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Turn up the heat

Used properly, saunas can provide a host of health benefits.

Saunas are a great way to relax, and after a workout they can be a treat for sore muscles-not to mention the mind. They can also have major therapeutic effects, something I learned a few years ago when I was diagnosed with high levels of heavy metals. My treatment included chelation therapy and infrared saunas to help flush out the metals (mercury and lead), which probably came from the amalgam fillings I have had since childhood.

I recently conducted an interview with Dr. Glenna Morris of Balance Naturopathic Health Centre in Halifax, NS about the health benefits of saunas. Highlights follow:

David Holt: What are the different types of sauna?

Dr. Glenna Morris: There are three types of sauna: wet, dry and infrared. The method in which heat energy is transferred is very different. Traditional (wet) saunas must heat the air around the person, which in turn heats the person after the air is sufficiently heated. Dry is thought to be safer, because the greater the humidity, the quicker the energy is transferred. So the temperature gets hotter faster, which is not as easy on the body as a dry sauna or infrared sauna.

Infrared is the most gentle type of sauna. The infrared heats your body without heating the air around you, similar to the way the sun utilizes the wavelengths of light for heat. Infrared has superior technology that directly heats the person, not the air around him or her, providing almost two to three the amount of perspiration.

DH: How does a sauna help remove toxins from the body?

GM: Increased blood circulation stimulates the sweat glands, releasing built-up toxins and waste. Daily sweating can help detoxify your body as it rids itself of an accumulation of potentially carcinogenic heavy metals (lead, mercury, zinc, nickel, cadmium) as well as alcohol, nicotine, sodium, sulfuric acid and cholesterol.

Human body fat starts to liquefy at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. When fat leaves your body through transpiration, it takes heavy metals along on the way out. The deep penetration of infrared energy in your skin makes this happen. This does not occur in a traditional sauna–only in an infrared sauna.

DH: What are other health benefits of an Infrared sauna?

GM: Research studies have found the following results of infrared sauna treatment:

» Significantly lowered blood pressure
» Significant weight loss
» Significantly lowered blood sugar
» Significantly increased blood flow
» Lowered cholesterol
» Lowered triglycerides

Also, repeated treatment improves impaired blood vessel functions in patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol. This suggests a preventive role for sauna use for atherosclerosis.

DH: What precautions should people take before taking a sauna?

GM: In a traditional sauna your body is warmed by the environmental heat. This requires temperatures of up to 170 to 210 degrees F (80 – 100 Celsius), which can be uncomfortable. Infrared rays penetrate directly into your body, allowing for a much more pleasant environmental temperature. Even children, older people, or physically disabled people can enjoy the benefits of an infrared sauna. I would not recommend intense detoxification for pregnant or lactating women to avoid passing toxins onto the fetus or infant.

DH: Sometimes after a sauna my skin becomes red and itchy. Does that mean anything?

GM: Sounds like you are developing acute urticaria (hives). This is a histamine reaction, most likely because you are releasing toxins into the blood and your immune system is reacting. Histamine is causing fluid to be released from your cells, producing the itching. This is not a problem as long as your breathing does become difficult, and it doesn’t last more than 30 to 60 minutes after the sauna session.

Note: Combining heat with cold water immersion also has benefits. Studies have shown that cold water adaptation may improve antioxidant capabilities and improve response to the stresses of illness, increase testosterone levels in men and estrogen in women, and reduce recovery time from exercise.

Sauna use should begin gradually, starting with a maximum of 20 minutes. Later, 30 minute sessions can be interspersed by cool showers and rest periods. The heat opens the pores, making it an ideal time to scrub the skin. Drink plenty of water or isotonic fluids during and after a sauna to combat dehydration and loss of electrolytes. Finish with a shower cool enough to close the pores but warm enough to prevent a chill. Most importantly, consult a health practitioner before you begin a sauna program. And as in all things, taking a gradual approach is best.

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