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Springtime Detox with Infrared (IR) Saunas
April 8, 2014
By Dr. Maiko Ochi, N.D., L. Ac.
Judging from the great weather we had yesterday, springtime is here in Seattle, and the two most popular topics that come up around this time of year are allergies and detox. Let’s talk about detox today.
Spring is a great time to detoxify. There are many ways to detox, whether it’s through diet (anti-inflammatory diet, juicing, liver supportive foods, raw food, fasting), supplements, exercise, or dry brushing … the list goes on. Another great way to detox is through sweating, especially using infrared (IR) heat, since in terms of surface area, our skin is the largest organ of detoxification.
Saunas can be used as a form of detox because they promote sweating, and certain toxins like heavy metals can be excreted through sweat. For example, mercury, cadmium, nickel, antimony, and lead have been found in human sweat, although it hasn’t been proven that saunas increase heavy metal excretion through sweat. Nevertheless, many people find saunas to be a relaxing and enjoyable experience.
Infrared radiation is basically heat energy. You can enjoy the benefits of IR by using infrared heat lamps or saunas. Hot yoga or Bikram yoga is another way to enjoy infrared heat. IR saunas differ from traditional dry saunas by temperature. Traditional saunas are heated between 150 and 185 degrees F, while IR saunas are kept between 120 and 140 degrees F. IR saunas are better tolerated than standard saunas because they aren’t as hot.
The literature is full of studies showing that IR saunas are great for people with cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure, peripheral arterial disease, congestive heart failure, and heart attacks. Evidence from some studies also suggests that IR saunas may benefit people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and type 2 diabetes mellitus. They’ve also been shown to be beneficial for treating depression, certain autoimmune conditions, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Many Japanese studies have shown that patients with chronic heart failure who spend 15 minutes in an infrared sauna heated to 60 degrees C had increased blood flow and new blood vessel formation, and reduced heart rate variability, arrhythmias, and heart size, leading to improved cardiac function and better clinical outcomes. They also had a lower death rate due to heart failure or cardiac events compared to control subjects who didn’t spend any time in the sauna.
In patients with severe COPD, IR sauna sessions reduced pulmonary hypertension during exercise and improved exercise tolerance and quality of life. In patients with diabetes, saunas improved quality of life, such as health, social function, stress, and fatigue. People with depression experienced better appetite and general well-being when they spent time in IR saunas, and objective measures such as ghrelin (the hunger-promoting hormone) levels and daily caloric intake increased as well.
IR saunas can be useful for pain too. People with the autoimmune conditions ankylosing spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis who had IR sauna sessions had reduced pain, stiffness, and fatigue, without any adverse reactions. IR saunas can be useful for other types of chronic pain as well. One group was treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise therapy, while the other one was also treated with IR sauna sessions. The latter group had lower anger and pain scores, and more of them were able to return to work compared to the former group. In 12 female patients with CFS, pain was reduced by about half in the first IR sauna treatment alone. In a separate study, two patients with CFS were on prednisolone; when IR saunas were added to their treatment plans, fatigue, pain, sleep, and fever improved. They were eventually able to stop taking prednisolone without relapsing.
So who shouldn’t be using IR saunas? Pregnant women should be avoiding them. First, they shouldn’t be detoxing during a pregnancy. Second, there’s some evidence that high temperatures can actually cause birth defects in fetuses. IR saunas are also contraindicated in people with aortic stenosis, unstable angina, severe orthostatic hypotension, and recent heart attacks. If you have certain skin conditions, like hives or open wounds, it’s best to avoid saunas.