The Dangers & Delusions of Sweating to Detox. ~ Kathleen Summers


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Sweating Isn’t So Cool.

There’s a baffling new obsession with dripping sweat.

As Courtney Rubin writes in her New York Times article, “Some Like it Hotter,” more yoga studios and health clubs are accommodating their clients by baking them in heated temperatures of up to 105 degrees–or even more.

“We’re turning it up to 110 degrees by popular demand,” the instructor, Kate Albarelli, 31, announced in the sort of cheerful tone that would usually signal a time to rest. The women looked as delighted as if she’d given them one.”

Rubin says devotees get a sense of satisfaction from sweating. It’s satisfying because they believe it helps them to detox. And there’s the brag factor. It’s satisfyingly hip to be the hottest.

But high temperatures can be hard on the body. Heat-related illness isn’t so sexy, and it occurs when the body’s temperature control system is overloaded. The hotter the air and the higher the humidity, the more likely that is to happen.

Every year about 500 people die from getting too hot, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While death from heat overload is more likely in the elderly and small children, anyone can be adversely affected—even athletes.

The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research reported that more than 40 high school athletes have died from heatstroke within the past 20 years. Heatstroke is a potentially fatal condition that can occur when the temperature gets too high.

Heat stroke is 100 percent preventable simply by avoiding extreme heat—the kind of temperatures that we’re now seeing routinely in the yoga and fitness world.

Maybe if heating up to near the tipping point for catastrophe actually helped the body to detoxify from environmental pollutants, heavy metals, and the ubiquitous onslaught of synthetic chemicals in our world, it would be worth it. But the truth is, sweating doesn’t really help much with detoxification at all.

Chris Woolston’s reports in the LA Times,

“Sweating definitely won’t clear the body of mercury or other metals, says Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz, who studies treatments for metal poisoning. Almost all toxic metals in the body are excreted through urine or feces, he says. And less than 1 percent are lost through sweat. In other words, you’ll do far more detoxifying in the bathroom than you ever could in a sauna.”

For meth addicts, it might be a good idea. There’s evidence the body detoxifies from amphetamines and a few other “fat-loving” molecules like seizure medicines through sweating. Allen Barnes and his colleagues at the National Institute on Drug Abuse have been studying the sweating out of meth and other abused substances to support drug treatment programs and workplace screenings. Meth heads aren’t likely the ones rapidly transitioning through sun salutations in 105 degree heat. They may need detoxing, but they’re not getting it at the gym.

Yet, when it comes to what most of us want from detoxing (a way to get to rid of the potentially toxic synthetic chemicals we take in to our bodies through eating, drinking, and breathing in a polluted world), there’s little evidence that sweating helps at all.

In 2010, the journal, Public Health, reported on the detoxing potential of sweating out perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs are the synthetic chemicals we pick up from stain repellants on furniture, clothing, carpets and food packaging. One form, polytetrafluoroethylene, is the non-stick stuff on cookware. PFCs and other similarly structured persistent organic pollutants accumulate in the human body and are becoming an increasing public health concern. They’re implicated in liver toxicity, reproductive problems and nervous system dysfunction. It’s too bad the authors found that you can’t detox from these environmental toxins by turning up the perspiration.

Sweating through an intense workout at 110 degrees may be the hipsters obsession right now, but it doesn’t help much with detoxification.

On the other hand, there are known dangers of overheating—heat exhaustion, heat stroke, electrolyte depletion and dehydration. Opt for energetic workouts in 70 to 85 degree temperatures and sweat a little, but not too much. What it boils down to is that sweating isn’t really all that cool.


Kathleen Summers, M.D., Ph.D. is a board-certified internist with a background in toxicology research. Prescribing balance, she shares her insight on natural medicine, yoga and  health at




Editor: Edith Lazenby

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19 Responses to “The Dangers & Delusions of Sweating to Detox. ~ Kathleen Summers”

  1. Annie Ory says:

    Thanks for writing this. I like to see articles on the specifics of what does, and does not, happen to us in yoga from a scientific perspective. I was a Bikram yogi for many years and now practice and teach Baptiste PVF in a mildly heated room. I found over the years in Bikram that the rooms kept getting hotter and hotter, and I left when it became common to ask students not to drink in a 110 – 120 degree room. I regularly had the experience of wondering if I was damaging my brain permanently because it was so hot I felt my brain baking. As a Bikram teacher, I only had one student pass out in 5 years. She had come to class after drinking at lunch and was a heavy smoker.

    Personally, when I practice in a heated room I KNOW I get rid of things that I don't when I don't sweat. I know this because of the way I smell. When I've not been in the hot room for a long time, my first time back in the room my sweat is disgusting and smells very strong. I can barely stand the smell of my own yogi toes mat. When I practice in a hot room daily that never happens. I understand that whatever you're testing for in the lab isn't being sweated out, but my skin is cleaner, my pores tighter and I feel better in the heat. I don't know what's happening, but something is. In my study of one, what I've learned is that a mild heat, 90-100 degrees, is good for me. My joints feel better, my body eases into the yoga more readily. Some heat is good for ME. Keep up the fact based writing.

    • gphase says:

      "When I've not been in the hot room for a long time, my first time back in the room my sweat is disgusting and smells very strong. I can barely stand the smell of my own yogi toes mat. When I practice in a hot room daily that never happens. "
      Because you get used to it when exposed for a while, like with any other smells?

