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.
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.