I wrote here on the health benefits of sauna in general, and here on infrared vs dry heat saunas. Quick recap on at least the detoxification portion, though: toxins, especially solvents, tend to persist in fat cells for years unless eliminated—and elimination occurs via sweating and weight loss. Sauna, therefore, is helpful for mobilizing these fat-soluble toxins for elimination.

Generally, sauna is the first step in my physical detoxification program, followed by hydrotherapy to flush the newly released toxins into the organs of elimination, castor oil packs to assist the liver in its metabolism of those toxins, and colonics to help in the final step of elimination from the body. 

But there are a few supplements that can help speed up the process… or even serve as alternatives to that last step (which is always the toughest sell).

Niacin and Elimination

Niacin, or Vitamin B3, has long been known to have a broad spectrum lipid-lowering effect. It is sometimes therefore used in high doses as a treatment for high cholesterol—but not very often, for two main reasons. First: at high doses (which can be anywhere over 50 mg), niacin can induce flushing, or a rush of blood to the surface of the body. It’s relatively rapid, and a little alarming if you don’t know what’s going on, but uncomfortable even if you do. The effect lasts only minutes, though, and is completely gone after half an hour. To avoid the flush, no-flush or sustained release niacin was produced—but this form of niacin is often associated with elevated of liver enzymes and sometimes liver damage.

However, non-slow release niacin has a very helpful secondary effect. While initially, it slows the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream, the body always seeks balance. Therefore, the rebound effect is a release of more free fatty acids into the bloodstream about an hour later or so—and along with them, any toxins that might have been bound up with them. This is the concept behind using niacin as an aid in the sauna for detoxification.

A few caveats, though: some of my very toxic patients also have histamine intolerance. The mechanism of niacin flushing involves the release of a prostaglandin from mast cells: the same cells that also carry histamine. Therefore a niacin flush might exacerbate high histamine symptoms for those people.

The rebound free fatty acid release is also associated with increased insulin resistance, though other studies show that this effect is minor. In any case, those with diabetes or insulin resistance already (which often occur secondary to toxic chemical exposures!) might not be good candidates for this therapy. There are also a few other relatively minor changes in lab values, including increased prothrombin (clotting) time, increased uric acid release (responsible for gout), and decreased platelets)–and low platelet count also often occurs in those who have had chemical exposures and therefore might need detoxification.

Finally, niacin requires methylation for elimination from the liver, and those with MTHFR defects or backup are often toxic, as that is one of the liver’s six main pathways of phase 2 detoxification

So, bottom line: if none of those issues apply to you, and you’re looking to optimize elimination from the sauna, adding niacin before a sauna bathing session might be a good idea.

Antioxidant Protection

The more toxic you are, the more chemicals you’ll release into your bloodstream with a sauna session. This is part of the reason why it’s very helpful to follow it up with alternating hot and cold (hydrotherapy), to flush those chemicals into the liver, so that it doesn’t linger in the bloodstream and potentially cause oxidative damage. But it can also be helpful to take antioxidants, such as glutathione or NAC, before or after sauna treatment to help mitigate this. This is especially helpful if you don’t plan on doing hydrotherapy immediately after a sauna session.

Elimination

As previously mentioned, the last recommended step of my detoxification protocol is colonics. This involves water flushing the colon, and triggering bile dumping, so that the toxins bound in the gut to bile don’t get reabsorbed. And it’s always the toughest sell for many of my patients. Depending on their level of toxicity, sometimes they can get away with skipping this step altogether and still reap the benefits, as long as they’re having regular bowel movements

But binders can also work well here after a sauna session. These include cholestyramine or colestipol, which bind bile and eliminate it from the body, or other binders that grab onto the toxins directly, such as activated charcoal, zeolite or bentonite clay.

The Upshot

I’ve long used a physical detoxification protocol (sauna, hydrotherapy, castor oil packs, and colonics) with success in eliminating solvents and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the body—but it’s helpful to know that in cases that need a little extra help, there are supplements that can speed the process along!

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