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Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional: Which Is Better?

Your Guide to the Benefits and Disadvantages of Infrared Saunas

The practice of bathing in heat for health and purification goes back centuries. More recently, the infrared sauna, an alternative to the traditional Finnish-style sauna, has taken the functional medicine world by storm. 

Saunas are used for various purposes, including detoxification, relaxation, and, increasingly, to help treat or prevent various health conditions. Studies have shown that regular sauna use can improve pain and mood, reduce the risk of developing heart disease and Alzheimer’s, and even increase longevity [1, 2, 3]. 

In this article, we’ll explore the health benefits and effects of saunas, the differences between infrared and traditional saunas, how infrared saunas work, and whether or not they live up to the hype. 

Classic wooden infrared sauna cabin

Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional Saunas: A Snapshot

Let’s take a quick look at how infrared saunas and traditional saunas compare. 

  • Key differences:
    • Traditional saunas heat the air first. 
    • Infrared saunas use infrared light to penetrate and heat the body directly.
    • Infrared saunas use less heat. 
  • Infrared sauna benefits: 
    • Increased comfort 
    • Easier to use at home 
    • Less expensive to purchase
  • Infrared sauna disadvantages:
    • Limited research 
    • Possible marketing influence 
    • Potential electromagnetic field (EMF) risks 
Comparison of infrared sauna and traditional sauna infographic by Dr. Ruscio

What to Expect From a Sauna Session  

Before we dive into more details on the differences between infrared and traditional saunas, let’s cover a few sauna basics. Saunas vary in terms of their heating methods, temperatures, and features, but the general idea is the same. 

A sauna session can last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. While you’re in the sauna, a number of different things are going on in your body. Some of them are noticeable: You’ll sweat, you may feel your heart rate increase, and you might feel relaxed or experience an increased sense of clarity. 

Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional: Which Is Better? - 5%20Steps%20for%20Reducing%20Stress Related%20Bloat Landscape L

Behind the scenes, the short-term exposure to extreme heat creates a positive kind of stress for your body. This stress leads to increased cellular repair, improved cardiovascular function, and enhanced stress tolerance, among other physiological benefits [4, 5]. 

Some protocols involve alternating between the heat of a sauna and cold exposure through pools or showers, which is thought to create additional positive stress. 

Certain gyms, spas, and health centers offer sauna treatments. You can also purchase an infrared sauna for your home.

Benefits of Saunas 

infrared sauna: Woman with a towel wrapped around her body and head in a sauna

Some people compare the way they feel after infrared sauna sessions to the way they feel after a moderate exercise session. In fact, sauna use and exercise have many similar physiological effects and benefits.

Here are some of the greatest benefits of general sauna use: 

  • Stress adaptation. Short-term and controlled exposure to extreme heat (or cold) may offer a number of health and wellness benefits through a stress adaptation response known as hormesis [4]. Your body responds to the stress of the heat by initiating an antioxidant and cellular repair response with widespread benefits. With regular sauna use, your body is also thought to become better able to tolerate future stressors, including but not limited to extreme heat.
  • Brain health. Sauna use, especially when frequent, has been associated with a reduced risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia [3].
  • Sweating and detox. One of the most well-known effects of sauna use is increased sweating. With extreme heat exposure, more than half of the body’s blood flow is redistributed to the skin to allow for sweating. This may help the body to detoxify from heavy metals, chemicals, and other toxins [6, 7, 8, 9, 10].
  • Cardiovascular response. Heat exposure from sauna use has numerous effects on the cardiovascular system. Heart rate and cardiac output (the amount of blood your heart pumps) increase, blood pressure decreases, and blood flow improves [11].
  • Heart disease and longevity. Sauna use has been associated with improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of heart disease, improvements in markers of chronic heart failure, and reduced risk of all-cause death [12, 13, 14, 15, 16].
  • Hormonal regulation. Sauna use has been shown to have a number of effects on hormone levels and hormone balance, including increasing growth hormone (which stimulates cell reproduction and regeneration), decreasing fasting blood glucose, and raising ghrelin (a “hunger hormone”) [17, 18, 19].
  • Mental health. Sauna use may help to reduce the risk of developing psychotic disorders and improve symptoms of depression [2, 20].
  • Chronic pain and fatigue. A few small clinical trials have seen positive results with sauna use for fatigue and chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome [21, 22, 23, 24].
  • Relaxation and mood improvement. Sauna therapy leads to the release of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, which may contribute to improved mood or feelings of wellbeing after a session [25]. Beyond these physiological effects, the very act of sitting still in a sauna for 20-30 minutes may be relaxing or even meditative.

Are Infrared Saunas Better Than Traditional Saunas?

