Saunas: To sweat or not to sweat? [My adventures in naked sitting]

by Charlotte on November 18, 2012 · 32 comments

Naked sitting does not, generally, sit well with me. This has ruled out quite a few potentially enjoyable activities for me: massages, bath houses, nude yoga, and partying with Prince Harry. Oh, and saunas. I’ve always hated saunas. If it wasn’t the fear of the super bacteria doing the fertility fox trot in what is essentially a human-sized petri dish, it was the feeling of getting smothered by the world’s most aggressive yoga teacher with eucalyptus-scented towel (“You WILL do corpse pose! Muwhaha!”). The few times I’ve ventured into one – usually under duress from some well-meaning nudie friend or another – I’ve nearly had a panic attack. What’s more horrible than sitting in a tiny super-heated box so well insulated no one could hear you scream for help if you were locked in? And with no panic button on the inside? Who designed this nightmare? Donald Trump?

I mean, just consider the warning signs. I counted no less than 5 posted on or around the door. “Caution: Floor slippery when wet!” “Do not stay in longer than 10 minutes!” “No pregnant women!” “No children!” “Swimsuit or towel required!”

And yet Tuesday found me camped out on a soggy bench in a hot, damp room trying my best to keep my nethers from touching anything that might get me pregnant or infected and resisting the urge to write “save me” in the steam on the door.

I blame Jen Sinkler. She’s the fitness editor for Experience Life magazine (one of my fave people at one of my fave mags ever!) and each month she does an “Ask Jen” column where people write in and ask her fitness-y questions. Even though she has yet to answer any of mine – I seriously want to know why boot camp instructors never, ever wear boots – I still read her column religiously. And in the November issue she was asked a question I have heard discussed in many a health circle: Do saunas help with weight loss.

As soon as I saw the question, I rolled my eyes. Duh. I’ve been every eating disorder in the crazy dictionary and if the old run-in-the-sauna trick really worked for anything other than helping wrestlers make weight in the most messed up way possible then I would have been all over it. Of course it doesn’t work. Everyone knows it’s just water loss from sweating and once you rehydrate then all that time spent inhaling Pine-Sol fumes was a waste. (Unless you just enjoy watching the water cycle in action, with your own filth taking the place of acid rain. Then: win.) I mean, everyone knows that, right? Right??

Jen’s answer: Yes.

My brain did that little screechy record noise that kids under 20 don’t even recognize as coming from a record. What, what?

How much do I love Jen? Attack of the zucchini zombies much.

Her entire answer:

The answer is yes, but indirectly, according to Tim Jackson, doctor of physical therapy and functional medicine specialist at the NeuroSensory Center of Charlotte in Huntersville, N.C. You will lose a little weight instantly, but it’s just water weight, he explains, and you’ll regain it when you rehydrate. The true weight-loss benefits are more gradual.

Take the detox factor, for example. “Because your sweat is made from lymphatic fluid, increased sweating allows the body to rid itself of unwanted toxins that may be lodged in the lymphatic system,” says Jackson. “Eliminating heavy metals and other toxins supports your body in burning fat, because those foreign molecules are no longer interfering with your metabolism.”

That’s not the only factor at play, though. The heat also causes the body to raise its metabolic rate as much as 20 percent, which causes the body to burn more calories for up to a few hours afterward. Another potential mechanism for weight loss is the soothing of the sympathetic nervous system. Any modality that helps reduce perceived stress and encourages a meditative state will likely lower cortisol, the nasty stress hormone that, when elevated, leads to fat gain and insulin resistance.

Ultimately, sauna time alone doesn’t amount to a serious weight-loss strategy, says Jackson: “It’s only an adjunct to a primary program of exercise, good nutrition and any necessary supplements.”  But if you really like the idea of sitting in a sauna for fat loss, you might consider seeking out a far-infrared sauna, he notes. The heat penetrates more deeply, and research indicates that these saunas can decrease oxidative stress, boost immune function, increase nitric oxide (a vasodilator) and improve exercise capacity. Several case studies show significant reduction in body fat after months of far-infrared-sauna use, says Jackson.

