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
Horizontal lines on nails
Changes in behavior
Miscarriage or premature labor
However, regular sauna use can combat these symptoms by lowering toxicity levels. In the study cited above, regular sauna use is potentially the most effective method of ridding the body of heavy metals (5). It is also likely that in terms of other chemicals mentioned above, such as pesticides, mycotoxins, and BPA, sweating is also the best route of excretion as opposed to any other route (urinary, digestive, etc.) (4). Sauna-induced sweating is also one of the most effective forms of detoxification for those who have been exposed to toxins found in illegal drugs. In one study that followed the detoxification efforts of a group of policemen who were regularly exposed to methamphetamine labs as a part of their vocation, just four weeks of sauna therapy led to better overall physical health and reduced neurotoxicity (6).
What other benefits do saunas have?
In the study of the policemen mentioned above, those who participated in sauna therapy also, on average, got over two more hours of sleep per night (7.6 hours, up from 5.8), took fewer sick days, had improved mental health, greater ability to participate in all activities, and reduced musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, cognitive, respiratory, and cardiovascular symptoms (6).
In fact, cardiovascular system improvement is one of the most widely-known benefits of sauna use. Long-term sauna therapy is associated with a reduced risk of all types of heart disease, sudden cardiac death, as well as all-cause mortality (4, 13). Sauna use can improve arrhythmias after just two weeks, reduce heart disease effects, and improve heart strength and vitality (4). Amazingly, in one study done on 12 infants with congestive heart failure, introducing sauna therapy for four weeks eliminated the need for surgery in 9 of them (4)!
Regular sauna use is also associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as decreased symptoms due to (4, 14):
Rheumatological and immune-mediated diseases, such as fibromyalgia or Lyme disease
Chronic pain syndromes
Asthma, allergic rhinitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other respiratory-related syndromes
Does it matter what kind of sauna you use?
There are a few different types of saunas, and though they vary in effectiveness, each causes the body to go through the same process. The more traditional types of saunas include wood-burning and steam saunas, though electric saunas are a modern twist on classic wood-burning saunas with all the heat, but none of the wood smell (2). Infrared saunas are very modern and are becoming more popular due to their ease of use, portability, and particularly excellent health benefits (2). Infrared saunas work by heating the body directly, instead of the air around the body, which leads to the same or an even greater result of increased sweating (perhaps from deeper within the skin) without the intense feeling of heat that traditional saunas can create, leading to a more tolerable and effective experience for many people (3). As such, our physicians find that infrared saunas are the most beneficial type of sauna in terms of achieving the health benefits listed above.
While infrared saunas are becoming more widely accessible and a number of people are able to have home saunas for regular use, one thing to keep in mind is that home saunas can actually end up being quite toxic if installed or built improperly. The key aspects to look for in an infrared sauna are that it is certified as not emitting high levels of electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions and not containing toxic building materials (like glues, dyes, etc.).
Because toxins are an unavoidable part of living in our world today, the risk of suffering from the effects of heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals has never been higher. If you have any of the symptoms listed above or are concerned about your exposure to toxins, please reach out to schedule an appointment with us. We would love to discuss your health history, hear about your symptoms and health goals, and run any tests necessary to determine what your specific toxicity levels and treatment needs are - including infrared sauna therapy!
Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
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