If you hang around the health and natural living communities long enough, you’ll eventually hear about things like red light therapy and infrared sauna benefits, especially for detoxification.
In fact, various types of saunas are often touted for their benefits in weight loss, removal of toxins, reduction of cellulite, and much more, but it is difficult to find evidence backing these claims. Some sites even go so far as to claim that saunas (especially infrared) can help reverse cellular damage from EMFs and help detox heavy metals.
After a lot of research and testing and trying several saunas myself, I believe that they do have benefits, but not the ones most often touted online.
What Is a Sauna?
Many traditional cultures used heat therapies for healing for thousands of years, dating back to the Mayans (2000 BC), and ancient Greecians and Romans (300 BC). Nowadays, sauna use is engrained in many cultures, from the Finnish saunas to the Swedish bastu, the Russian banyas, the Korean jjimjilbangs, and the Japanese sento.
The term “sauna” can refer to any type of small or large room or device designed to help the user experience dry heat or wet heat (steam). There are now also infrared (far and near) saunas that emit infrared light and claim to heat the body more effectively.
Types of Saunas
There are multiple types of saunas, including:
- traditional dry saunas, which can be heated with fire, hot stones, gas, or electricity
- steam saunas, where you can generate steam by applying water on the heating element (popular in Scandinavian or Finnish culture)
- infrared saunas, which use invisible light within certain frequencies to penetrate and heat up the body’s tissues directly
Infrared saunas can further be broken down in to 3 types:
- near infrared saunas
- far infrared saunas (often abbreviated FIR)
- full spectrum infrared saunas
Which Sauna Is Best?
The research is still out on this. Most of the studies are done on traditional saunas and seem to indicate the heat is the main mechanism of benefit. At the same time, many companies claim that infrared saunas have additional benefits, though we’re still waiting on studies to prove this. Infrared saunas are often much less expensive and easier to fit into a home environment, making them a more reasonable option for most of us.
The Health Benefits of Heat
So, why would one swelter in a sauna? I find it pleasant (especially in a FIR sauna where the heat doesn’t feel quite as intense), but not everyone has the same level of heat tolerance (more on that below).
- Inducing heat-shock proteins – This can keep components of the cells functioning longer. It can also prevent cells from damage by scavenging free radicals and increasing cellular antioxidants like glutathione. Some heat shock proteins can even help with muscle gain.
- Imitating cardiovascular exercise – Heat conditioning or sauna use resembles cardiovascular exercise in many ways, because the cardiovascular system has to work harder to eliminate the heat. Not only does it increase blood flow, sweating, and cardiovascular fitness, but it also leads to a post-exercise euphoria where you feel relaxed, happy, and experience less pain.
- Improving brain function – Sauna use may robustly increase growth hormones, trigger muscle growth, and the growth of new brain cells. It increases BDNF and other neurotransmitters that helps the brain function better and stimulates the growth of new brain cells.
- Reducing stress – Last but not least, saunas help relax you and make you more resilient to stress. (I may or may not especially like to use it for this reason!)
Bottom line, whether it’s through exercise, switching to natural deodorant, or use of a sauna, I try to break a sweat several times a week if not daily for short intervals to get the benefits.
What Is an Infrared Sauna?
The infrared sauna is a more recent invention as it can only operate with electricity. In the 1800s, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg from Michigan put together what he called an “electric light bath” from light bulbs, right around the time that light bulbs (which emitted a lot of near infrared light) were invented.
After he presented his invention at Chicago World Fair, a German entrepreneur saw the device, replicated the design and sold it all over the globe because of its powerful healing abilities. It was said that this device cured the gout for the King of England!
How Infrared Saunas Work
Infrared spectrums can uniquely affect other positive changes in our cells and organ systems in a way traditional heated saunas can’t. While traditional saunas heat the air or steam to heat the body, infrared saunas use invisible light just below red light frequencies to penetrate and heat up the tissues directly, to a depth of up to 1.5 inches into the skin. Although our eyes can’t see it, we can feel it as gentle, radiant heat.
The mechanism by which infrared saunas work is called photobiomodulation … a big fancy word meaning a form of therapy that utilizes light.
What Is Photobiomodulation?
According to quantum physics, molecules can be excited by specific light frequencies. (The higher frequency the light is, the more energy it carries.) The “excited” molecule then goes through a process to release the energy and return to its normal state, typically in the form of light at a lower frequency.
