Taking a sauna can be a relaxing thing to do, but it’s also an ancient practice used in many cultures for purification, detoxifying, and healing.
Nowadays, sauna bathing for medical reasons is coming into its own again as more science emerges to back it as a wellness practice. Infrared saunas in particular have been growing in popularity, especially in the functional medicine community.
So what are the benefits of infrared saunas? Do they really work? And how do they differ from the more traditional Finnish type? We’ll explore the answers to these and more questions below.
Infrared Saunas: Key Points
Researched benefits of infrared saunas include alleviation of joint pain, chronic fatigue, and depression, as well some potential heart health benefits.
Infrared saunas use light in the infrared spectrum to directly heat the body. The air around you gets warm too — typically rising to around 175°F/80°C.
They differ from traditional (Finnish) saunas, which typically use electricity to heat small rocks or stones. These in turn heat the air around you to temperatures as high as 212°F/100°C.
Saunas in general have documented health benefits, such as pain relief, heart health/cardiovascular system benefits, and reduced depression.
Theoretically the benefits of infrared saunas could be greater than traditional saunas because infrared penetrates and heats the body more effectively.
More research into the benefits of infrared saunas is needed to confirm or refute this.
Sauna Basics: What Are the Main Types?
Saunas expose your body to short periods (5- to 20-minute sessions) of heat in the region of 113-175°F (45-80°C). Experienced sauna users can tolerate up to 212°F (100°C), during which their body core temperature will rise slightly.
In traditional sauna bathing therapy (also known as Finnish style), hot rocks are the heating source. They’re the most studied type of sauna [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source], and typically at the hotter end of the temperature range (176-212°F) with only 10-20% humidity. Periods of higher humidity can be created by pouring water onto the heated rocks.
Infrared sauna therapy is a more energy-efficient sauna experience that uses far-infrared radiation (electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths longer than visible light) to create heat.
A key difference is that traditional saunas heat the air first, whereas infrared saunas use infrared light to penetrate and heat the body directly.
One specific type of infrared sauna, known as Waon therapy, involves sitting in an infrared chamber for 15 minutes at 140°F, before being wrapped in thermal blankets to maintain heat for 30-40 minutes.
Since traditional Finnish saunas have been around longer, there’s more research on this type. Nevertheless, there’s a growing body of research on the infrared type too, and a reasonable expectation that many of the health benefits of Finnish saunas will also apply to infrared sauna bathing.
Improvement of chronic heart failure symptoms: A systematic review and meta-analysis found that heart failure patients who took infrared saunas five times a week for two to four weeks, showed short-term improvements in some (but not all) markers of heart failure [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. One 2016 randomized controlled trial in patients with congestive heart failure noted that two weeks of Waon sauna therapy improved six-minute walking distances, and improved disease status [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Reduced joint pain and stiffness: Chronic pain and stiffness resulting from autoimmune rheumatological diseases such as arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and fibromyalgia may also benefit from sauna treatments [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. In patients who were treated with infrared saunas for four weeks, those with rheumatoid arthritis experienced 40% less pain and 50% less stiffness, and those with ankylosing spondylitis had 60% less pain and 60% less stiffness [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Depressive disorders: Traditional Finnish saunas have been linked with lower risk of developing psychotic disorders [8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. One study found that infrared heating delivered to the chest (raising core body temperature to 101.3°F) led to lower depression scores [9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. In addition, infrared sauna therapy also improved symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Alzheimer’s and dementia: Long-term use of traditional saunas at least twice a week is also correlated with reduced risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Could Saunas Benefit Gut Health?
Research looking at whether the benefits of infrared saunas extend to the health of the microbiome is in its very preliminary stages, but still intriguing.
We know that low levels of some wavelengths of infrared light help heal and stimulate tissue, which could potentially extend to beneficial effects in the gut.
In a 2020 study in mice, infrared light therapy altered the microbiome of laboratory mice in a potentially beneficial way, by increasing the number of bacteria that produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. A recent review also cites as-yet-unpublished research that suggests treating the human microbiome with infrared decreases the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes bacteria, a potential indicator of gut health [12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Unpublished work and animal studies should always be treated with a lot of caution. It should also be noted that some of the scientists in this area may have conflicts of interest by selling infrared equipment.
Nonetheless, it’s an area to watch with interest for the future.
The Internal Effects of Sauna Bathing
There are several theories as to what might be happening when you embark on sauna therapy. But in simple terms, sauna use increases your core body temperature and heart rate, which dilates your blood vessels, increases your blood flow, and lowers your blood pressure [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. These changes subject your body to a healthy type of stress that can help balance and heal.
Some specific physiological changes that may occur, and be of benefit through regular sauna use, include:
Increased heart rate variability (HRV), indicating the fight-or-flight stress response is less dominant [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
If you’d like to try a sauna or think your health could benefit, you’ll need to work out how to access one on a regular basis. Many gyms have Finnish-style saunas available as a perk of membership.
An alternative is to buy and install your own sauna in your home or backyard. Some varieties of infrared sauna are small, can be set up in a shower or bathtub, and break down when not in use.
Infrared models will also generally cost less than traditional saunas and may be more comfortable for regular use, as the air gets less hot.
You’ll likely reap greater health benefits if you can incorporate sauna bathing into your schedule on a regular basis, so find what system works best for you and stick with it.
Are Infrared Saunas the Healthiest Type?
This is a hard question to answer as there’s too little research to go on as yet.
A 2018 systematic review stated that, based on the available evidence, no conclusions could be drawn comparing the benefits of infrared saunas and traditional saunas [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Some people argue that the somewhat lower temperatures of infrared saunas make them less beneficial than Finnish-style saunas. For example, a long-running study on more than 2,000 Finnish men demonstrated that higher levels of heat (approximately 175°F and above) were especially effective at reducing cardiovascular-related mortality and all-cause mortality [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
It may be that infrared saunas are actually more effective because infrared light penetrates the body directly and more deeply, producing the same benefits at lower temperatures.
By comparison, the traditional model heats the air first and the body heats up as a result.
Staying Safe in the Sauna
If you have any underlying health issues like heart problems or high blood pressure, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor as there may be side effects like dizziness and temporarily increased blood pressure. Pregnant women are advised to avoid saunas altogether.
You may find the heat and induced sweating tough to deal with at first, so take it slowly. Five minutes is a good starting point and you can build up to 20 minutes or so over time.
Here are some other tips to make sure your sauna is a safe and enjoyable experience:
Hydrate: Always drink plenty of water before and after your sauna session to avoid dehydration, as you’ll lose fluids through sweat.
Avoid saunas if you’re sick: Already having a raised body temperature (a fever) when you take a sauna is a bad idea.
Ultimately, just listen to your body, especially if you find the sauna experience uncomfortable due to heat or feelings of claustrophobia. You know your body best, so pay attention to how you feel.
Infrared Sauna Benefits: A Summary
Infrared sauna therapy shows promise for improving many aspects of health and well-being. This type of sauna may also be easier and more comfortable for many people than the traditional type. For example, people with arthritis, depressive conditions, and heart failure may benefit. Athletic performance may also improve.
That said, more research is available for traditional Finnish saunas because they’ve been around longer. Large-scale studies comparing the benefits of infrared saunas and Finnish types side-by-side have not been conducted.
It’s important to start sauna use gradually and take care to hydrate. And of course, a sauna is no silver bullet; when you’re trying to turn around your general health and/or gut health, a healthy diet and supplements, exercise, and good sleep are other important factors to consider too.
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