An ancient purification and healing practice, time spent in the bath house or sweat lodge is fast becoming recognized as a powerful 21st century weapon against the degenerating effects of pollution on health. Known as sweat lodges or inipi to the Alaskan and American Indians, as temazcallis in Mexico, temascals to the Mayans, the bania to the Russians, hamam to the Turks, sauna to the Finns and laconicums to the Romans, heated bath houses were and are an integral part of the spiritual life and/or healing practices of these cultures.
Written descriptions and observations of sweat bath practices by European travelers to the Americas occurred as early as the 1500’s. These and later writings remarked on the restorative nature of these practices. From the “French Disease” (probably influenza, syphilis or smallpox) to wounds, poisoning, childbirth recovery, prolonged grief and depression, and even neuralgias, the sweat bath was employed to relieve affliction and noted everywhere to be effective.
Today sweat baths, saunas or some variation of these are used throughout the world. The ancients knew intuitively and experientially what we are confirming and discovering with scientific observation; heat and sweat cures what ails you and improves the integrity and strength of your constitution. So, without any disrespect or disregard intended for the spiritual significance or cultural traditions surrounding the ancient practice of sauna, I would like to share with you the simple and yet elegant physiology and biology of heat and sweat in the body.
First, why should you be interested? Well, the World Health Organization estimates that 85% of chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer, chronic infections, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, mood disorders, osteoporosis, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and many other neurological and endocrine disorders are caused or precipitated by bio-accumulation of environmental toxins in our bodies and our inability to deal effectively with them.
The sauna, by promoting profuse sweating, is a non-invasive way to purge significant amounts of environmental and metabolic toxins from the body. Additionally, the hyperthermia of the sauna enhances immune system function and helps rid the body of the chronic infections that so often accompany environmental toxicity and chronic disease.
As a physician working with those suffering from the effects of environmental toxicity, I bear witness to the profound healing power of clinical detoxification and purification programs. A comprehensive detoxification program has several elements to it, and sauna is a major contributor to recovery. Individuals who practice it regularly recover more quickly and those who use sauna as part of a healthy lifestyle get fewer infections and experience faster recovery times from illness and injury.
Positive Effects of Negative Ions
Negative ions play an important role in our health and thus phychologically how we feel. Saunas produce an abunance of negative ions when water is turned into water vapor.
Heat Sources Vary
There are many sources of heat for saunas including electrical, wood fire (as in sweat lodges), rocks and infrared. Far-infrared radiant heat allows sweating at lower temperatures and is best tolerated by those with autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
The body sweats as a result of fever or heat. Many environmental toxins are stored in the body in such a way that sweating is the only way their excretion can be enhanced. The skin, which is already a detoxification organ, can dispose of even larger amounts of toxins through its surface when sweating is induced. Many studies have evaluated the contents of sweat following sauna. Everything from mercury to dioxins, and illicit and prescription drug metabolites have been found.
In addition to physically sweating out toxins, the heat of a sauna mimics the body’s natural healing response of raising its temperature to fight off disease. The physiological and biological mechanisms of warm blooded animals, including humans, demand that the body maintain a temperature that is normally above that of the external environment. But these functions operate only within a very narrow temperature range. Therefore, our bodies have developed sophisticated heating and cooling systems to maintain a stable temperature regardless of environmental conditions.
Fever is a physiologic thermic resource in humans. It acts as a defense mechanism against a number of processes, mostly related to either infections or the presence of abnormal proteins. One of the most immediate effects of fever is the acceleration of metabolic processes in general. Fever increases oxygen uptake and renders white blood cells more aggressive against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. By making cells more permeable, white blood cells can discharge more aggressive substances into the blood stream which enhances their capabilities in fighting not only infections but also conditions like cancer.
Individuals who are toxic or chronically ill are not always able to mount a vigorous fever or sweat or even maintain normal basal body temperatures. The hyperthermia of sauna mimics fever. Sauna can do for these bodies what they may not be able to do for themselves. As the body is supported, repair of the immune and autonomic nervous system is enabled.
Using sauna can create a reflective and meditative time. Many locations around Cape Cod provide saunas, both wet and dry, including Willy’s Gym in Eastham [opposite page] and Orleans. The purgative power of sweat goes beyond what we can measure, as anyone who practices it regularly will tell you. Consider making it part of a lifestyle that honors the body’s innate healing abilities and supports health in a challenging environment.
By Lorraine Hurley, M.D., Spring 2005
Lorraine Hurley, MD graduated from Boston University School of Medicine in 1997. She completed her family medicine residency at the University of MA in 2000. Lorraine is board certified in family medicine and has been practicing functional medicine for three years in Brewster. Her present clinical focus is bio-detoxification, restoration and preventative medicine.