SO many questions:

1. Can you really eliminate heavy metals through your sweat? First, the definition of “heavy metals” is a matter of some debate. If you want a great primer of the most common ones, how they get in your body and what effect they have on you, this is a great read. But if defining them is murky then figuring out how to get them out of your body is positively dark. Many naturopathic doctors say you can. But according to an article on the subject in Scientific American, heavy metals are stored in our fat and we don’t sweat fat. Says Roger Clemens director of an analytical laboratory at the University of Southern California that evaluates environmental toxins in the food supply, “Except when one of the major organs breaks down, there isn’t a medical device or any diet that can accelerate the body’s natural process of detoxification.” The anecdotal evidence says heck to the yes! The scientific evidence says… probably not.

2. How is far-infrared sauna not like cooking yourself in a microwave? When I was in high school, every prom season horror stories abounded of girls OD’ing on tanning booths and literally cooking themselves to death. Everyone I knew swore they knew someone who knew someone who had suffered this horrible death. And that kind of thing sticks with you! (See also: The murderer on Lover’s Lane with the claw for a hand.) However, the evidence seems to say that these are safe – or at least as safe as traditional saunas.

3. And there’s that whole idea of lymphatic system cleansing again.

But it was this that sold me: “… the soothing of the sympathetic nervous system. Any modality that helps reduce perceived stress and encourages a meditative state will likely lower cortisol, the nasty stress hormone.” I am a cortisol superfund site. And I was born with a sympathetic nervous system so agitated that you can just abbreviate it to “pathetic.” Plus, my gym has a sauna. It’s free. I have a lot of friends that swear by them. (My recently-deceased trainer Steve used to sit in the sauna several times a day. You can do that sort of thing when you work in a gym. And have really short hair.) People have been using them for centuries. And while all the claims might not be true, it can’t hurt to try (but only for 10 minutes!1!!!1). Plus I was already super sweaty from my workout so it’s not like I could ruin my hair any worse.

So I did it. I marched into that suffocatingly hot room (180 degrees!) and plopped my (gym-clothes-clad*) butt down on a wet bench and forced myself to breathe. And you know what? I liked it. Because if there’s one thing about me you should know it’s that I’m pretty much always cold. I purposely park my car in the sun so I can climb in and sit in it with all the windows up. I sleep in full pajamas topped with a hooded sweatshirt (hood up) and thick socks – all under a down comforter. I have a sweater collection that makes Paris Hilton’s poodles jealous. It’s one of the great ironies of my life that despite my heat-loving ways I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in very cold climates.

I love being warm. The sauna made me warm. An added benefit was that because of the heat and moisture I couldn’t multi-task by reading a magazine or answering my e-mails on my phone. I was forced to just sit still. Meditate. Breathe. Other than the hiss of the steam it was perfectly quiet. It was positively womb-like! Reverse birthing for the win! For 9 minutes and 30 seconds I wondered why I didn’t do this more often.

Then my time was up and unfortunately I remembered: The thing I hate most is being cold and wet. And you know what happens when you leave the sauna? Not only are you cold, but you’re more cold than if you hadn’t gone in. It reminded me of why I never do hot tubs – because I hate the getting out part so much. (It didn’t help that since I hadn’t planned on sauna-ifying that day I hadn’t brought any other clothes to change into so all I could do was throw my jacket on over my soaked gym clothes and then mildew for 20 minutes while I picked up Jelly Bean from the childcare and drove home.) And yet, I liked it. While I was in it, anyhow.

Did I notice any difference in my health from my one ten-minute sauna sit? Nope. Will I try it again? Perhaps. I don’t know about the detoxing benefits – What happens when you sweat out heavy metals anyhow? Can you smell it? – but I think I finally understand why people like it.

Are you a naked sitter? Love, hate or ambivalent: How do you feel about saunas? What do you think about the health claims?

*I’m basically a nevernude. Me and the venerable Mr Funke.


