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We humans have been sweating it out for therapeutic benefit since ancient times. From Roman and Turkish baths to the modern day sauna, we go to ease the pain in both our bodies and our minds.
Beyond relaxation, the use of saunas for induced sweating has also been linked to improvements in cardiovascular health, as well as some skin and respiratory issues, such as the itching from psoriasis and wheezing from asthma, respectively.
While the use of saunas to improve various aspects of health and wellbeing is undisputed, there is at least one popular claim that isn’t sitting well with many scientists and that is detoxification.
The argument is that while, yes, small amounts of toxic metals are excreted through sweat, the majority of our toxins and other bodily waste is processed by the liver and kidneys, and then eliminated through our urine and stool. Since only a relatively small amount of waste is excreted through sweat, their argument continues that the use of saunas for detoxification is bunk. But this isn’t the end of the story.
This article covers
- How saunas promote detoxification
- Will a traditional dry sauna work as well as an infrared sauna?
- Choosing a sauna for your home (wood vs. portable)
- Sauna Safety
How saunas promote detoxification
Those on the “yes!” side of the debate, who do believe in using saunas for detoxification, are not claiming that sweat itself is the main vehicle for toxin elimination. Instead, their argument is (essentially) that heating the body boosts detoxification efforts by the liver and kidneys.
Cutting through the technical details, here’s a simplified version what they say happens:
- Saunas raise our body temperature fairly quickly.
- Our cardiovascular system responds to the stress by raising our resting heart rate, metabolic rate, and oxygen consumption. The effect is similar to how our bodies respond to moderate exercise. (On a related note, I’m guessing this is why sauna manufacturers also claim that saunas help with weight loss.)
- This cardiovascular response triggers an increase in blood flow. This, in turn, helps to release toxins that are stored in our fat cells.
- The toxins are then transported by our blood to be metabolized by the liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Does it work?
While most studies focus on the cardiovascular benefits of saunas, there seems to be quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to support the effects of sauna detoxification. Naturopaths and western doctors alike regularly prescribe sauna therapy for detoxification with (anecdotally) positive results.
In addition, those who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) often rely on regular sauna therapy to keep their triggers and symptoms at bay. People who could barely leave the house after years of progressive MCS found they could finally go back to work and to other activities that help them to enjoy life again.
Will a traditional dry sauna work as well as an infrared sauna?
The research I’ve read indicates that, so long as the body is sufficiently heated, the cardiovascular system will respond.
Given this, it’s safe to deduce that both the traditional dry sauna and the more modern infrared sauna provide similar benefits, including the possible promotion of detoxification. The difference seems mainly to be around the comfort level in doing so.
Dry saunas use a stove to heat the air to roughly 150 to 200°F. This ambient air warms our skin from the outside, so it takes a little extra time to raise our internal temperature and produce a vascular response.
By contrast, the radiant energy of infrared technology can penetrate our skin by as much as 1.5 inches (nearly 4cm), warming us from the inside and using only about 120 to 140°F to do so. The heat produced by infrared technology can, therefore, make us sweat faster and at a lower temperature than a traditional dry sauna, making it a more comfortable experience.
Ultimately, both types of saunas elicit profuse sweating and a cardio response, so whichever you have access to will be the best choice for you. That said, there are some considerations to keep in mind if you’re in the market to buy a new sauna or you are choosing which spa or gym to join.
Specifically, you’ll need to keep in mind the materials from which the sauna is constructed, as well as the EMF (electromagnetic frequency) it puts out.
Let’s take a look.
Choosing a Sauna for Your Home
While saunas are sought for their copious health benefits, they are often made from materials that emit toxic fumes or harmful EMF (electromagnetic fields). Obviously, that’s not good, as you want to sit in a healthy sauna.
Cedar and basswood are commonly used to build healthy sauna walls. Both are durable woods that resists cracking and warping from frequent heating up and cooling down of a sauna. And both are beautiful.
Cedar has been traditionally used, because it is highly durable and its oils are naturally anti-fungal and antibacterial, which is helpful for this hot, sweaty environment. Cedarwood is slightly aromatic, which most people enjoy. However those who are chemically sensitive may not be able to tolerate the light scent, so basswood saunas are sometimes offered as the alternative.
Native to North America, basswood is also durable and has nearly no scent. It is known to be hypoallergenic and non-reactive for the chemically sensitive.
Alternatives to basswood and cedar saunas
You’ll also find saunas made from Nordic spruce, pine, and hemlock, as this lumber tends to be more affordable. If your body is acutely sensitive to chemical emissions, you may find that you cannot tolerate the natural VOCs emitted by pine.
Some websites I’ve read say that spruce and hemlock also emit natural VOCs, others say they do not. Since none of the folks who commented on the topic were chemically sensitive, I couldn’t tell you for sure whether or not these woods would pose an issue. This is a big purchase, so be sure to ask plenty of questions of the manufacturer until you feel satisfied that their sauna is (or is not) the right purchase for you.
Beyond the wood itself, you’ll want to make sure there is no chemical coating or glue that can off-gas as the sauna heats up. Also, cheaply made saunas can emit high amounts of EMF, so be sure to look for those constructed with low-EMF materials and/or EMF-canceling materials.
Wooden saunas are wonderful, but they are large and may not work for every home. They can also be cost-prohibitive.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a smaller, portable at-home solution that is made from entirely non-toxic materials, you may be out of luck. After extensive research, I could not find a portable unit that I would feel safe to recommend, as most were made from polyurethane, PVC plastics, and other undesirable materials.
If you are aware of any portable units made from non-toxic, non-leaching, low/no-EMF materials, please let me know via email or social media and I will be happy to update this section.
Regular sauna sessions, whether in an infrared or traditional sauna, are generally considered safe for most people and when used properly. That said, there are a few common sense precautions that everyone should follow.
Common sense precautions
- Alcohol and saunas don’t mix. Avoid alcohol before and after your session.
- Water and saunas do mix. Drink your usual 8+ glasses of water each day, plus an extra glass or two for each 15-minutes in the sauna to avoid dehydration.
- More is not better. A 15- to 30-minute sauna session is reasonable for most.
- Some people like to jump back and forth from a hot sauna to a cold pool. This can be stressful on your circulatory system and it’s best to cool down gradually and not jump between hot and cold.
- If you begin to feel dizzy, nauseous, or otherwise unwell during your sauna session, don’t tough it out. Your body is telling you to exit the heat. Please listen.
- Similarly, if you are feeling dizzy, nauseous, or otherwise unwell before a session, skip it. You can go tomorrow or the next day instead.
- Avoid the sauna if you have a rash or an open wound, as the heat can further irritate your skin.
- I’ve seen some websites say that saunas are safe for pregnant women, except in the early stages, where it may interfere with fetus development. Personally, that would make me wary to use a sauna at any stage of pregnancy. Please check with your doctor first.
- Studies suggest that saunas can improve vascular function in patients with mild heart issues (as well as with no heart issues). However, those with any degree of heart issue should check with their doctor before putting additional stress on their cardiovascular system. For example, if you’ve had a recent heart attack or your body has a difficult time regulating your blood pressure, you’re likely a no-go for the sauna.
Overall, like any therapy, consult your healthcare professional before using saunas to treat any illness or condition.