxification the liver and kidneys will do a better job eliminating toxins than sweat will, heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium were all found to be released in higher levels of post-sauna sweat than in urine, making sauna therapy more effective than other types of heavy-metal detoxification efforts (5).
The second aspect is that because many bacteria, viruses, and other toxins are stored in fat, the combination of both exercise and sauna use can increase fat turnover (7). As such, regular use of saunas for at least a few months can lead to mass mobilization of fat-dwelling toxins, which are eliminated by sweat consistently over time. A third view is similar, yet more specific, which is that saunas mimic fevers, which create an immune response in the body that increases cell activation, enhances Natural Killer (NK) cell activity, and releases Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs) that both protect the immune system and activate cells that destroy ineffective, mutated, and dead cells (9). Because fat cells that have a high toxic load do not function properly, NKs, HSPs, and other immune system cells can help turnover these cells at a higher rate, thereby mobilizing toxins to exit through sweat (10).
This last view in particular differentiates the sweat produced from saunas as superior to exercise-induced sweat in terms of detoxification due to the fever-like immune response. In addition, saunas (particularly infrared saunas) don’t exhaust the body the same way that exercise does and yet can activate a greater sweat response. As such, saunas can lead to a lower effort, higher yield detoxification effort in a 30-45 minute session as opposed to a workout of the same length.
What benefit does sauna-induced detoxification have?
Detoxification from sauna use affects all aspects of health. In terms of heavy metals, reducing levels residing in the body can lead to improvement in an amazing number of systems. Because heavy metal and common pollutants such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), hexachlorobenzene (HCB), mycotoxins from indoor molds, and BPA (bisphenol-A) often cause chronic illnesses that can have a number of causes, their toxicity is underdiagnosed (5). Some of the symptoms of toxicity include (6, 7, 11):
Chronic back pain
Shortness of breath
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Heart abnormalities, such as dysrhythmia
Numbness, tingling, and weakness