I was extremely surprised after reading the recent Wall Street Journal article on infrared saunas. Did I detect some bias from the author as well as the doctors quoted in the article, who assert with complete conviction that there is little basis for the sauna’s ability to detoxify? They couldn’t be farther from the truth; I guess no one bothered to check the National Library of Medicine’s Pubmed.gov website, comprised of over 27 million citations for biomedical literature from a variety of sources held in high regard by the scientific community. I decided to take this opportunity to do my own research—especially since I often recommend the use of infrared saunas to my patients.
I reached out to Rodney Vestal, the CEO of Whole Body Wellness Concepts, a company that specializes in infrared saunas. I had been speaking with Vestal for months about his product and wanted to hear his take on the piece.
“Doctors have said these saunas performed miracles for patients who suffered from fibromyalgia when using the sauna to detox,” he told me. “We also hear from individual patients who suffer from heavy metal poisoning, diabetic neuropathy, cancer, arthritis and lyme disease that the infrared sauna technology aided in their recovery.” Vestal pointed out that the standard practice in the U.S. is always to prescribe pills, rather than researching alternative modalities. “While the infrared sauna is not a magic bullet, adding it to the treatment plan is a critical part of health, healing and longevity. The evidence from the individuals I have worked with who are chronically ill shows detoxing with infrared is effective and efficient especially when you can stay in the sauna for longer periods of time,” he said.
“Doctors buy these saunas from us all the time,” Vestal added. “I can’t imagine how we would be able to sell over 5,000 infrared saunas over the past six years if they truly had no health benefits, as this article asserts,” he said.
The use of saunas or “sweat baths” dates back hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Recently archeologists discovered a bath house in Scotland dating back to the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C. The Mayans and other Mesoamericans around the same time period were known to take “vapor baths” (Temazcal), which were used in purifying rituals and for therapeutic purposes. After battle or intense activity, the Temazcal was known to help cleanse and heal the body. It was built from volcanic rock and cement and shaped like a dome, trapping a dry heat inside, which was produced by warming the volcanic stones with fire. There were many other cultures during ancient times that also used sweat baths.
In Finland, the first saunas contained fireplaces and stones that were heated to high temperatures before water was thrown over them to generate steam. While there are many types of saunas available today, including dry and wet saunas, the one that has recently become popular is the infrared sauna. Infrared technology dates back to the 1800s, and was first integrated into the sauna in Japan in 1965. Since then the units have only gotten better, smaller, and more convenient.
Infrared light is also known as radiant energy; the same energy that comes from the sun, and the same energy that creates heat in our bodies. In the sauna, the radiant energy of the infrared light penetrates the body’s tissues to a depth of 1.5 inches and is converted to heat within. As opposed to traditional saunas that have to heat the air up to 180-200 degrees to eventually heat the skin superficially, infrared saunas might only heat up to 120-140 degrees. This allows for a deeper penetration of energy and heat, which can have more far-reaching effects.
Saunas, regardless of the type, produce thermal stress, activating the sympathetic nervous system, the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary-hypothalamic axis and the immune system. Studies document the effectiveness of sauna therapy for hypertension, joint and musculoskeletal pain, cardiovascular conditioning, detoxification after environmental exposure and skin conditions. Due to the deep penetration into the skin, the infrared rays cause heating deep in the muscles and internal organs. The body responds with a hypothalamic-induced increase in heart volume and rate. This leads to vasodilation, which increases circulation and blood flow to muscles, joints and connective tissues, which can help with healing and reduce pain in injuries, arthritis, muscle spasms, and much more.
In response to the Wall Street Journal’s assertion that “sweat itself is not a mechanism for toxin clearance; your liver and kidneys are responsible for the majority of the body’s detoxing,” there are studies that support the theory that sweat is an important excretory pathway for arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. They show that the rates of excretion of heavy metals through the skin could match or exceed urinary excretion. In addition, the heating of the body increases the liver and kidney’s detoxification efforts, leading to greater overall removal of toxins.
Since I treat patients with chronic, multi-system diseases, including mast cell activation syndrome, I was interested in finding out what the effects of the sauna could be in these cases. Of interest, I found a case report out of Israel, by Dr. Eli Magen, titled “Beneficial effect of sauna therapy on severe anti-histamine resistant urticarial.” While some patients with heat-induced and cholinergic urticaria (hives) and atopic dermatitis might not tolerate the sauna, the fact that the sauna was found to be helpful in controlling hives in a patient resistant to anti-histamines seems very promising. “It is assumed that whole body hyperthermia during sauna therapy might have immunoregulatory effects in autoimmune urticaria by reducing the release of histamine from histamine releasing auto-antibodies,” the report noted. Seems to me that more research needs to be done in this area.
Overall, regular sauna therapy (either traditional dry, steam or far-infrared) appears to be safe and can have multiple health benefits to regular users. One potential area of concern is sauna use in early pregnancy because of evidence suggesting that hyperthermia might be teratogenic, disturbing the development of the fetus. Sauna therapy should be avoided in patients with aortic stenosis, severe orthostatic hypotension, recent heart attack, during a febrile illness or with open wounds or rashes.
Dr. Tania Dempsey MD is an expert in chronic disease, autoimmune disorders and mast cell activation syndrome. Dr. Dempsey received her MD from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and her BS degree from Cornell University. She completed her Residency at NYU Medical Center/ Bellevue Hospital and then served as an attending physician at a large multi-specialty medical practice in White Plains, NY, before opening Armonk Integrative Medicine. Dr. Dempsey is sought after internationally for her knowledge of chronic immune dysregulation and MCAS. For more information, please visit www.drtaniadempsey.com