Infrared sauna use is getting a lot of hype, so we looked at the research to see if the benefits of infrared saunas are better than or different from the benefits of traditional saunas. 

A 2018 systematic review of 40 studies involving more than 3,800 participants stated that, based on the available evidence, no conclusions could be drawn comparing the benefits of traditional and infrared saunas [15].

Benefits of Infrared Saunas vs. Traditional Saunas

Stethoscope and a plastic heart-shaped toy in a blue background

Most studies have only looked at only traditional or infrared saunas, so we can’t determine whether or not one type offers more powerful benefits. 

Instead, we’ll briefly compare the studied benefits of both for heart disease, longevity, brain function, mental health, fatigue, and chronic pain. 

Here’s a quick summary of what the research shows. 

Researched Health BenefitsFavors Traditional Favors Infrared Similar Evidence 
Heart Disease and Longevity 
Brain Health 
Mental Health 
Chronic Pain and Fatigue 

Let’s break down the available research on both types of saunas across these areas of health. 

Heart Disease and Longevity

  • A series of long-term studies of more than 2000 Finnish men has shown that frequent traditional sauna use (3-7 times per week) is associated with reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality [12, 13, 14].
    • The strongest protection against cardiovascular-related and death from all causes was associated with a combination of high cardiorespiratory fitness (exercise) and frequent traditional sauna use [12, 13].
  • A second study of 1621 Finnish men between the ages of 42 and 60 found that regular traditional sauna use was associated with a reduced risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) after almost 25 years [26]. 
  • Two 2018 systematic reviews of clinical trials and observational studies found that infrared sauna use and Waon therapy (a type of infrared sauna therapy common in Japan) improved several (but not all) markers associated with chronic heart failure [15, 16]. 
  • A 2016 clinical trial of 149 patients with congestive heart failure showed that just two weeks of Waon infrared sauna therapy improved disease status, walking distances, and heart sizes [11]. 

Brain Health

  • A 2017 observational study that followed more than 2,300 Finnish men for over 20 years found that regular traditional sauna use was associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [3]. (Keep in mind that this type of study can’t determine causation.)
    • These benefits were even stronger with more frequent use. Those who used the sauna 4-7 times per week were found to have a 65%-66% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia when compared with those who used the sauna once a week. 

Mental Health

  • A 2018 study following 2,138 Finish men for more than 20 years found that frequent traditional sauna use was associated with a reduced risk of developing psychotic disorders [2].
  • A 2016 clinical trial of 93 healthy adults with non-medicated major depressive disorder found that just one session of whole-body hyperthermia (heat delivered to the body by infrared lights) led to reduced depression for six weeks [20].

Chronic Pain and Fatigue

  • A small clinical trial on female patients with fibromyalgia found that 12 weeks of infrared sauna therapy combined with underwater exercises led to significant reductions in pain [21]. 
  • A small study on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (inflammatory arthritis of the spine) found that four weeks of infrared sauna use led to significantly reduced pain and stiffness [22]. 
  • Two small clinical trials have shown improvements in fatigue and wellbeing among patients with chronic fatigue syndrome following the use of Waon infrared sauna therapy for four weeks [23, 24].  

Although we can’t conclude that one type of sauna therapy is better across the board, there are a number of differences to consider when making a decision about saunas. We’ll explore several of these differences below. 

Differences Between Infrared and Traditional Saunas 

Interior design of a classic wooden infrared sauna

The primary differences between traditional (or conventional) saunas and infrared saunas are their temperatures and heating methods. 

Traditional saunas, which originated in Finland, were once heated by wood fires. Today, many Finnish-style saunas use conventional electric heating.

Conventional saunas work by heating the air in the sauna to high temperatures ranging from 176 to over 200 degrees F [15]. The air is heated first, followed by your skin, and eventually, your core body temperature increases.

In comparison, infrared saunas work by emitting infrared radiation or light. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye and is experienced as heat. These wavelengths of infrared light directly penetrate the skin, heating your body directly without significantly heating up the air.

The range of heat used in infrared saunas is usually between 113 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit [15]. In other words, the highest temperature used in an infrared sauna is more than 30 degrees lower than the lowest temperature used in a traditional sauna. 

Does Less Heat Mean Fewer Health Benefits?

The short answer is that we don’t know yet how reduced heat impacts health benefits. 

Some research, including a long-running study on more than 2,000 Finnish men, has demonstrated that higher levels of heat (at least 174 degrees F) are especially effective at reducing cardiovascular related mortality, all-cause mortality, and incidence of Alzheimer’s disease [27].

However, these findings are within the confines of the traditional model, in which the air is heated first and the body heats up as a result. 

The theory of infrared saunas is that by using infrared light directly, heat can penetrate the body more deeply, producing the same benefits at lower temperatures. 

