“Hot air baths” and makeshift saunas have been used for centuries by cultures across the world, from the sweat lodge ceremonies of Native Americans to the Diocletian bath of Ancient Rome (1, 2). While the practice of going to the sauna persists even today, modern technology has allowed for an option said to come with a practically endless list of benefits: infrared sauna therapy.
Infrared sauna therapy differs from the ancient practice of using fire beneath a makeshift lodge to generate heat, instead utilizing infrared light waves to generate heat in the body. These waves penetrate deeper into the tissues without excessively raising the temperature of the sauna room, making this therapy ideal for people who can’t tolerate the heat and humidity of traditional sauna rooms and so might miss out on the potential benefits (3).
The infrared waves themselves are invisible, falling within the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. Also referred to as “far-infrared” waves (FIR), they have the ability to positively alter the body’s tissues by penetrating below the surface of the skin, generating mitochondrial activity and effectively circulating heat (4).
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Although long-term research is still being conducted, infrared sauna therapy is considered to be an affordable, safe, and extremely effective way to reduce pain, increase detoxification, improve the cardiovascular system, and more.
Infrared Sauna Benefits
Just how much more? Let’s take a look at how infrared sauna does way more for your body than merely working up a sweat:
1. Improved Skin Tone
Infrared sauna therapy dilates the blood vessels, effectively increasing circulation throughout the body. This increased circulation not only helps remove waste products, but also helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the skin. Since our skin depends on these nutrients to form collagen (which keeps our skin firm), infrared sauna therapy can be a great way to improve skin tone and reduce wrinkles (5).
2. Flushes Out Toxins
Our immune systems are up against an arsenal of toxins that our ancestors never dreamt of: pesticides, toxic metals, PCBs in plastics, environmental pollution, and even GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Combining this with a lifelong poor diet is a set-up for accumulated toxins and a potentially weakened immune system (6).
Luckily, infrared sauna treatments can give your body an extra push to eliminate these toxins. Specifically, this is achieved through sweating, which has been shown in several studies to increase detoxification and lower circulating levels of toxins in the body (7).
3. Boosts Circulation
Infrared sauna therapy has also been found to improve circulation. This can have far-reaching benefits, from better skin tone (as discussed earlier) to lowered blood pressure. In fact, researchers discovered infrared sauna therapy significantly improves blood vessel function in diabetes and smoking patients with high cholesterol (8).
4. Improves Cardiovascular Function
Infrared sauna therapy has also been shown to be good for your heart. The effects have proven so powerful that studies have associated sitting in an infrared sauna with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and even all-cause mortality (9).
These effects are due to the increased heart rate, blood flow, and improved blood pressure in patients using infrared sauna therapy. Interestingly, researchers compared the cardiac output patients experience in the sauna room to going on a brisk walk (10).
5. Pain Relief
Another excellent aspect of infrared sauna therapy is its ability to reduce chronic pain – without the negative side effects of some pain medications. For instance, research out of the Netherlands found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis who underwent infrared sauna therapy for four weeks experienced reduced pain, stiffness, and fatigue following the treatment. Researchers speculate these benefits resulted from reduced inflammation levels, which lessen the friction between the patient’s joints that result in chronic pain (11).
6. Wound Healing
Infrared sauna therapy also has the remarkable ability to speed up the wound healing process. Specifically, research out of NASA has shown that infrared light significantly increases tissue growth and cell regeneration due to our mitochondria readily accepting infrared light (12). This increases the cellular activity needed for wound healing, with a 155-171 percent increase in growth of human cell tissue and a 36 percent decrease in wound size observed in one study (13).
7. Weight Loss
It turns out taking a rest in an infrared sauna can also aid in weight loss. In a study of obese adults, researchers discovered “… body weight and body fat significantly decreased after 2 weeks of sauna therapy.” Researchers theorize this is due to increased heart rate and the body working (i.e., burning calories) to cool itself.
Interestingly, in the same study, patients at a normal weight with loss of appetite experienced “increased caloric intake and improved feeding behavior.” This shows that infrared sauna therapy may act as a sort of weight and appetite “balancer” by increasing ghrelin (the hunger hormone) in low appetite patients, while keeping ghrelin levels balanced in obese patients (14).
8. Fights Chronic Fatigue
A recent study found that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which results in extreme fatigue with no definitive cause, is greatly relieved in patients using infrared saunas (15). The study involved CFS patients sitting in a 60°C (140°F) sauna for 15 minutes, followed by bed rest under a blanket for 30 minutes in a separate room. This was performed once a day, five days a week, for a total of four weeks.
The results? Negative mood, anxiety, and depression levels significantly improved after the therapy, with fatigue ratings on a scale of 1 to 10 sliding from 6.7 to 4.8. While there is no clear answer as to why infrared sauna therapy benefits CFS patients, researchers theorize it may be due to its ability to reduce oxidative stress and improve cardiac output, both of which have been linked to CFS (16).
It is important to note that the researchers state the patients didn’t perceive the effects during the treatment, but definitely perceived less fatigue after the four weeks of treatment. So, if you’re interested in undertaking infrared sauna treatment for fatigue, be aware that you may have to complete a month’s worth in order to really feel the benefits. However, less than an hour a day for four weeks to relieve chronic fatigue seems like a worthwhile treatment!
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Is Infrared Sauna Therapy Safe?
Some may question the safety of infrared sauna therapy due to infrared light’s ability to penetrate beneath the skin layer (17). While no serious adverse side effects have been reported in the use of the therapy, it is not recommended for young children and elderly adults who are prone to heat exhaustion and dehydration, nor is it recommended for those taking medications that impair their ability to sweat. Of course, be sure to talk to your doctor about any health conditions you may have before trying out infrared sauna therapy.
Outside of exercise, who knew that working up a sweat could offer such astounding health benefits? In all, infrared sauna therapy can benefit nearly everyone: from someone looking to detox a few times a month to others looking for alternative solutions to a host of issues.
Our recommendation? Have a happy sweat.