By Dr. Mercola
While many go to great lengths to avoid it, sweating actually has many important health- and beauty-related benefits. Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and serves important roles just like any other bodily organ.
For example, sweating helps your body:
Maintain proper temperature and keep you from overheating Clean the pores, which will help eliminate blackheads and acne Expel toxins, which supports proper immune function and helps prevent diseases related to toxic overload Helps improve blood circulation Kill viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in temperatures above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit Helps relieve stress and promote relaxation
All of these benefits promote general health, and recent research1,2,3,4,5 has even shown that regular sauna use correlates to a reduced risk of death from any cause, including lethal cardiovascular events.
Men who used the sauna (Finnish-style, dry heat sauna) seven times per week cut their risk of death from fatal heart problems in half, compared to those who only used it once each week.
One mechanism for this beneficial effect is thought to be related to the fact that sauna therapy places stress on your heart and body similar to that of exercise.
Sweating as a Barometer of Your Fitness Level
In fact, the concept of "hyperthermic conditioning," or acclimating yourself to heat independent of aerobic physical activity through sauna use, has been shown to boost exercise endurance.
It does this by inducing adaptations in your body that make it easier for you to perform when your body temperature is elevated. Stated another way: as your body is subjected to heat stress, it gradually becomes acclimated to the heat, prompting a number of beneficial changes and adaptations.
These adaptations include:
- Increased plasma volume
- Increased blood flow to your heart and muscles (boosting athletic endurance)
- Increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat-shock proteins and human growth hormone (HGH)
Sauna use combined with exercise may lead to even greater, synergistic increases in HGH as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can prompt the generation of new brain cells. When I can, I enjoy using the sauna after doing my high intensity interval exercises for this reason.
A study6 published in 2010 added corroborating evidence to the link between sweating and improved fitness, finding that fitter people tend to sweat more profusely in response to exercise compared to unfit people.
They also begin perspiring much quicker during exercise. According to Time Magazine:7
“[Professor of internal medicine, Dr. Craig] Crandall says the differences between fit and unfit people has to do with each person’s capacity for heat generation.
‘A high fitness level allows you to exercise at a higher workload, which generates more heat, which in turn leads to more sweat,’ he explains.
He says men tend to sweat more than women for the same reason overweight or obese adults often sweat more than thin people: Their bodies are larger, which leads to greater heat generation during activity.”
Different Kinds of Sweating
Not all perspiration is in response to heat or exercise, however. Most people are probably familiar with the experience of sweating when nervous or anxious for example. You actually have two different types of sweat glands:8
- Eccrine sweat glands, which are distributed over your entire body
- Apocrine sweat glands, located primarily in your armpits and genital area
Your palms and the soles of your feet have a higher density of eccrine glands than other parts of your body, and while the “why” is still unknown, these two areas tend to be primarily activated by emotional stimuli.
The glands in your armpits are stimulated by both heat generation and emotions, while most other body areas are primarily brought to sweat by heat. The International Hyperhidrosis Society9 has the following to say about the biological imperatives behind emotional sweating:
“Emotional sweating is thought to be an atavistic function that was important when hunting animals or fighting enemies. Physiologic amounts of sweat on the palms and soles can improve friction by controlling the humidity of the stratum corneum, leading to an improved grip.
Generalized sweating cools the body when intense physical activity is expected. In addition, increased eccrine sweat output in the axillae [armpit] produced by emotional stimuli will allow natural odors from prior apocrine gland secretion to aerosolize and function as pheromone signals.”
The Importance of Sweating for Detoxification
Your skin is a major organ of elimination, but many people do not sweat on a regular basis. This is why repeated use of a sweat-inducing sauna slowly restores skin elimination, which can help reduce your toxic load quite significantly.
The use of sweating as a form of detoxification is downplayed by modern medicine, yet it has been valued as a form of cleansing since ancient times. Traditional examples include Roman baths, Aboriginal sweat lodges, Scandinavian saunas, and Turkish baths.
According to a systematic review10 published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, an array of toxins are excreted in sweat, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, flame retardant chemicals, and bisphenol-A (BPA). The authors concluded that:
- Sweat may be an important route for excretion of cadmium when an individual is exposed to high levels
- Sweat-inducing sauna use might provide a therapeutic method to increase elimination of toxic trace metals
- Sweating should be the initial and preferred treatment of patients with elevated mercury urine levels11
Detoxing can also be of particular benefit if you have thyroid issues. As mentioned earlier, lack of sweating is a strong indication of an underactive thyroid. Hypothyroid people tend to feel cold much of the time, and are slow to warm up even in a sauna, and don't sweat with mild exercise.
They are also constipated, lethargic, and have dry skin. Halides such as bromine, found in baked goods, soft drinks, pesticides, and fire retardants, just to name a few sources, compete for the same receptors used in the thyroid gland to capture iodine.
