Sauna therapy is used by many complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, primarily as a therapy to facilitate detoxification. Proponents of sauna therapy assert that fat-soluble toxins stored in the tissues of the body such as heavy metals (e.g. mercury) and pesticides may be excreted through the skin and that this process can be facilitated by the use of saunas.
Sauna therapy is therefore often used in patients suffering from environmental illnesses such as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Gulf War syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and in any illness where toxicity is either strongly suspected or has been confirmed by appropriate laboratory testing (e.g urine analysis after chelating agent administration for heavy metals).
Some evidence exists to support these assertions but it is currently limited or of poor quality. Martin Pall, Professor of Biochemistry and Basic Medical Sciences at Washington State University, has put forward another mechanism by which sauna therapy may help in environmental illness. He suggests sauna therapy (and exercise) correct deficiency of tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) which is involved in nitric oxide (NO) production. Professor Pall has developed a theory which links dysregulation of NO production to the illesses covered on this website (more).
Research has shown sauna therapy to be of benefit in a number of other conditions, being particularly helpful for those with congestive heart failure and for reducing the risk of heart disease. Sauna therapy has also been shown to be a promising treatment for chronic pain while also benefiting patients with mild depression with appetite loss.
Different types of sauna are used, with far infrared (FIR) saunas becoming increasingly popular. Instead of heating the air surrounding an individual they use infrared radiation to directly heat the tissues. This can be a great advantage as many people who may benefit are unable to tolerate heat, for example those with congestive heart failure for whom traditional sauna could be dangerous, and chronic fatigue syndrome patients who may have an intolerance for heat.
Whatever form of sauna is used it is important to remember that electrolytes and other minerals and nutrients are also lost through sweat, so supplementation during therapy is recommended.