Dr. Oz and Sauna Therapy

April 30, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Recently I was flipping through the channels on my TV and spotted a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show that featured Dr. Mehmet Oz. He was discussing all sorts of unconventional medical treatments and natural therapies that he felt were legitimate. One of the items on his radar was an infrared sauna. He cited benefits ranging from lowering blood pressure to increasing metabolism (calorie burning), and even eliminating toxins through the skin. Oprah conducted part of the interview with Oz in the sauna itself. They got out just prior to breaking a sweat.

Dr. Oz and Oprah Sauna

The use of saunas is very common in Europe and Asia and various forms of “sweat bathing” can be found in areas extending throughout parts of Africa, Central and North America. In certain societies, it’s both a cultural and medicinal component of social interaction and health maintenance. But, for many people, saunas are just those foggy looking enclosures that are found in the washrooms of local gyms. I was pleasantly surprised to find that modern science has been consistently studying the health effects of saunas all along. Today, I’d like to take a look at some of the most recent findings on thermal therapy and investigate whether some of the claims about saunas are validated in the scientific literature.

Based on my research, the strongest medical case that can be made for use of sauna therapy is in the management of heart related conditions. In fact, saunas have been studied for decades in cases of rather severe cardiovascular disease. The most recent experiment I found was published earlier this month in the Journal of Cardiology. (1) A form of thermal treatment called Waon therapy was used in a group of 64 patients with CHF (chronic heart failure) over the course of 5 years. An additional 65 patients were also followed and used as a control group. Both groups received traditional medical care but only the treatment group was exposed to the Waon saunas.

Waon therapy is a gentle form of infrared dry sauna. Each session utilized a standard heat level of 60 degrees Celsius and lasted for 15 minutes. After the therapeutic period, the patients were wrapped in a blanket and were kept on bed rest for an additional 30 minutes. The treatment was given daily for 5 days during the patients’ hospitalization and then was provided a minimum of twice weekly once they were released from the hospital. The results of the study were as follows:

  • During the 5 year follow up, 12 patients in the control group died. Only 8 patients receiving the Waon therapy passed away.
  • Almost 70% of the control group experienced a “cardiac event” as compared to only 31% of those given sauna therapy.

The authors of the trial concluded that, “This therapy is a promising non-pharmacological treatment for CHF”. The findings of this study are supported by other recent scientific papers:

  • In October of 2008, a trial involving 112 CHF patients found that Waon therapy improved cardiac function and reduced the size of the heart in those receiving the sauna treatment. (2)
  • A different form of heat treatment improved cardiovascular function in a group of heart failure patients who were awaiting a heart transplant. The use of a “steam foot bath” improved heart performance and promoted healthier endothelial function, which supports circulation. (3)
  • In January 2009, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN performed a study to assess the safety and efficacy of medically supervised sauna bathing in patients with chronic heart failure. The group of senior men and women received a 4 week course of Waon therapy 3 times a week. They continued normal medical care while having the saunas. The treatment was well tolerated and there were signs of improvement in exercise performance (treadmill) and lowering noradrenalin, a stress hormone that can increase the heart rate. (4)

Another promising area of sauna research is its use in chronic pain conditions. Several studies from the past few years indicate its potential in providing a safe and natural alternative to conventional pain relieving measures.

  • A report in the January 2009 issue of Clinical Rheumatology suggests that infrared sauna (IR) may aid those with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis that affects the pelvis and spine). 34 patients with these conditions found a decrease in fatigue, pain and stiffness while undergoing IR treatment for a total of 4 weeks. No side effects were noted. (5)
  • Fibromyalgia (FMS) is a syndrome that causes fatigue, pain, psychological distress and tenderness in various parts of the body. 13 women with FMS who were given Waon therapy reported a significant reduction in pain (about 50%). The effects became most apparent after only 10 treatment sessions. (6)
  • A Japanese study from 2005 found that infrared sauna was also successful in reducing pain and improving the psychological outlook in a group of chronic pain sufferers. In fact, the infrared therapy outperformed other forms of treatment such as psychotherapy, standard rehabilitation and exercise therapy. In addition, after 2 years of treatment, 77% of those receiving regular saunas returned to work, as opposed to 50% of those receiving the other healing modalities. (7)

Sauna Therapy May Reduce Re-Hospitalizations Due to Congestive Heart Failure

    Source: J Cardiol. 2009 Apr;53(2):214-8. (link)

    I think we’ve established that thermal therapy can help improve physical symptoms. But can it also provide psychological benefits? There is some evidence to support that assertion.

