Originally written 19 Nov 2018 / Updated 10 Sep 2019 and 17 July 2020
Hyperthermia, heating the whole body or just the tumor site to 107° F or more, is a common cancer treatment in many countries and is gaining increasing acceptance in the US. Research has shown that temperatures around 113° F can destroy cancer cells and potentially shrink tumors with fairly minimal damage to healthy tissues. While medical hyperthermia is more scientific than sitting in a sauna at the gym, time spent in your boring, run-of-the-mill sauna can still be therapeutic to those with cancer.
If I were to single out one method to combat cancer, it is the sauna. It assists removal of chemical toxins and heavy metals, increases oxygenation, enhances the immune system, and reduces the radiation burden in the body.Lawrence Wilson, MD, Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, 2014
Benefits of Sauna for Cancer
I was surprised to actually find some substantial science to support sauna therapy. Intense, short-term heat activates thermoregulatory pathways with benefits like nervous system regulation and increased circulation along with metabolic changes including reduced inflammation, increased insulin sensitivity, and a reduction in oxidative stress – all healing things for those of us with cancer.
Nervous System Regulation
Saunas quiet the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system associated with the “fight or flight” response, and puts the parasympathetic nervous system, good ol’ “rest and digest,” in charge. This is good because when the sympathetic nervous system is aroused, functions such as digestion, elimination, and immune response are put on hold as the body prioritizes things like fighting, flighting, or having a panic attack in the office bathroom. Research shows that the heat of the sauna has the ability to inhibit sympathetic activity encouraging better digestion, immune function, and detoxification.
Did I just say detoxification? I know, I know, we all have kidneys and livers to handle it. Except that many of us, including me at the time of this article update, do not as a result of damage from chemo. Regardless of the state of your liver or kidneys, the skin is the largest major organ for eliminating body wastes. Put it to use sweating out heavy metals and other chemical toxins stored beneath the skin.
Cancer thrives in deoxygenated tissues and at least one study suggests that low oxygen levels is a primary cause of cancer growth. I don’t need a study link to convince you that, while sweating in the sauna your circulation increases. This increased blood flow brings nutrients, hormones, oxygen and other substances to all body tissues. Here’s a link, anyway.
Reduced Inflammation & Oxidative Stress
Science has made clear that the inflammatory microenvironment around tumors contributes to their proliferation, survival, and metastasis. Reducing inflammation is one of the most important ways we can make our bodies a less inviting environment for cancer. A study of over 2000 men showed a significant inverse association between the frequency of sauna bathing and the level of C-reactive protein, a common measure of inflammation, indicating that regular saunaing is an excellent way to reduce inflammation.
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
This benefit was new and fascinating to me. Evidently, “whole-body heat stress triggers some of the physiologic responses observed with exercise,” per this study. Glucose uptake increases as does insulin sensitivity. For those of us with cancers that feed on glucose, depriving them of their favorite meal is a treat in and of itself.
Pain Relief and Relaxation
You can always put the research to rest and enjoy a sauna simply as a way to relax your achy muscles.
Infrared vs Radiant Heat Sauna
Some – especially infrared sauna salespeople – argue that you can more comfortably achieve a high body temperature in an infrared sauna than the standard Finnish sauna (along with many other much more outlandish claims). Infrared saunas use infrared wavelengths of light to penetrate and heat the body from within whereas the traditional Finnish sauna heats the air and warms you from the outside. I’ve only used one infrared sauna at Higher Dose in New York and it really didn’t feel that different to me but your mileage may vary.
Most of the infrared saunas you encounter are “far-infrared” referring to wavelengths on the far side of the spectrum. Nevertheless, it seems that technology is working to bring a full-spectrum or near-infrared sauna to an expensive spa or health club near you. The benefits discussed below apply to both infrared and radiant heat saunas.
Far Infrared vs Near Infrared Sauna For Cancer
There isn’t yet a tremendous amount of research comparing the benefits of near-infrared or far-infrared saunas for cancer. There is likely value to the whole infrared spectrum (wavelengths between 780 nm and 1000 μm), but far-infrared seems to be the most commonly used for therapeutic purposes.
My Experience with the Sauna for Cancer
We’re lucky to have a free sauna in our building. While my work schedule can make it challenging, I try to get in 3 or so sessions a week. Not only is it pleasant, relaxing, and a good way to increase my heart rate but, after each 15-30 minute session my first couple of months, I noticed a kind of furry texture on the skin of my torso. It took a couple of sessions to realize it was crap actually coming out of my pores! – like a used Biore pore strip. Super gross, right?
I’ve been skeptical of “detoxification” products in the past since I had perfectly functional liver and kidneys – not to mention my doctor complimented me on my immaculate colon after a colonoscopy a couple years ago (still proud!). Apparently, though, some crap hasn’t been getting out of my body until now.
Who knows what other goodness is happening in the sauna that I can’t see.
One more weapon in the cancer-fighting arsenal.
Update and At-Home Recommendations
I’m very sad to report that the sauna in our apartment closed when the coronavirus hit Hong Kong in late 2019. It’s now been over seven months without a sauna and I definitely feel the absence of its detoxifying benefits. My skin quality has deteriorated and I feel desperate for the cleansing sweat of the sauna.
Brad and I left Hong Kong in March and have been living as nomads. Access to a sauna is one of my highest priorities once we settle down.
I have a dream of installing this sauna the next time we have a house.
In the meantime, I’m seriously considering trying this sauna blanket.
I didn’t fully appreciate the healing benefits of the sauna until it was gone. With most public saunas closed in the midst of the pandemic, it’s a relief that there are still portable alternatives.