August 28

Flashback Friday: Can Saunas Detoxify Lead from the Body?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In my video on henna, I talked about the study that proved lead could be absorbed through skin and into the body. Researchers applied lead to someone’s left arm, and then they measured the level of lead in the sweat coming off their right arm over the next few days. There was a big spike, proving that lead can go into your body, but also proving that lead can go out of your body. If we can lose lead through sweat, how about using sweating for detoxification?

Look: “No person is without some level of” toxic heavy metals in their blood, “circulating and accumulating,” and hey, cultures around the world have viewed sweating as health-promoting, from Roman and Turkish baths, to sweat lodges and saunas. But what does the science say?

When I looked up saunas, I was surprised to see this: a study on the detoxification of 9/11 rescue workers, with a regimen of exercise, sauna bathing, and supplements. They reported on seven individuals, and evidently during the month before the treatment, PCB levels in their blood stayed about the same. “In contrast, all rescue workers had measurable decreases in these PCBs following treatment.” And, they reportedly felt better too. They had all sorts of symptoms—respiratory, neurological, musculoskeletal—but felt better after the treatment. Improvements “consistent with” nearly 400 others they treated with the same protocol.

Wait a second. If they treated 400, why are they only reporting the results from seven? That’s a bit of a red flag, but not as red as this: the “detoxification regimen [was] developed by Hubbard.” As in, L.R. Hubbard—L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the infamous Church of Scientology. And the lead author of the detoxification paper also appears to have failed to disclose his financial conflict of interest for presumably profiting off the treatments.

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Sweating does, however, represent a “time-honored treatment” in the field of medicine for mercury poisoning going back centuries. But, time-honored medical treatments include drilling people’s skulls open to release evil spirits, or even giving people mercury itself. Remember mercurochrome? What do you think the mercuro- stood for? In fact, some believe Mozart died of mercury poisoning trying to cure his syphilis—though, of course, all the bloodletting he got probably didn’t help either— another time-honored medical treatment that makes scientology saunas look pretty mild in comparison. But, a case report was described of a person who apparently recovered from mercury poisoning after six months of sweats and physical therapy. But maybe he would have gotten better anyway? You don’t know…until you put it to the test.

Mercury wasn’t formally studied, but lead was. Put people in a 200-degree dry sauna for 15 minutes, and based on sweating rates, those 15 minutes in the sauna would force out about 40 micrograms of lead from the body, with some people getting rid of 100 or more per session. So, you could drink like a gallon of chicken broth, and even if you absorbed all the lead, you could be back to baseline after just one sauna session, even after drinking bone broth.

Is it safe for children? Based on what we know now, ‘sauna bathing poses no risks” to healthy folks throughout the life cycle, though medical supervision couldn’t hurt. Now, this doesn’t mean it would be as effective in children, as adults sweat a lot more than kids. And, of course, kids are the ones who need lead detoxing the most. “There is a clear need for robust clinical trials” to test all this.

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But even if it works, it’s not like some poor kid in Flint is going to have access to a sauna. That’s why I was so excited to find this paper: “The change in blood

levels of basketball players after strenuous exercise.” Saunas aren’t the only way to sweat; what about strenuous physical activity? Evidently, there was a study that found that “aerobic endurance training” lead to a drop in lead levels, with rowing better than cycling. But for how long? How intense? I don’t know; I don’t read German. But I did find the study, and it looks like they ramped up the stationary bike 50 watts every two minutes until exhaustion; so, probably just a few minutes, with no significant before-and-after difference in blood or urine lead levels, whereas an hour-long endurance exercise row did seem to drop lead levels about 12%.

This one I can read, though. A single intense training session on the court, and college basketball players blood levels dropped down to… Wait a second, they went up? A significant increase in blood levels, in fact by nearly 300%. They suspect it’s because where they were playing was so contaminated. The study was done in Turkey, where the lead levels in the air are evidently so high that all that extra breathing evidently made things worse, which I think underscores an important point.

All the dietary tweaks I’ve talked about for lead poisoning, and sweating it out, could be thought of as more expedient and cost less than primary prevention—getting at the root cause. This, however, represents “a retreat of sorts” from a commitment to cleaning up the environment and getting rid of these hazardous pollutants in the first place. Lifestyle interventions “should only be thought of as temporary solutions, and continued emphasis must be placed on eliminating lead in children’s environments” in the first place.

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