You can observe this process happening everyday inside of a fluorescent lamp, when a UV light excites chemicals coating the inside of the bulbs to emit visible light.
Photobiomodulation is when living organisms utilize this process. This is where the distinction between near and far infrared comes in:
Near Infrared Saunas
Higher frequency red light and near infrared light (0.8 – 1.5 µm) can excite energy-producing enzymes in the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. This increases mitochondria function and initiates many healing processes inside the cells, including increasing cellular energy (ATP) production, reducing oxidative stress, and reducing inflammation. (This article discusses more about the specific benefits of near infrared.)
Far Infrared Saunas
While scientists are still trying to understand why the far infrared spectrum has so many health benefits, this light spectrum has more clinical studies supporting its benefits over other infrared bands.
Rather than exciting mitochondria enzymes, far-infrared light (5.6–1000 µm) affects the health of the cells by exciting water molecules. Aside from producing heat, far infrared may also increase mitochondria function by structuring the water molecules that surround the mitochondria.
Health Benefits of Infrared Saunas
Similar to the benefits of general sauna use listed above, these are thought to be more specific to infrared sauna use:
1. Heart Health & Blood Pressure
According to a review of all of the published scientific literature about these infrared saunas, the biggest researched benefit seems to be the coronary benefits, most notably in their ability to help normalize blood pressure and reduce the chance of congestive heart failure.
An increase in circulation and sweating can aid in detoxification, and in this way sauna therapy helps mobilize toxins. A systematic review in 2012 found that toxic heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury are found in sweats of people who are exposed to these harmful metals. In a case report, they found that mercury levels normalized with repeated sauna treatments.
3. Anti-aging, Muscle Growth, and Injury Healing
Saunas increase heat shock proteins, antioxidant enzymes, and stimulate cellular cleanup (autophagy), which can help our cells function like new. In aging mice, an increase in heat shock proteins help delay aging and improves cognitive function.
Sauna bathing can also increase several anti-aging hormones including human growth hormones and the insulin-growth factor 1. IGF-1, in particular, can really help with injury healing.
Several heat-shock proteins can even help with increasing muscle mass, even without weight training. Through photobiomodulation, infrared therapy has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect that can accelerate injury healing.
4. Mood, Mental Health, and Cognitive Function
Just as when you go for a run, sauna use increases endorphins (the happiness hormone) and opiods (the body’s natural pain reliever), as well as a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the brain.
BDNF stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new neuronal cells) in the brain and protects new neurons from damage. Improving BDNF levels is therefore important for cognitive function. In addition, low or abnormal levels of BDNF may be a cause of several mental and psychiatric diseases.
Infrared saunas can also reduce stress by re-balancing the stress response axis. It can help lower cortisol, and thus helps with stress-related health problems. Saunas also improve the neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which can help improve cognitive performance.
5. Weight Loss and Metabolic Diseases
Contrary to popular claims, heat and infrared exposure do not directly burn fat or kill fat cells. However, saunas help improve insulin sensitivity, increase lean muscles, and reduce fat by changing the hormonal environment. In addition, the saunas also reduce inflammation. Therefore, sauna therapies can prevent obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
A Japanese study found that two weeks of sauna therapy increased appetite and food intake in people of a healthy weight. However, in overweight people, far infrared sauna usage together with a low-calorie diet resulted in significant weight and body fat loss. While this study did not compare the fat loss with a group that did not use the sauna, the reduction in body fat (4.5%) in about two week’s time is considered very fast.
6. Inflammation and Autoimmunity
By increasing circulation in the body, heat exposure can help reduce inflammation.
Infrared saunas, especially far infrared saunas, can help decrease inflammation more powerfully than other types of saunas through photobiomodulation. Far infrared therapy stimulates protective nitric oxide production in the blood vessels, reduces oxidative stress, and increases mitochondria function. Several studies have shown that far infrared exposure helps with numerous inflammatory diseases, including:
- cardiovascular diseases
- chronic kidney disease
- chronic pain
- chronic fatigue
- Sjögren syndrome (an immune condition marked by dry eyes/mouth)
- rheumatoid arthritis
- asthma and chronic bronchitis
- poor sleep
According to Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist with a board certification in sleep medicine, the steep drop in body temperature at night is one of the circadian cues that the body takes that it is time to sleep. This explains why a warm bath or a shower before bed can improve sleep quality. Because the sauna typically heats the body up much hotter than a warm shower, it can take the body a few hours to cool down for bed. In order to improve your sleep quality, consider using a sauna session in the afternoon or before dinner in order to allow the body to cool down by bedtime.