    A 2008 report demonstrated a reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood in 45 middle-aged men and women who engaged in “charcoal kiln” sauna bathing. (8) A study from 2007 investigated the mind-body response of infrared sauna on mildly depressed patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (9) Improvements were found in both physical and psychological symptoms such as an improvement in appetite, mood elevation, pain relief and relaxation response. Similar symptomatic improvements were found in a group of depressed patients with chronic heart failure. (10)

    The last issue I’d like to address is whether saunas are an effective method of systemic detoxification. Detoxification is a very popular concept in the holistic community. But it’s not always easy to scientifically validate the claims made about various detoxification treatments. I did, however, find some preliminary evidence that supports the theory that saunas effectively rid the body of toxins.

    In 1998, a case study was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that indicates that sauna therapy assists the body in eliminating toxic chemicals. (11) In 1991, a trial conducted on 15 patients using thermal therapy found a 80% positive response rate with regard to the “removal of toxic chemicals from the human body”. (12) Finally, an experiment from 2001 demonstrated the removal of various minerals through perspiration caused by 30 minute dry sauna bathing. This suggests saunas possible role in eliminating excess minerals from the body. (13) But, it also points to a possible concern about sweating away too many essential minerals.

    If you think that sauna therapy may be right for you, please practice due diligence. Discuss this treatment option with your chosen health practitioner. You’ll also need to decide what kind of sauna is best suited to you. Do you want high heat or low? Dry heat or moist? Where you go to have a sauna is very important as well. Make sure to pick a reputable site that is hygienic and run by a knowledgeable staff. By following these steps, you’ll increase the likelihood of finding the most health promoting and pleasant sauna experience possible.

    Be well!


    Tags: , ,
    Posted in Alternative Therapies, Detoxification, Heart Health, Mental Health

    8 Comments & Updates to “Dr. Oz and Sauna Therapy”

    1. liverock Says:

      Sherry Rogers has done a very comprehensive article on FIR saunas and detoxification.

    2. JP Says:

      Thanks, Liverock!

      I’ll check it out.

      Be well!


    3. Alice Cunnigham Says:

      Thank you for a well written overview of sauna traditions and benefits.
      I would add that buying from a local sauna dealer with a good reputation for service would be your best bet. Buying a sauna on-line
      is very risky. You’re likely to get a flimsy product which requires glue to hold together. Breathing glue in a sauna is not a good idea!Finnleo Saunas has been in business for over 75 years and has dealers in most parts of the U.S. http://www.finnleo.com. Their saunas are very well made from wood certified from sustainable forests in Canada (not from the rainforest in Burma or other places).

    4. randy hale Says:

      FYI – there should be a warning on this site regarding using Waon therapy and bleeding disorders. I am a hemophiliac and nearly killed myself using the Waon. I’m six months into recovering now, but I can see it will take me a year to build my strength back to normal.

      Randy Hale
      Pasadena, CA

    5. JP Says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Randy. I’m so sorry you had such a horrible time as a result of Waon therapy. And, I’m relieved to hear that you’re on the path to recovery. Did someone administer Waon to you? If so, were they aware of your health history?

      Almost every natural remedy or therapy isn’t appropriate for everyone. That’s why it’s vital for patients to consult with their physicians prior to engaging in new treatment modalities. Specialists, such as those administering Waon, should also act as a second line of defense. I emphasize this point in the concluding paragraph of this column.

      Be well!


    6. JP Says:

      Update: Waon (sauna) therapy may benefit those living with COPD …


      Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2014;9:9-15.

      Effect of repeated Waon therapy on exercise tolerance and pulmonary function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a pilot controlled clinical trial.

      PURPOSE: Controlled clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of repeated Waon therapy for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have yet to be conducted. The purpose of the present study was to evaluate whether repeated Waon therapy exhibits an adjuvant effect on conventional therapy for COPD patients.

