Can Traditional Native American Sweat Lodges Help Treat Drug Addiction?

Many studies and considerable anecdotal evidence support the theory that cultural and spiritual connections can assist individuals as they move through the drug recovery process. Addicts seeking alternatives to the typical counseling and 12-Step model of drug treatment are now employing spiritual concepts, both ancient and modern. Native American sweat lodges are one tradition that some drug rehab centers are starting to pass along to their patients.

What Is a Sweat Lodge?

The sweat lodge is a Native American tradition where individuals enter a dome-shaped dwelling to experience a sauna-like environment. The lodge itself is typically a wooden-framed structure made from tree branches. Hot rocks are placed inside an earthen-dug pit located in the center of the enclosure. Water is periodically poured over the heated rocks to create a hot and steamy room.

The sweat ceremony is intended as a spiritual reunion with the creator and a respectful connection to the earth itself as much as it is meant for purging toxins out of the physical body.1

What Are the Origins of the Sweat Lodge in the Native American Culture?

The sweat lodge ceremony, now central to most Native American cultures and spiritual life, is an adaptation of the sweat bath common to many ethnic cultures found in North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern and Western Europe. According to many Native Americans, its creation was prompted by the negative impact of Europeans on their native culture. With the introduction of alcohol and the inhumane treatment of native people, the need to re-purify and “find their way back” to traditional ways of living became evident, as they were becoming increasingly poisoned by the European culture. The sweat lodge ceremony was the Native Americans’ answer.

With the purpose of repairing damage done to their spirits, their minds and their bodies, many Native Americans consider the sweat lodge a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, where they get answers and guidance by asking spiritual entities, totem helpers, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power.

Traditionally, a group leader offers prayers and stories while the participants meditate. Many sweats start with the participants fasting for an entire day of contemplation in preparation for the sweat while avoiding caffeine, alcohol and other unhealthy substances. By design, as the steam and temperature rise, so do participants’ senses…and purification and healing result. Many people liken the experience to being reborn out of the mother’s womb.2

Sweat Lodges Offer an Easy Entry into Spirituality for Some People

Recovery may begin for some people the first time they contemplate the concept of God in any real way. In 12-Step programs, not only is God to be considered, but participants are asked to surrender completely to a “higher power.” While this approach certainly works for many, it may be overwhelming or feel contrived to others in the absence of deeper contemplation. This is where sweat lodges come into play; they offer a casual and comforting access point to the discovery of spirituality.1

Research Points to Sweat Lodges as an Effective Enhancement to Traditional Therapy

The results showed that the sweat group appeared to have greater therapeutic quality compared with the non-sweat group.  Further, participants in the sweat group reported sessions to be more helpful, had less absenteeism, and greater follow through than the non-sweat group.

The results showed a significant increase in spiritual and emotional well-being attributed to participation in the ceremony. Overall, sweat therapy increases the impact of therapeutic tactics and has physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.3

While Benefits May Result, Caution Must Be Taken to Not “Overdo It”

Sweat lodges have been linked to dangerous health risks, including overheating and dehydration. Being exposed to heat is not necessarily dangerous, since the human body is able to become hot and cold. A physical threat may occur, however, when individuals are exposed to too much of either extreme. Going into a sweat lodge isn’t the issue; rather, it’s how long participants stay in it that is the critical factor.

Not surprisingly, how a body reacts to the conditions inside a sweat lodge depends on a person’s size. A bigger person will heat up more slowly than a smaller person, so smaller people are more susceptible to difficulties. Frailness is also a factor, which is based on a person’s level of general health and physical strength and conditioning.

Hydration is the key to ensuring a participant’s safety. A person wouldn’t go into the desert and not take water along. It’s essential to keep fluids available since a lot of sweating is produced in the process.4

What Are Your Thoughts on Sweat Lodges and Their Benefits and Dangers?

What do you think of the use of sweat lodges in drug addiction treatment? Do you consider them an effective treatment service or nothing more than a glorified sauna? Leave a comment in the guestbook and share your thoughts.

“Healing Benefits of Sweat Lodge Ceremonies: Spiritual Experience Beyond Detoxing”, ThoughtCo.,, (January 14, 2016).

2 “The Native American Sweat Lodge: A Spiritual Tradition”, Barefoot’s World, .

3 “The Efficacy of American Indian and Alaskan Native Traditional Healing Methods”, National Council of Urban Indian Health, (Word doc available via the Internet), (August 2015).

4 “Sweat Lodges: Harmful or Healing?”, mybodyandsoul,, (August 23, 2016).

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