Thursday, October 13, 2011

From the Labs: Building a Campus Sauna to Sweat out Toxins

Bastyr is getting a campus sauna for a first-of-its-kind study to find out how heat treatments can help cleanse the body of toxic chemicals. It's a need that conventional medicine hasn't addressed.

Towels in a sauna
Sweat out toxins in a sauna

Faculty researcher Jason Allen, ND, MPH, is launching a first-of-its-kind study this fall to determine whether heat treatments can help cleanse the body of toxic chemicals. With the help of students, he'll track subjects who agree to rigorous sauna treatments of up to two hours at a time.

If the method proves safe and effective, Dr. Allen hopes to keep building a body of evidence and, eventually, design treatment plans for cleansing patients of harmful substances like mercury and PCBs.

In our chemical-saturated world, there's an urgent need for such treatment. "Every human carries what we call a 'body burden' of chemicals," says Dr. Allen, an assistant professor of clinical research. "There's no way to completely avoid exposure."

He notes that 200 chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood. Cancer, infertility, obesity, heart disease and brain development disorders have all been shown to be associated with synthetic chemicals accumulating in human tissue.

"What Can We Do to Get This Stuff Out of Us?"

At Dr. Allen's private practice, patients bring up the issue frequently. "'What can we do to get this stuff out of us?' is a common question," he says. "Conventional medicine really has no answer. Alternative medicine has quite a bit to answer it with, but with little evidence. That's why we want to develop an evidence-based protocol for lowering those levels."

The sauna detoxification study will focus on PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), coolant fluids that were banned by Congress in 1979 but are still found at many industrial sites, including South Seattle's Duwamish River.

While subjects may literally sweat out small amounts of chemicals, the heat treatment's chief benefit will most likely come from lipolysis — breaking down fat, where toxic substances are stored. That would allow them to move through the bloodstream to the kidneys and liver, which are the primary organs of excretion, Dr. Allen explains.

The study will include two groups of five subjects each: A high-intensity group will undergo two-hour sauna therapies, five days a week, for three weeks; while a low-intensity group will receive therapy for one hour a day, three days a week, for three weeks. They'll get breaks every 30 minutes to answer questionnaires and have their vital signs checked.

"Subjects will probably feel warm and sweaty, but not hot or exhausted," says Dr. Allen. "Some people report feeling relaxed and less fatigued after similar sessions."

The sauna will combine traditional Finnish-style volcanic rocks with infrared technology that uses a lower heat, and is being built in the University's Clinical Research Center. Funding for the12-month pilot study comes from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health. Students will help screen and orient subjects, take measurements and organize data. Some students may choose to be screened for participation in the study as well.

Environmental Medicine Clinical Shift

The long-term priority for chemical exposure, Dr. Allen believes, should be policy that prevents dangerous pollutants from being released in the first place into the marketplace and the environment. But there's still the matter of chemicals already loose in the world. One stark example: The carcinogenic pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, but it still shows up in some form in samples drawn from 100 percent of human test subjects — even people born after the ban.

Dr. Allen earned a naturopathic medicine degree from Bastyr in 2004 and is completing a doctoral program in toxicology at the University of Washington. He plans to continue advancing environmental health through the triple approach of practice, research and teaching. He's working on starting an environmental medicine clinical shift at Bastyr's Clinical Research Center (students can already work environmental medicine shifts at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health).

"People with known conditions could be evaluated for their chemical body burden and treated," he says. "So we help students learn, we help patients get better, and we help inform the scientific community about methods for getting chemicals out of people."

If you're interested in participating in the sauna research project, contact Dr. Allen at jallen[at]bastyr[dot]edu.

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