{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Claire November 18, 2012 at 11:05 pm

I’m a swimsuit wearer. I jump between the sauna and spa and use the heat to stretch and relax. I find it a nice way to relax when I have the time (ie not often) and really enjoy the quiet time. Unless of course there’s a talker in which case I’m gone! Apparently gross sweat and annoying people is my limit.

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Sue November 19, 2012 at 3:42 am

I’m a sauna fan! I even wrote a post on my blog about it a while ago (called “Sweating withouth moving”). In most German saunas you are not allowed to wear anything but a towel! And you need to take a shower before and after each sauna session. You are also required to put your towel on the sauna bench before you sit or lie down, and wear flip flops when walking around. So I’m not worried about germs that much, most of them won’t survive the 200°F heat anyways.
I do believe in the acclaimed health benefits of saunas, especially that the switch between hot and cold boosts your immune system. It’s very important to use the sauna in the proper way, though! And like you, I really enjoy the dry heat on a cold, foggy fall/winter day.

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Jess November 19, 2012 at 4:39 am

I’m basically a never nude too so I’ve never been into saunas. Maybe if I could have my own private, self cleaning sauna, I’d like it more. I had totally written off it having any weight loss benefits too, so that is interesting. First thought in my mind when you said you can sweat heavy metals out was – how bad does that smell? Interesting post.

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Lboogie November 19, 2012 at 4:44 am

Steam rooms and saunas are not the same thing. One uses dry heat and one uses wet heat, to different effect. We have a great Korean bath house near DC with several saunas of varying temps (co-ed , so you have to wear a little uniform), and single-sex bath houses with various pools and steam rooms ranging from nearly freezing to burning hot. It’s great!

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Naomi/Dragonmamma November 19, 2012 at 6:39 am

Did I tell you that a few months ago I did a 30-day Bikram (Hot) Yoga experiment? 90-minutes a day, 30 days in a row, at 105-degrees and (I think) 40% humidity. I sweat like a pig. A very hot, profusely sweating pig.
At the end of the month I had strengthened some weak muscles and was a lot more flexible, but was I “detoxed” or did I lose a bunch of weight? No. I was a couple of pounds lighter, but I attribute that to the fact that I skipped quite a few lunches to go to the hot yoga class. I still say the whole detox thing is a bunch of BS. I sweat profusely most days of the week while I’m exercising anyway, I don’t know why it should be any healthier just because I’m in a hot room.

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Jasmine November 19, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Kudos for getting through the full 30 days. Bikram drove me nuts, not because of the heat, but simply the repetition – same moves, same order, same old same old. Blech!

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Hal November 19, 2012 at 7:38 am

I’ve worked out my schedule so that I hit the gym and showers before work. I like to spend some time in the dry sauna occasionally because it’s the one place in the gym that’s quiet. I can meditate a bit and collect my thoughts before I head into the office. It’s a good way to get some free “me” time and feel like I’m treating myself.

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Crabby McSlacker November 19, 2012 at 7:40 am

So whenever I hear the words “detox” and “cleanse” I sigh inwardly because I’ve never seen much serious science that endorse the various ways people try to do this, via sweat, enemas, bizarre diets, or whatever. And yet it’s such an appealing notion… there are “bad” things inside and we have to get them out and there’s a magical way to do this!

So I love your take on the whole thing. And on the cortisol thing… I’m tightly wired too, and this is a great reminder to keep up my sporadic efforts to chill. Even if it’s by warming up.

Great post, as usual, and I do want to go back some day and figure out what was going on with the zucchini zombie thing as I am a total fan of both you and Jen Sinkler!

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Cbuffy November 19, 2012 at 8:07 am

I’m a never nuder as well… but when I lived in Canada, I was lucky enough to spend one winter living with a friend who had a sauna in her basement! I would turn it to 90 and spend like 4 hours reading a book and just FINALLY being warm. Then I moved to Florida. Aaaaaaaaaah. PS – thanks for the comment on my blog!

