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Sauna Therapy

Dr. Kristina Fallico
11 September 2014

Sauna Therapy - Infrared saunas are a safe and effective approach to detoxifying the body and managing health concerns

by: Kristina Fallico, BSc, ND
Caledon East Family Chiropractic. Caledon East, ON
Rexdale Chiropractic Centre. Etobicoke, ON

Sauna Therapy - Infrared saunas are a safe and effective approach to detoxifying the body and managing health concerns


Detoxifying the body can be achieved in many ways. Essentially, the goal is to eliminate chemicals and environmental pollutants that place a toxic burden to our bodies that are responsible for the progression to many health concerns. Recent research has shown to find over 5 million chemicals in our environment, which have negative effects on the muscular, neurological, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems in the body [1]. Infrared Saunas or lamps are treatment devices shown to be a safe and effective way into achieving better health by its ability to remove these toxic chemicals using the skin and sweat as a vector. Our skin is the largest detoxifying organ of the body, making up 2 square meters [1]. Our sweat glands have the natural ability to excrete many of the body’s already occurring minerals such as sodium, chlorine, potassium, zinc, urea, phosphorous and manganese; however, through perspiration we can further eliminate other water- and fat-soluble toxins overloading in the body [1, 2]. Therefore, environmental contaminant such as pesticides, formaldehyde, phthalates and PBC’s, in addition to drugs such as amphetamines, morphine and methadone can all be excreted via our sweat, which we can obtain through the use of sauna therapy [1].

Physiologically, the body responds to thermal stress by increasing heart rate and cardiac output, and decreasing peripheral resistance allowing for increased peripheral circulation [4]. With the reduction in peripheral resistance, diastolic and arterial blood pressure will decrease, and systolic blood pressure remains unchanged. In addition there is an increase in metabolic rate and oxygen consumption and exchange. The overall effect is similar to that of moderate exercise [4]. Furthermore, in addition to detoxifying the body, there is an analgesic component to the treatment through its effects on the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary and adrenal axis, 4). Norepinephrine increases while cortisol levels will typically remain unchanged while growth hormone, beta-endorphines and prolactin levels also increase[4]. It is therefore the increase in beta-endorphins that will cause people to achieve feelings of pleasure and analgesic effects following treatment[4].

Traditional Saunas vs. Infrared Traditional Saunas vs. Infrared

Traditionally, European Saunas were popular for its warming effects on the body and its ability to excrete detoxified waste and toxins through sweat due to its direct effect on the lymphatic system [1]. European saunas rely on electricity or steam to produce indirect heat to warm the body. Sweating occurs because the convection (air currents) and conduction (contact between hot air and skin) of hot air produces increased humidity in addition to increased temperatures (75-95°C/167-203°F), warming the air first and then the body [1]. As this may sound like an effective approach, this raises many concerns due to its uncomfortable nature for already sensitive individuals, especially for those with underlying cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, asthmatics, pregnant women, heat sensitive people and the elderly[1, 2]. It can cause over heating in the body, raise blood pressure to unsafe ranges and may become difficult for people to breath and tolerate due to the humidity and high temperatures.

Infrared saunas on the other hand, use ceramic heaters that produce radiant heat (infrared energy) [1]. There are three types of wavelengths that infrared saunas can emit; near, medium and far infrared. The best health outcomes have shown to be with far infrared wavelengths that are 4-14 microns in length[1]. This is a form of energy that creates a heat source that goes beyond the surface of the skin through vibrations. As a result, metabolic changes occur between the cells because the infrared wavelengths increase the body’s temperature and induce perspiration without having to heat the air like the traditional European style saunas[1, 2]. Therefore, we can achieve the same goal of increased lymphatic drainage and perspiration at much lower temperatures (45-50°C/113-122 °F). This allows the treatment to be much more tolerable for high risk and heat sensitive patients and avoids some of the cautioned side effects associated with traditional steam saunas.

As mentioned earlier, a build up of toxic chemicals in the body can have detrimental effects to ones health. Therefore eliminating any toxic burden through sauna therapy has shown to have positive outcomes for many different health conditions. It has proven to be of great assistance for those with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. It promotes muscle tone and increases the rate of healing for musculoskeletal conditions by increasing circulation in the body, allowing for better oxygen exchange and lymphatic drainage. Other research has shown benefit in chronic pain patients and inflammatory conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular conditions and eliminating toxins like mercury and lead via excretion through sweat. Furthermore, it can aid in weight loss, as some research has proposed that a moderately conditioned person can easily sweat off 500 grams in a sauna, consuming nearly 300 kcal; this is equivalent to running 2–3 miles[2]. In addition, it acts on the liver to promote proper functioning of phase I and phase II reactions; this allows for the liver to better detoxify and eliminate water and fat-soluble molecules and toxins in the body.