This inhibits thyroid hormone production resulting in a low thyroid state. The more you can free your body of toxic halides, the more iodine your body will be able to hang on to, and the better your thyroid will function. This includes removing fluoride from your water, which also impairs your thyroid. Soy can also impair thyroid function. Of course, you’ll also want to get your thyroid hormone levels checked if you suspect you may suffer from thyroid dysfunction.
Boosting Your Health with the Use of a Sauna
Using a sauna is a great way to sweat out toxins your body accumulates through contaminated food, water, pollution, and other environmental exposures. As discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu, the mobilization of stored toxins can be further enhanced by taking niacin in conjunction with sauna bathing. Saunas will also help kill off viruses and other disease-promoting microbes in your body.
As a general rule, viruses and toxin-laden cells are weaker than normal cells and have poor tolerance to heat. As a result, raising your body temperature can help heal infections more quickly. Today, there are three basic types of saunas to choose from:
- The traditional wet Finnish sauna, where steam is created by throwing water on hot rocks (the heat can be generated by either wood burning or electricity). This type of sauna heats you up from the outside in, like an oven
- The dry Finnish sauna that uses electrical heating, and therefore does not employ water (these stoves are not made to have water poured on them. Doing so can result in short-circuiting)
- Far-infrared saunas, which heat you from the inside out, thereby accelerating and improving detoxification
My personal preference is the far-infrared sauna. It heats your tissues several inches deep, which can enhance your natural metabolic processes, enhances circulation, and helps oxygenate your tissues, but perhaps most importantly; it can help restructure the water in your cells.
Your body consists of over 99 percent water molecules, but as explained by Dr. Gerald Pollack, the water in your cells is not just regular water, but highly structured water with special properties. The infrared rays from the sauna (and the sun) will help structure the water in your body and may be one of the reasons why regular use has been associated with decreased cardiac deaths.
Structured water is more viscous, dense, and has a negative charge. It can hold energy, much like a battery, and deliver energy too. A key ingredient to create this highly structured water is infrared light. One reason why infrared saunas make you feel so good is because your body’s cells are deeply penetrated by infrared energy, which builds and stores structured water. The same goes for light therapy, spending time in the sun, and laser therapy.
A Cautionary Warning About High EMF Saunas
While some still favor old-fashioned wood-burning wet saunas, the more modern electrical versions are the most common today. Unfortunately, many electric saunas emit high levels of electromagnetic radiation. You can easily test this by using an inexpensive electrical meter, or a more sophisticated EMF meter like Trifield. This is a problem because we’re fundamentally electrical beings; the cells in your body communicate with each other electrically, and if you’re exposed to an external electrical field, it could interfere with their communication and wreak havoc on your system.
Depending on your health status, detoxing in a high-EMF environment might actually do you more harm than good. I previously interviewed Steve Benda about this important issue. Benda is trained in power systems and nuclear engineering, and helped develop a safer, low-EMF infrared sauna that has since led to the creation of an entire new generation of shielded saunas.
Electromagnetic fields (EMF) can have adverse effects on cellular function, so I would urge you to consider one of those models if you’re thinking about adding a sauna to your home. In the interview, he describes how these safer limits of exposure were determined:
“... ‘The standard we use as our target is one that has developed in Sweden... called the electromagnetic Swedish standard... They have developed a standard where, at 30 or 50 centimeters from [a computer] screen, there would be a certain amount of milligauss reading or maximum electric field. Based on the credibility of that study, we took that same benchmark, and applied that to our saunas. Currently, our standard is 2.0 milligauss at 30 centimeters.”
Sauna Bathing Can Be an Excellent Addition to a Healthy Lifestyle
Virtually everyone is exposed to heavy metals and toxic chemicals today, and using an infrared sauna can be a helpful method to promote detoxification. Its dry, warming energy is highly compatible with the human body, and by heating your tissues several inches deep, it helps enhance cellular energy production and facilitate healing. Furthermore, viruses and toxin-laden cells are weaker than normal cells and tolerate heat poorly, so raising your body temperature helps heal infections quicker.
A major organ of elimination, most people’s skin is very inactive. Many simply do not sweat enough. Repeated use of the sauna slowly restores your body’s ability to eliminate toxins through your skin. Just be sure to select a low-EMF version if you’re considering buying one, or you might risk canceling out its benefits.
Also remember that saunas work best when integrated into a comprehensive healthy lifestyle program, which includes eating a healthy diet — ideally organic and/or locally grown without pesticides — exercising, and avoiding toxic exposures. Last but not least, if you’re having trouble sleeping, using the sauna shortly before bedtime can be enormously beneficial, as it tends to make you drowsy and facilitates falling asleep quickly.