  2. Mike says:

    I stumbled on this article by accident, and then read it with interest, because it isn't that often that one finds a medical doctor prepared to comment on matters as "non-scientific" as yoga. Personally, my decision to cease attending Bikram Yoga classes was not the result of anyone informing me that the heat wasn't helping me to excrete polytetrafluoroethylene (up until then I was happily sweating, certain that the polytetrafluoroethylene was pouring out of my pores in buckets). No. Instead, it was because the torrents of sweat from my scalp were getting into my eyes, making it almost impossible to see anything, while the perspiration from my upper body was coursing down my legs and making it difficult for me to keep my balance on the badly soaked mat. In short, I found the entire experience pretty repellent. And now I also know, thanks to Dr. Summers, that I probably wasn't achieving any sort of genuinely effective detox, anyway.

  3. Philipp says:

    I have never tried yoga exercises in a heated room—When the asana practice is intense the inner heat generated by moving and breathing is enough to break the sweat in my case. These facts, even if valid, are in contrast with my personal experience. Looking at the glow of the skin after the asanas, the pulsating feeling throughout the body, mental clarity and tranquility doesn't leave room for any doubt that I am purified through the practice.

    • theYogaDr says:

      I totally agree, Philipp. Asana practice has its own purification from inner heat and inner work – without the need for artificially raised ambient temperatures. Glowing skin, a pulsating feeling, mental clarity and tranquility – these are all benefits of a regular Yoga practice. It's just not necessary to sweat buckets to obtain them.

  4. cathy says:

    well, I tak ehot yoga 4-7 times a week. After about 2 months my knees which hurt all the time from old lady too much athlteics arthritis which MD's thought would only stop hurtign if replaced.. stopped hurting.
    So/ Um?
    70, 000.00 for superfluos medical experiement with 70% potential success and possible bad effects// or 800 a year to be fien with good friends. improved posture and better sense of well-being.// You tell me.

  5. theYogaDr says:

    Cathy, So happy to hear that two months of Yoga have done wonders for your arthritis! Big kudos to you for not falling for the push for surgery. It's so unnecessary in most instances with a little attention to activity and range of motion of the joints, diet, and the calming of inflammation one can induce by paying attention to our inner nature. Yoga is definitely a better answer than the 70K "superfluous medical experiment" but I say that you could obtain the same results without sweating at 105 degrees. Have you tried other similar Yoga classes without the intense heat? Anyone else have a similar anecdote about intense heat and arthritis? Would love to hear it.

    • greateacher says:

      Yes, I did try regular yoga, also pilates, walking, weight lifting( low weights) lot sof ibuprofen, heat/cold alternates, ignoring it, crying, ournaling, B vitamins, chondroitin.. other miracles.. SAMe, reservatol, lots of cumin and turmeric, green juice drinks. I love activity and was deeply saddened as the pain and swellign increased. It has taknne almost 3 years of the hot yoga to make a huge change.. I was awar eof the possibility after the first few weeks, awakening and walking with no pain.

  6. jpd says:

    I fully agree with Dr. Summers. More than anything else, practicing yoga at 105F seems to be a fad designed such that it can be easily marketed to Westerners. I've been practicing yoga for quite a few years, have spent time in India and have yet to encounter original texts endorsing such conduct, or teachers/practitioners in India, who insist on practicing during the hottest part of the day (when temperatures on the subcontinent can indeed reach highs of over 100F). Keeping yoga studios comfortably warm (say around 86F) makes sense, but over 100F is plain silly.

    If anything, classic texts and modern teachers encourage yogis to practice early in the morning or after sunset, in order to avoid the excruciating heat of the Indian midday. Whence Mr. Bikram brought his hot yoga is unknown to me. His recommended room temperature during practice, doesn't coincide with anything I've ever learned about yoga, and when you add up the potential harms, as pointed out by Dr. Summers, makes no sense at all.

    But us Westerners – we love fads. Who cares if they make any sense, we want to be hip and cool (or hot, in this case). I doubt there will be much left of Hot Yoga after the financial flame behind Hot Yoga subsides.

  7. theYogaDr says:

    That's been my experience in India also – and I've spent lots of time there. And as you say, the classic texts certainly don't recommend practicing Yoga in the hottest part of the day to sweat more. In fact, the gurus of those texts intuitively realized that sweating can cause the body to lose valuable nutrients – thus the recommendation that if you do sweat, you should rub it back into your body for good health. Not that rubbing sweat back into your body helps much (from a science perspective), but the directive points out that they likely realized that you can lose way more than you gain by sweating excessively.

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  11. Andreas says:

    Here's some interesting information I just found on how sweating does indeed offer detoxification benefits:

    Additionally, I think the "right heat" is a subjective thing … one person's "unbearably hot" can be another person's "comfortably warm" – it depends on your body type/constitution – known as "dosha" in Ayurveda. Personally, I love a yoga room heated to 95 – 98F. 110 would probably be too much for me.

  12. Janae says:

    This contradicts everything I've been taught to detox heavy metals and other pollutants in environmental medicine. Dr. William Rea, who is the pioneer in environmental medicine, has sauna therapy as the core of his program, and has evidence that sauna/sweating does significantly reduce toxins in the body.

  13. bracketball says:

    I've had too many health benefits from being in a dry heat sauna. I wonder if the wither has tried it. I think its hard to write about something if you do not have long term experience with it.

  14. Brian says:

    Raising the body's core temperature through sauna has many scientifically proven health benefits, none if which have anything to do with releasing toxins.

  15. Jagadisha says:

    You might want to check out this article and some of the links to pubmed abstracts describing specific elements (BPA, pthalates, metals) that seem to be eliminated very effectively through sweating:

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