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Geosomin November 19, 2012 at 9:34 am

I love saunas. I love the heat and the relaxing. If it’s a steam pod, even better. Most I’ve been in require bathing suits, but I’ve never been nothered by the whole nudity thing as long as there are no people being creeps at the time. I love being in the sauna for about 10-15 minutes and then hopping in the pool. I don’t think I could do hot yoga, because of the length of the heat, but for short bits…I love it. :)

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Meghan@themeghamix November 19, 2012 at 10:08 am

“I am a cortisol superfund site.” ME TOO.

I love sitting in the sauna. In the year and a half I’ve been at my current gym, I’ve once seen another soul in the sauna. So as stressed out CrossFitting introvert, a few minutes in the sauna before or after a workout does me a world of good. I am not much of a germaphobe, and so armed with flip flops and a couple towels I feel equal to the situation. I DID, however, cease using the hot tub in the locker room after seeing another gal immersed SANS SWIMSUIT.

Ew.

PS Jelly Bean’s recent hospital escapade served as a much needed date-night anecdote after some stressful family drama discussions. My pre-med hubby got a huge kick out of it.

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Nicky November 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

I lived in Slovakia for 6 years and used to go to the sauna at least once a week. It was amazing and everyone there does it. The saunas have men-only nights, women-only nights, family nights, and mixed nights. No one wears clothes–maybe towels. It was like a little oasis from the rest of the world. The only awkward bit was occasionally running into a business associate when both of you were stark naked.

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quix November 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

I am not a huge fan, but Zliten is. I’d rather hit the hot tub. However, it does help when I’m stuffed up with allergies so I hit it up every once in a while. Also – yeah, I’m in a swimsuit. I’m not terribly modest, but naughty-bits on the tile in there gives me the jibblies.

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Rabia BJ November 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Charlotte, very funny and well written article. I’m with you, always felt a little uncomfortable about going into a suana with half or full nake strangers lol.

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Happier Heather November 19, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Eww. I’ve never been a fan of saunas, because I hate the smell of sweat.

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Sylvie @ StruggleswithaFatA November 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I love the part where you say you had to mildew for 20 minutes. I completely know how that feels! I don’t like saunas, but I do love my gym’s steam room because it’s eucalyptus. I love going in there because it’s warm, but also because I feel like I can breathe so much better afterward. I wish I could have one in my house, maybe if I euca-steamed every night my husband wouldn’t complain that I snore. As for nakedness, I’m totally a girl that takes full advantage of the few available changing rooms in the locker room. I like to keep my dimply lady bits to myself, whether changing or steaming.

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Aurora November 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I can’t be in hot places. I am a naturally overheating person — put me in an environment over 70 degrees and I’m already heading for the door. In typical winter heated homes, my face will flush and I will feel like my cheeks are sunburned, and it’s very uncomfortable. My own house is a toe-chilling 60-ish degrees at all times. I like warm water, because it’s soothing and reminds me of bathtubs and I can get cold when I’m tired (which is when I take baths), but God help me if I’m in a hot and humid place that isn’t also full of actual standing water. So, saunas are basically torture devices for me unless I’m coming out of a cold pool.

As for sitting around naked, I love being nude! It’s nice. I especially like swimming nude, so I rent private hot tub time at the local spa, because omg it feels so wonderful to have water rushing over your bare skin. :) Being nude also means I can be cooler than I would otherwise be at the ambient temperature.

I honestly wonder if I have medical issues or something, because I overheat at temperatures most people consider nice… o.O

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Julie November 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I too, am cronically cold, love sitting in a warm car and sleep with just as many clothes. But, I don’t mind being naked (I think it comes from being a competitive swimmer for 10 years, this will take away any and all locker room changing fears). So, I think this is why I love the sauna. I don’t think that there is much more that a meditative benefit, I only get to use one every once in awhile.
I do have to say that you can’t use the sauna without taking a shower afterwards, I think that might be just wrong.