Evidence Depression and Pain Relief

A small study was achieved using twenty-eight patients with mild depression, general fatigue and appetite loss. Patients were divided into a treatment and control group. Fourteen patients were given twenty sessions at 15 minutes of far- infrared sauna therapy over a four-week period. The results showed, that compared with the control group, the treatment group had statistically significant improvements in somatic complaints, improved appetite and ability to relax [4, 5].

The effects of sauna therapy on pain relief have exhibited positive results. Infrared saunas help relieve inflammation, pain and stiffness in joints and muscles because they allow for muscle relaxation, increased elasticity in tendons and joints and reduce viscosity of synovial fluid [4]. Healing time for injuries is also decreased because the infrared saunas allow circulation of blood cells to get to the injured area, providing nutrients and other healing properties to the area. Evidence was shown through a study, which included 46 patients who were hospitalized for chronic pain (of at least 6 months duration) and divided into two groups[4, 6]. All subjects participated in a multidisciplinary protocol, which included cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation and exercise therapy. However, 22 of those subjects were given an additional fifteen-minute far-infrared sauna therapy, five days weekly, for four weeks. The end result showed that the sauna group demonstrated diminished pain behaviors and lower anger scores. A two- year follow up revealed that 77% of the sauna group had been able to return to work compared to 50% of the non-sauna group[4, 6]. Therefore, Infrared sauna therapy can be beneficial for those suffering from arthritis, fibromyalgia and other muscle and joint pain including injury related pain.

Cardiovascular health Cardiovascular health

Sauna treatment has also proven to be a safe and effective therapy for a wide variety of heart diseases. To determine the effects of infrared sauna therapy on cardiovascular health, a study used subjects with at least one coronary risk factor to sit in a far-infrared sauna at 60°C for 15 minutes daily for two weeks. The participants who were given sauna treatments had significantly lower systolic blood pressure than those who did not (average of 110 mmHg vs. 122mmHg) [3, 6]. The study suggested there was an increase in nitric oxide in response to the infrared sauna therapy [4, 6].

A Japanese study looked at the effect of far-infrared sauna on patients with congestive heart failure. They first took 25 men with cardiovascular risk and 10 healthy controls to take ten infrared sauna sessions over two weeks (15 minutes at 60°C) followed by 30 minute of bed rest covered with a blanket. The purpose of this was to look at the ability of infrared therapy to improve endothelial function[4, 7]. The result showed significant improvement in brachial artery dilation (untreated with nitroglycerin][7]. They then took 20 patients with diagnosed CHF (New York heart association class II or III) to undergo the same sauna treatment. “The infrared sauna group experienced improvement in endothelial-dependent dilation of the brachial artery after only 10 sessions and no change for the control group [4, 8]. In addition, 17 out of the 20 participants had improvements in clinical symptoms [8]. Therefore, infrared sauna therapy can be beneficial for patients with heart disease.

Probiotics Chronic Chemical Exposure

Police officers in Utah were studied due to their consistent exposure to methamphetamine laboratories, as there is a 7 to 15 time higher risk of becoming ill [9]. An estimated fifty percent of the 300 Utah officers involved in methamphetamine lab-related activities reported higher death rates, cancers, or unusual symptoms, implying a link between meth-lab-related exposures and subsequent health problems [9]. Sixty nine officers consecutively entering the “Utah Meth Cops Project” were assessed before and after a treatment program involving gradual exercise, comprehensive nutritional support and physical sauna therapy [9]. Evaluations included pre and post treatment scores of the Research and Development Corporation (RAND), 36-item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) in comparison with RAND population norms, symptom score intensities, neurotoxicity scores, Mini-Mental Status Examination, frequencies of presenting symptoms, and a structured evaluation of treatment program safety [9]. The study concluded that statistically significant health improvements were seen in the SF-36 evaluations, symptom scores and neurotoxicity scores. The detoxification protocol was well tolerated, with a 92.8% completion rate [9].

In conclusion, sauna therapy has a long history of safe use when used correctly. However, similar to many treatments, sauna therapy can have side effects if used when not indicated. Be sure to talk to your health care practitioner before considering sauna therapy and see if it is the right treatment for you. Caution with claustrophobia, pregnancy (hyperthermia can be teratogenic [4], extreme lymph edema, hypoglycemia, kidney disease, liver disease, some respiratory diseases, pacemakers and or other metal implants [1].