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When I was in college, I spent a year abroad in Sweden, and while I was there I developed a taste for saunas. A group of us would sit in a hot sauna for 10 or 15 minutes, work up a vigorous sweat and then run outside to cool off.
I wasn’t doing this for my health; I did it because it was fun and it was a very “Scandinavian” thing to do. These days I’m still a sauna buff, but now I know that dry heat saunas confer a number of health benefits, from removing toxins to treating congestive heart failure and other cardiovascular conditions.
The details of sweat
The primary value of saunas is that they induce sweating. Although most of us go to great lengths to avoid sweating, perspiration has two essential functions: It cools you down, and it rids the body of waste products.
The body contains two main types of sweat glands:
- Apocrine glands, located mostly in the armpits, pubic area and scalp, secrete sweat that contains fats and other organic compounds (bacteria on the skin interacting with these compounds is what causes body odor). These glands, which become functional at puberty, also emit hormones and pheromones believed to attract the opposite sex.
- Eccrine glands, which number more than 2 million and are scattered all over the body, are the real workhorses when it comes to sweating. Activated by heat as well as stress and emotions, these glands secrete odorless, watery sweat that cools you down as it evaporates on the skin.
Sweat toxins out
Sweat does more than regulate body temperature. Many of the tens of thousands of man-made chemicals in our environment make their way into our food, water and air. No matter how pure your diet or lifestyle, I guarantee that your body contains traces of hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals such as pesticides, drugs, solvents and dioxins.
But there are ways to get rid of stored toxins, and one of them is sweating. Sweating mobilizes toxins stored in the fat and enhances their elimination. If you’ve ever been around a heavy smoker or drinker, you know they reek of nicotine or alcohol – it literally pours out of their skin in their sweat. The same is true, although less obvious, of other toxins.
Here’s where a sauna comes in. On an average day, your eccrine glands put out about a quart of sweat. But when you hang out in a sauna, they pump out that much in 15 minutes.
Study of 9/11 rescue workers
Several researchers have looked at the effects of sauna on the body’s toxic burden. The best-studied is the Hubbard Sauna Detoxification Program. This protocol involves daily exercise followed by sitting in a sauna for two and a half to five hours a day, with breaks for cooling down and rehydrating. Participants in this program also take niacin to stimulate circulation and fat mobilization, as well as multivitamins and polyunsaturated oils.
One of the most recent studies of this program is the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project. When the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, massive amounts of toxins were released, and the firemen, policemen and other rescue and cleanup workers bore the brunt of this environmental disaster.
As you might expect, acute respiratory distress was common in this group. However, over the subsequent weeks and months, a significant number of these individuals experienced a wide range of health issues, including gastrointestinal complaints, worsening pulmonary problems, depression, irritability and cognitive disorders.
From September 2002 through September 2005, more than 500 of these rescue workers, the majority of them firefighters between the ages of 35 and 45, completed this sauna detox program, and the results were astounding.
Before treatment, which averaged 33 days, they missed a median of 2.1 days of work per month and had 4.4 days of limited activity. Symptom severity scores – which rated 10 systems, including skin, respiratory, emotional, cognitive and musculoskeletal – were high, and half of the participants were taking drugs to manage their symptoms.
After treatment, the number of days of missed work or limited activity fell to 0.2, symptom scores dropped dramatically and 84 percent of participants had discontinued all their drugs because their symptoms had cleared up. They also had significant improvements in thyroid function, balance, reaction time and even IQ!
Sauna’s cardiovascular benefits
The benefits of sauna extend beyond detoxification; it’s also good for your heart. Sitting in a sauna has effects akin to mild exercise. The heart gets a gentle workout, while the heat of the sauna dilates the capillaries and improves blood flow.
In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 15 minutes in a sauna a day for 14 days improved the function of the endothelial cells lining the arteries by 40 percent.
Japanese researchers have found that sitting in a sauna is particularly helpful for congestive heart failure. After taking daily saunas for four weeks, 13 of 15 patients with serious heart failure had significant decreases in blood pressure and improvements in ejection fraction (a measure of the heart’s pumping ability), exercise tolerance and oxygen uptake.
Other conditions for which sauna is proving to be helpful include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Mild depression
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Skin conditions
And don’t forget this very important point: Sauna just makes you feel good.
A detox program or a home sauna?
After considering all of these benefits, my wife Connie and I started a sauna detoxification regimen similar to the program used by the New York rescue workers. During our two-week program, we would go for a 30-minute slow jog to heat up and get our blood pumping. We’d then sit in the sauna at a low temperature (at least for a sauna) of about 140 degrees for two to three hours a day, broken up as needed by cool showers. We felt like a million dollars afterward.
We were so impressed with the benefits that six months later we decided to replace the large bathtub in our master bathroom with a far infrared sauna. (Far infrared is part of the spectrum of natural sunlight.) We selected this type of sauna because it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to install – it took just 30 minutes, is held together with magnets, and needs no plumbing hookup. It also uses much less electricity and only requires a five minute warm-up period.
Above all, it’s much more comfortable. Standard saunas heat the air, and the hot air coming into contact with the skin heats the body. Far infrared light directly and deeply penetrates the tissues and heats up the core body temperature. As a result, the air is much cooler, making it easier to breathe and allowing you to stay in longer and work up a better sweat.
For more information about supervised sauna detox programs, contact the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists.