Infrared Sauna Treatment: How The Process Works And The Health Benefits It Provides

It might sound like a wacky trend, but science shows these saunas have real health benefits.

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From [linkbuilder id=”2308″ text=”sweat suits”] to hot yoga, some wellness seekers really like to turn up the heat, but when it comes to the infrared sauna trend, you might be feeling skeptical, and you’re not alone. “There’s a lot of fad treatments out there, so it can be hard for consumers to decipher what’s truly backed with scientific research and what’s bogus,” says Sydney Ziverts, a health and nutrition investigator for Ziverts has investigated infrared saunas and says that the science shows real benefits to infrared sauna treatment. In fact, she was so convinced that she decided to give it a try and felt the benefits firsthand. “I have used infrared saunas and always feel wonderful afterwards,” Ziverts says. “I suffer from celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, so I tend to notice that inflammation is reduced after a treatment.” Many spa-goers will swing into the sauna if they get the chance. Relaxing in a dark, quiet room entirely enveloped by heat is calming, and sweating it out in a traditional sauna has many health benefits, from helping your body purify toxins that you encounter or ingest in the course of day-to-day living to inducing exercise-like heart rates. Many of us feel great after our intensely sweaty workouts, so getting that buzz without having to do any of the hard work is just another sauna perk. But, unfortunately, many sauna-goers are let down by the reality, which is defined by high heat. Opening the door to the sauna means being blasted with a heatwave that may overwhelm and intimidate even the most committed health seeker. Instead of relaxing, minutes into your sauna sit you may find yourself wondering how long you can last in the intense heat before scampering out to partake in other spa activities (or maybe even a workout) that are a bit more enjoyable—while also asking yourself how anyone ever survives summers in Arizona. Ultimately, to reap the benefits of sitting in a sauna, you have to start slow, build up your time, and visit frequently. If you’re scared off by the fiery blast or just can’t manage to sweat it out long enough, the sauna will be one more fad you tried and moved on from. The thing is, the sauna is good for you. People have used saunas for thousands of years to promote healing and wellness. And if ancient wisdom isn’t enough to get you looking for a sauna near you, modern science has proven that saunas have myriad health benefits, especially for your cardiovascular system, which women should take note of since heart disease is the leading cause of death in American females. Enter infrared saunas. You might think infrared light sounds scary or think, “If it’s safe, it’s sure to be a gimmick.” In fact, infrared saunas have all the same health benefits as traditional saunas, plus some others. Best of all, the temperature of the rooms remains lower, keeping patrons more comfortable and helping them stay in the sauna long enough to reap its real health benefits. Infrared is legit, and the next time I head to the spa, I’ll be choosing one with an infrared sauna. Here’s why you should too.

What is an infrared sauna and how does it work?

Traditional saunas work by creating intense heat in a room. When you go into that room, your body heats up because the environment it is in is very hot. If you stay in the sauna long enough (but not too long), your body will reap the health benefits of the heat, but you must endure the discomfort of being in a very hot room. Infrared saunas work by using far infrared light to heat the cells of your body directly, rather than heating up the surrounding air. “Traditional saunas work by creating a hot room, which indirectly heats you up and leads to sweating,” says Joe Gibson, CEO of Red Light Man, a company that sells products for light therapy. “Far infrared saunas work more directly—the water in your skin cells directly absorbs the radiation, converting it to heat. The end result is similar, in that your body gets hot and you begin to sweat.” Gibson explains that there are different types of infrared light: near infrared (NIR), mid infrared (MIR) and far infrared (FIR). Near infrared is visible and can be used for light therapy. Far infrared is invisible to the human eye and is sometimes more descriptively referred to as infrared heat. “Infrared saunas typically use far infrared, which is more similar to microwave radiation than it is to visible light,” Gibson says. When you enter an infrared sauna, the light permeates your skin, heating your cells from the inside. “This invisible light penetrates a few inches into the body and creates heat, resulting in a whole-body hyperthermia (increased heat) and increase of energy on a cellular level to make you sweat, revitalizing cells,” says Zinia Thomas, who is one of a group of doctors who own Radiance Float + Wellness in St. Louis, a spa and wellness center that includes an infrared sauna.

Are infrared saunas safe?

The term “radiation” can definitely put people on edge. However, experts say that infrared saunas are perfectly safe. The Mayo Clinic reports that “no adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas.” Of course, there are some exceptions to those rules. Women who are pregnant shouldn’t use any type of sauna, because a raised body temperature can be harmful to the fetus. Ziverts cautions that “it’s important to note [that sauna use] is not recommended for folks who have unstable angina [chest pain] or those who’ve had a recent heart attack.” She goes on to say, “The primary risk of either an infrared or traditional sauna is overdoing it, which can cause dehydration,” so be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your sauna time.

What do infrared saunas feel like?

Most people who have experienced the overwhelming heat of a traditional sauna will find that infrared saunas are more comfortable. “Traditional saunas use high heat with low humidity, which can be unpleasant, whereas infrared saunas are much milder in temperature,” Ziverts says. Because infrared saunas heat your body directly, rather than relying on hot air to do so, they can be more comfortable to sit in. This means you’re more likely to stay in the sauna longer, which gets you closer to those sauna health gains. “Saunas that use infrared light are more tolerable and comfortable to remain in for a longer time, thus one can fully enjoy the benefits,” Thomas says. Check out this video to see what users say about the experience:

How do infrared saunas affect heart health?