      PATIENTS AND METHODS: This prospective trial comprised 20 consecutive COPD patients who satisfied the criteria of the Global initiative for chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) guidelines, stages 1-4. They were assigned to either a Waon or control group. The patients in the Waon group received both repeated Waon therapy and conventional therapy, including medications, such as long-acting inhaled β2 agonists, long-acting anticholinergics and xanthine derivatives, and pulmonary rehabilitation. The Waon therapy consisted of sitting in a 60°C sauna room for 15 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of being warmed with blankets once a day, 5 days a week, for a total of 20 times. The patients in the control group received only conventional therapy. Pulmonary function and the 6-minute walk test were assessed before and at 4 weeks after the program.

      RESULTS: The change in vital capacity (0.30 ± 0.4 L) and in peak expiratory flow (0.48 ± 0.79 L/s) in the Waon group was larger than the change in the vital capacity (0.02 ± 0.21 L) (P=0.077) and peak expiratory flow (-0.11 ± 0.72 L/s) (P=0.095) in the control group. The change in forced expiratory flow after 50% of expired forced vital capacity in the Waon group, 0.08 (0.01-0.212 L/s), was larger than that in the control group, -0.01 (-0.075-0.04 L/s) (P=0.019). Significant differences were not observed in the change in any parameters in the 6-minute walk test. Data are presented as means ± standard deviation or median (25th-75th percentile).

      CONCLUSION: The addition of repeated Waon therapy to conventional therapy for COPD patients can possibly improve airway obstruction.

      Be well!


    7. JP Says:

      Update: Waon sauna therapy improves some chronic fatigue symptoms …


      Intern Med. 2015;54(3):333-8. doi: 10.2169/internalmedicine.54.3042.

      Effects of waon therapy on chronic fatigue syndrome: a pilot study.

      Objective: Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a disabling condition of unknown etiology, and no definitive therapy has been identified to date. We developed Waon therapy, a form of thermal therapy using a far-infrared dry sauna, and in this study herein examined its feasibility and safety in patients with CFS.

      Methods: Ten consecutive inpatients with CFS stayed in a 60°C sauna for 15 minutes and then rested on a bed under a blanket for an additional 30 minutes outside the sauna room. The treatments were performed once a day, five days a week for four weeks. Perceived fatigue, the primary outcome measure, was evaluated using a numerical rating scale before, during (two weeks after the commencement of therapy) and after therapy. The pain level, evaluated using a numerical rating scale, mood, assessed using the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, and performance status, assessed using a scale developed for CFS patients were also examined before and after therapy.

      Results: Perceived fatigue significantly decreased after therapy, although no significant reductions were observed during therapy. In addition, a negative mood, including anxiety, depression and fatigue, and the performance status significantly improved after therapy. However, the levels of pain and vigor did not change significantly. No patients reported any adverse effects during the therapy.

      Conclusion: These findings suggest that Waon therapy may be a useful and safe treatment for CFS.

      Be well!


    8. JP Says:

      Update: Waon therapy, a Japanese sauna regimen, improves cardiovascular function, exercise capacity and quality of life in CHF patients …


      Int Heart J. 2015 Feb 27.

      Waon Therapy Improves Quality of Life as Well as Cardiac Function and Exercise Capacity in Patients With Chronic Heart Failure.

      Waon therapy (WT), which in Japanese means soothing warmth, is a repeated sauna therapy that improves cardiac and vascular endothelial function in patients with chronic heart failure (CHF). We investigated whether WT could improve the quality of life (QOL) of CHF patients in addition to improving cardiac function and exercise capacity.A total of 49 CHF patients (69 ± 14 years old) were treated with a 60°C far infrared-ray dry sauna bath for 15 minutes and then kept in a bed covered with blankets for 30 minutes once a day for 3 weeks. At baseline and 3 weeks after starting WT, cardiac function, 6-minute walk distance (6MWD), flow mediated dilation (FMD) of the brachial artery, and SF36-QOL scores were determined.WT significantly improved left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF), B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), 6MWD, and FMD (3.6 ± 2.3 to 5.1 ± 2.8%, P < 0.01). Moreover, WT significantly improved not only the physical (PC) but also mental component (MC) of the QOL scores. WT-induced improvement of PC was negatively correlated with changes in BNP (r = -0.327, P < 0.05), but MC improvement was not related directly to changes in BNP, LVEF, or 6MWD. WT-induced changes in MC were not parallel to PC improvement.WT improved QOL as well as cardiac function and exercise capacity in patients with CHF. Mental QOL improved independently of WT-induced improvement of cardiac function and exercise capacity. Be well! JP

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