Which Type of Sauna Is Best?

Classic wooden infrared sauna cabin

The available research shows that both traditional and infrared saunas are generally safe and offer numerous health benefits.

With that in mind, there are a few differences between infrared saunas and traditional saunas that may help you to make a decision.

Benefits of Infrared Saunas

  • Increased comfort. Because the air inside an infrared sauna gets less hot, you may be able to spend more time inside with less discomfort. If you know that you have difficulty withstanding high levels of heat, this option may make it easier for you to reap the benefits of a longer sauna session.
  • Easier to use at home. For use at home, the infrared option may be the most practical, as it is designed to heat your body directly, without as great of an effect on the air around you.
  • Less expensive to purchase. If you’re considering purchasing a sauna for your home, infrared models are often available at a much lower cost than traditional saunas.

Disadvantages of Infrared Saunas

  • Limited research. Although a growing body of evidence supports the health benefits of infrared saunas, many of the largest and highest quality studies on disease prevention and longevity have focused on traditional, Finnish-style sauna bathing.
  • Possible marketing influence. Given the limited amount of available research, it’s important to be cautious when evaluating claims made by or influenced by the infrared sauna industry. Some infrared sauna manufacturers may have relationships with influencers in the functional medicine field, making it hard to separate fact from hyperbole.
  • Potential electromagnetic field (EMF) risks. Theoretical concerns have been raised about possible harmful EMF exposure with the use of certain types of infrared saunas. However, harmful effects as a result of EMF exposure from saunas have not been documented in the medical literature. If this is a concern, some infrared sauna companies offer or provide EMF testing or use methods that may cancel out EMFs.

Far-Infrared vs. Near-Infrared Saunas

Not all infrared saunas are the same. Beyond size, style, and cost, the main difference between different kinds of infrared saunas is the type of wavelengths they emit. 

The spectrum of infrared light consists of near-, middle- and far-infrared wavelengths. 

There are benefits associated with all three types of wavelengths. 

  • Far-infrared: Far-infrared wavelengths penetrate the most deeply past the skin and into the body, making far infrared saunas the preferred choice for many who are looking for the most powerful healing benefits.
  • Middle-infrared: Mid-infrared wavelengths are thought to help reduce inflammation and increase blood circulation.
  • Near-infrared: The more surface-level effects of near-infrared wavelengths may have their own benefits, including potential skin healing.

Some infrared saunas, referred to as “full spectrum” models, emit all three types of wavelengths through separate heating elements.

Risks Associated With Sauna Use

Sauna therapy, including infrared sauna use, has been shown to be generally safe and well tolerated [1]. However, some side effects have been reported. Side effects are generally mild and temporary, occurring only during or shortly after use. These include:  

  • Heat discomfort or intolerance [22]
  • Irritated breathing [28]
  • Lightheadedness or low blood pressure [29]
  • Temporary pain [30]
  • Temporarily reduced sperm count and motility [31]

Due to the short-term effect of sauna use on sperm count and motility, men who are concerned about fertility may wish to avoid or reduce sauna use while trying to conceive. Avoiding saunas for six months has been shown to reverse the negative effects on sperm [31].

Risk Factors

Certain people may be at higher risk than others for experiencing adverse effects as a result of heat therapy. If any of these risk factors apply to you, seek medical advice before starting regular sauna use. 

  • Known heat sensitivity
  • Heart conditions
  • Chronic pain conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and ankylosing spondylitis [1]

The use of certain medications may also affect your response to sauna therapy and should be discussed with a practitioner. 

How to Reduce the Risk of Side Effects

Close up image of water being poured in a glass on top of a table

There are a few steps you can take that may help to reduce the risk of side effects. 

  • Drink water. Always drink plenty of water before and/or during your sauna session to avoid dehydration, as you will lose fluids through sweat.
  • Avoid alcohol. Never drink alcohol before or during a sauna session. This combination can lead to adverse effects and even death [32, 33].
  • Avoid saunas if you’re sick. Avoid sauna use if you’re sick or have a fever.
  • Listen to your body. Some people find the sauna experience uncomfortable due to high heat or feelings of claustrophobia. Ultimately, you know your body best, so pay attention to how you feel.
  • Build tolerance gradually. If you’re new to sauna therapy, you might want to start with a shorter session or reduce the heat for your first time and work your way up to longer, hotter sessions.

The Best Type of Sauna for You

Both conventional and infrared saunas have been shown to be safe and effective, although large scale studies comparing their benefits side-by-side have not been conducted.

Therefore, the actual benefits of one type of sauna over the other might have more to do with practicality, comfort, and personal preference.

To learn more about how to incorporate positive stressors including heat therapy into a personalized healing protocol, request a virtual or in-person consultation at our functional medicine center. 

➕ References

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