Heart disease is a big threat to women, accounting for one in four deaths of American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, it’s important that women know that infrared saunas have been proven to have benefits for cardiovascular health. One study from the National Institutes of Health concluded that sauna use—including infrared saunas—“appears to be safe and offers multiple health benefits to regular users” who have heart conditions. Additionally, a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that regular sauna visits can help people live longer because they reduce the risk of certain cardiac problems. In response to that study, Dr. Thomas H. Lee, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, told Harvard Health Blog that he was not surprised that sauna visits can increase longevity. “The cardiovascular effects of sauna have been well documented in the past. It lowers blood pressure, and there is every reason to believe that its effects are good for blood vessels,” he said. A scientific review from 2009 found evidence to support that infrared saunas specifically had a positive effect on stabilizing blood pressure and treating congestive heart failure. People with those conditions are often limited in the duration and variety of exercises they can do. But thanks to infrared saunas, there is more good news for people with blood pressure problems and congestive heart failure: Sitting in a sauna can raise their heart rate and increase the number of calories they burn, giving their bodies some of the benefits of working out even while they’re sitting still. “The cardiovascular effects have been shown to normalize blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and produce a ‘cardio’ workout, great for someone who is sedentary due to pain or arthritis,” Thomas says. Since most people remain in an infrared sauna longer than a traditional sauna, those effects can be amplified, helping patrons burn up to 600 calories an hour, Thomas tells HealthyWay. However, Ziverts says not to ditch the gym any time soon. “While saunas may have some similar effects of mild exercise such as sweating or increased heart rate, it’s simply an addition to a healthy routine rather than a substitute,” she says.

Heart-health benefits are just the start.

For about half the year, it seems like most of us are either battling the cold that’s being passed around the office or washing our hands obsessively trying to avoid the next illness. It turns out that a trip to the sauna can help boost our immune systems, which might keep fall and winter illnesses at bay. A 2013 study found that spending time in a sauna can increase your white blood cell count, which is an indicator of a healthy immune system. That was no surprise to Thomas, who said that infrared saunas are a great way to improve immune health. “In the blood, white cells, neutrophils, and lymphocytes become more active, which boosts biological defense mechanisms,” she says. “This helps especially in winter time—when the core body temperature is relatively lower—to fight viruses and other infections.” Another study from 2013 found that saunas can increase the amount of antioxidants in one’s body, which help repair and restore damaged cells. Thomas says that really, infrared sauna affects all the systems in our bodies. “Infrared sauna therapy treats the whole body by increasing the core body temperature, and the hyperthermia it induces helps vascular function and all organs in the body,” she says. Another popular benefit from infrared saunas is detoxification. As your body heats up, you will sweat out toxins and other substances that might be making you feel less than your best. “The toxins in our body are typically stored in the upper layer of fat, so sweating can rid the body of these toxins from toxic drugs, pollutants, pesticides, and heavy metals, which in turn improves the immune system and overall health,” Thomas says. Since you’re able to stay in an infrared sauna for longer than a traditional sauna, you’ll be able to spend more time sweating out the toxins in your system. Since toxins can build up over time, Thomas says that there is a cumulative health benefit to using infrared saunas regularly.

Can infrared saunas provide pain relief?

Chronic pain is one of the most common conditions in America, affecting one in four adults, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine. Treatment for chronic pain often includes opioids, which present a high risk of addiction. It is partially because of this that research shows women are at a particularly high risk for becoming addicted to prescription pills. Many people report that visiting an infrared sauna can provide pain relief without the need for controlled substances. The main effect of saunas in our body is vasodilation (a widening of blood vessels),” says Gibson. “These are various direct relief effects from this, especially in people with pain, sore muscles, or stiff joints. If you have arthritis, injuries, and any sort of pain condition, you can expect benefits.” Ziverts agrees. “Treatments can help to balance general pain, inflammation, and poor circulation without unwanted side effects,” she says.

What to Know Before You Go

If you’re ready to give an infrared sauna a try, it should be easy to find one in your area since they are popping up with increasing regularity. Ziverts recommends checking local reviews or the Better Business Bureau to make sure you’re choosing a spa with a good reputation. Once you’ve booked yourself an appointment, bring a towel and water (or call ahead to find out if those amenities will be provided). Be sure to research any health concerns you have ahead of time or to speak with your doctor. Also, once you’re in the sauna, listen to your body. “Although those working at the facility should all be knowledgeable about treatments and appropriate time spent inside the sauna, you should do some research beforehand, and never stay in the sauna if you begin to feel lightheaded, dizzy, or uncomfortable in any way,” Ziverts says. They might sound super futuristic, but infrared saunas are just a modern spin on a therapy that has been giving people physical, mental, and emotional benefits for millennia. Next time you’re looking to recharge, an infrared sauna is well worth a try.

Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who has written for The Washington Post, Cosmo, and more. She specializes in health and mental health content as well as stories about families. When she's not writing she is getting lost in the woods of New Hampshire, where she lives. Connect on Facebook or find out more at her website.

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