A Japanese study also found that far-infrared ray exposure improved sleep quality in both rats and an insomniac human subject.
8. Skin Health
In order to eliminate heat, your body increases blood flow to the skin. In addition, the skin adapts to this process, making it healthier. A German study found that the skin of regular saunas users could better hold moisture and maintain a healthy skin pH. In addition, these sauna users had less sebum on their foreheads, suggesting that they were less likely to get acne.
Photobiomodulation by red and near infrared lights can help accelerate wound healing and reduce inflammation of the skin. In addition, it has been used to treat acne, actinic keratinosis, and basal cell carcinoma.
Skin problems like eczema and psoriasis involves both inflammation and a vulnerability of the skin barrier. By helping both with strengthening the skin barrier and reducing overall inflammation, infrared sauna, if tolerated, can really help with these skin issues. (If sweat significantly irritates the rash, then you may want to protect the rashes with a eczema-friendly lotion and shower right after the sauna.)
9. Cellulite Reduction (Along with Other Treatments)
There are several studies that evaluated how well infrared light exposure reduced cellulite along with other treatments. One Brazilian study found that a near infrared treatment further enhanced the cellulite-reducing effects of regular treadmill exercises. Two studies found that a combination of radio-frequency, infrared light, and mechanical massage treatment significantly helped with cellulite appearance.
Risks & Cautions for Sauna Use
Though sauna use is generally considered safe, anyone considering sauna use should absolutely check with a doctor or medical professional first, as some people (including Tim Ferriss) have genetic conditions that can lead to overheating and health problems from sauna use.
Common sense cautions also include avoiding direct contact with heating elements to avoid burns, not using a sauna for more than the recommended amount of time, or using a sauna after alcohol use or exercise. (In my case I’ve decided an occasional glass of wine in the sauna is a risk I’m wiling to take…)
Anyone new to sauna use should start off gently at a lower temperature and shorter periods, and gradually increase the temperature and duration of sauna use. Take breaks or finish if you don’t feel well. Remember to hydrate and replace electrolytes accordingly during and after your sauna session.
Safe for Pregnancy?
While there are concerns that heat exposure may harm babies in utero, studies show that saunas typically do not pose problems in healthy pregnancies. Because every pregnancy is different, it is best to check with your doctor or midwife first.
How I Get the Benefits of a Sauna
Here’s the thing … saunas are pricey and they aren’t for everyone. After researching the health benefits, it became a priority for us to make room in the budget for a sauna, but it certainly isn’t a small decision!
Our local gym had a sauna, but we realized that by the time we paid for a gym membership for my husband and I (that included childcare), we could buy much of the equipment we’d be using instead over the course of a couple of years. So instead of going to the gym for sauna use and working out there, we now have a low-EMF infrared sauna in our home and have purchased workout equipment we actually use (kettlebells, free weights, pull up bar, etc.).
Since the most beneficial part of the sauna is the heat itself, we worked up to spending as much as half an hour in it at one time. The sauna is super relaxing and it has been beneficial for my skin as well! I jokingly call the sauna my “quiet box” and often listen to podcasts while I’m in there. I enjoy it so much, that I’ve even recorded podcasts in it!
And if you’re really up for a challenge, it’s even possible to build a traditional Finnish sauna from home!
There are two great companies that offer at-home saunas:
- Clearlight: Offers full-spectrum, low-EMF saunas. They have various models from a 1-person up to custom whole room saunas.
- Sunlighten: Another trusted name in infrared saunas with a variety of options. They have a portable one-person sauna that is much less expensive than wooden models and easier to store.
How Often (& How Long) Is Healthy?
Many Finnish people use the sauna daily, so saunas are generally safe to use on a daily basis for healthy people.
Infrared saunas, especially far infrared, typically feel less hot than dry saunas, so it is easier to stay inside infrared saunas for longer periods of time and reap more benefits. Dr. Mercola suggests building up to 30-45 minutes for maximum benefits. He uses the saunas 3 times a week for 30 minutes. We spend 30 minutes in the sauna every other day and it’s an important part of our health routine.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you use a sauna? What benefits have you noticed, if any?
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