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Di November 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Sauna or steam room? THe two are completely different. One is a dry heat (sauna) which I love, the other is a sweat inducing, breath taking wet heat that makes me want to vomit (steam room). I can stay in the sauna ages, steam room 5 minutes is my maximum. I like to breathe ;) I love being warm and so the sauna is awesome :)

I love the sauna. Usually swimsuit because that’s the only time I manage to stay and sauna/shower. I plan it, take my change of clothes and shower after. However if I have to skip the swim (due to aqua class on at that time, why we need back to back aqua classes is beyond me!) I’ll do the towel thing. I cannot go in fully clothed, sorry that’s crazy!!!

I do love the way my skin feels after. Need to sauna more often!

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KC November 20, 2012 at 12:59 pm

“Sauna or steam room? THe two are completely different. One is a dry heat (sauna) which I love, the other is a sweat inducing, breath taking wet heat that makes me want to vomit (steam room). I can stay in the sauna ages, steam room 5 minutes is my maximum. I like to breathe”

My thoughts exactly! I LOVE the sauna, but I don’t even like to close the bathroom door when I shower because the room gets too steamy and I get lightheaded.

My sauna love is longstanding. Against all posted warnings, I used to spend a lot of time in the locker room saunas at m parents’ swim meets when I was a kid. Like, I’d go in there and read a book for the better part of an hour.

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Jasmine November 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm

If I could have my own sauna, I totally would. The hubby and I even toyed with the idea of getting one of those steam showers, we love our showers hot enough to cook us. Usually I take advantage of the warmth to get a good stretch in, something I’m usually terrible at.

Regarding germs, etc. I figure anything that can get through my immune system at this point deserves to kick my butt ^_^ I work in a teaching/children’s hospital, I’ve been exposed to everything and haven’t caught a thing yet.

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Alyssa (azusmom) November 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

(I JUST saw the “Nevernude” ep of “Arrested Development” on Friday!!!! Love it!)
I like saunas in theory. I often use them after a shower. OK, I say “Often.” I mean “Once in a great while.” And since I’m no longer teaching regularly, I don’t go to the gym much and, instead, work out at home or take a yoga class at a studio, most of which do not have saunas.
But I digress.
I always go into the sauna thinking I’ll stay the full 10 minutes. And end up leaving after 2 or 3. Because, y’know what? It’s HOT! And I, too, dislike being cold (hence my move from Massachusetts to California), and I don’t like the feeling of getting OUT of the sauna.

However, one of my favorite stories about my son involves a sauna: When he was 8 or 9 he went to the rock climbing gym with Hubby and his buddies. Afterwards he and Hubby took a shower, wrapped towels around their waists, and met the buddies in the sauna. My li’l guy was a bit perplexed at first, but then he relaxed. He relaxed so much that he started to sing, much to the amusement of everyone else in said sauna.
It makes me wish I had been there with them. But seeing as it was in the mens’ locker room, that would have been awkward.

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Jody - Fit at 54 November 19, 2012 at 9:28 pm

You will do anything! ;) I am not one to do the sauna or anything like that at my gym – I wipe down as I work out but as far as showers & sauna & pool, just not gonna share! AND with all my wiping down, I still ended up with this influenza so… if I had my won, I may try it but otherwise – nope – :) You are too much! :)

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Bek @ Crave November 20, 2012 at 1:05 am

I think it’d be nice to just ‘relax’ in one but I wouldn’t use one for weight loss purposes. I could see the point of doing it after a big night or maybe after a bit too much holiday indulging.

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Gwyneth November 20, 2012 at 2:24 am

Love the sauna! But it’s something I didn’t get into until moving to Switzerland.
KEY learning step for how not to get cold after: jump into the ice bath or have an ice cold shower… Sounds counter intuitive, but if you think about it, the heat of the sauna opens all of your pores for sweating, and your body works in bringing your core temp down. The ice bath immediately “seals you up” – promise, you’ll be warm again after a few seconds of cold shock! And I’m someone who loves being warm…

(Typed with one finger while holding a baby!)

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Melanie November 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

That’s why I love HOT YOGA…thought sometimes I feel like a masochist sweating away it is a great workout and esp. in winter the warmth feels so good!

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