You may have heard about all the wonderful health claims of the infrared sauna: anti-aging abilities, detoxification, weight loss and even more. But are these infrared sauna claims actually backed up and proven by science, and are there any infrared sauna dangers?
Like most heat treatments, there’s a lot of hot air out there … but that doesn’t mean an infrared sauna is bad for you. Quite the contrary, in fact, as research shows heart-healthy, pain-reducing, life-extending benefits of infrared saunas.
What Is an Infrared Sauna?
Historically, heat treatments have been used to help heal the body for thousands of years. “Hot air baths” and sweat lodges were used for busting stress, increasing relaxation and detoxification among Native Americans, Eastern Europeans and in Ancient Chinese Medicine. Many years ago, before the invention of focused light therapy, basic saunas were created by building a fire directly under an enclosed sitting area. The “sauna” was heated with hot rocks and other materials burning on a fire that carried heat and smoke up to the lodge.
About 100 years ago, advancements in sauna therapies were made when “light-near infrared lamp saunas” were first created by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Since this time, they have come a long way, and today they’re used by holistic practitioners and various healers around the world.
Infrared saunas are a type of sauna that uses heat and light to help relax and detoxify the body. Also called far-infrared saunas or near-infrared saunas, these omit infrared light waves that create heat in the body, causing you to sweat and release stored “toxins.”
While ongoing research is still being done to determine their long-term effects and potential benefits, as of now infrared sauna treatments seem to be safe, inexpensive and powerful. These small devices are proving to help many people suffering from pain feel better — and also very importantly, more relaxed!
Anti-aging effects, increased detoxification, pain reduction, joint and muscle support, and cardiovascular healing are currently where infrared saunas are gaining the most attention. They’re believed to have a parasympathetic healing effect, which means they help the body handle stress better — an attribute that could mean one day they’re used for handling all types of diseases from insomnia and depression to hormonal imbalances and autoimmune disorders.
The interesting thing about these types of saunas is that they differ from “regular saunas” because their light directly penetrates your skin but does not warm the air around you. The temperature in your body goes up quickly, yet the light has no effect on your surrounding environment — which is why you can use infrared saunas within your own home.
The results of an infrared sauna are produced at lower temperatures than a conventional sauna and might be tolerated better by people who can’t withstand the very high heats of other dry saunas or even steam rooms.
How Infrared Saunas Work
People who stand behind infrared sauna therapy believe it naturally has an inflammation-lowering effect, acts similarly to antioxidant nutrients, activates the cells, helps with wound healing, boosts the metabolism and helps remove toxins from the body.
According to a 2012 report published by doctors at Wellman Center for Photomedicine of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, technological advancements have resulted in infrared sauna devices that deliver far-infrared light wave radiation (FIR) directly to the human body without any bands needed. These are considered safe, effective and widely applicable for healing many inflammatory disorders.
The therapeutic effects of infrared saunas comes down to the electromagnetic radiation spectrum: Infrared radiation (IR) band covers the wavelength range of 750 nanometers to 100 micrometers, frequency range of 400 terahertz to three terahertz, and photon energy range of 12.4 milli-electron volts to 1.7 electron volts. What exactly does this mean? In the simplest terms, this results in infrared saunas causing heat and natural, positive radiation effects in the human body once it’s detected by the body’s thermoreceptors located in the skin. (1)
FIR light waves are capable of altering cells, cell membranes, DNA/proteins and cell fluids, including and especially water molecules. At the cellular level, altered cell membranes and mitochondrial activity take place, which positively impact the metabolism. FIR photons are absorbed by the bonds in the body’s molecules, and the way that water functions within our cells is altered. FIR also has a “meso-structure” effect, where proteins within bodily tissues change in a way that’s important for overall biological activity.
Infrared light treatment usually works within just 15–20 minutes and can be done within your home if you’re willing to purchase your own light-omitting sauna device. Infrared lamps are capable of causing dramatic changes in body chemistry in some instances, helping restore balance in some people who suffer from chronic problems related to pains, inflammation, low energy and poor circulation.
Infrared sauna treatments cause reactions in the body, including:
- increased sweating (some people even report heavy or”vigorous sweating”)
- increased heart rate
- the same type of clarity-of-mind feelings as moderate exercise
- relaxation responses triggered by the body’s parasympathetic nervous system
According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a licensed medical doctor and nutritional practitioner who has been effectively using infrared sauna therapy on his patients for over a decade, this type of treatment is one of the safest and most useful healing methods he’s come across when combined with other factors like a balanced diet.
When it comes to infrared saunas, there are two different kinds: far light-omitting and near light-omitting. Far-infrared saunas omit “far light waves” and use metallic, ceramic or black carbon elements for heating. Some sources claim that these saunas give off electromagnetic fields that might be harmful and instead prefer near-infrared emitting saunas.
Near-light saunas use incandescent reddish “heat lamps” for heating, which are inexpensive and can be found at most hardware stores. Near light gives off both warming and colorful light waves, which means they have a heating effect on the body and might also have effects on how “energy” moves throughout the body. Dr. Wilson, for example, has found that near light assists in digestion and helps his patients with elimination.
Unlike other types of saunas, infrared lamp saunas penetrate the skin and heat the body from the inside-out. They’re believed to reach deep inside the body and produce a heat that can be concentrated in a small area, which is why they don’t cause heat around the room.
Infrared Sauna Benefits
1. Improves Heart Function
A review by the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found evidence supporting the use of infrared sauna treatments for normalizing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, treating congestive heart failure, and helping with chronic pain. (2) That means an infrared sauna is a good way to help prevent high blood pressure and improve heart health.
Another study published in the Journal of The Japanese Circulation Society backs up that research, as the study found that infrared sauna treatment can help patients who have heart arrhythmias and suffer from chronic heart failure. Repeated treatments with a 60 degrees Celsius sauna improved functioning of the heart and lowered incidence of ventricular arrhythmias.
Patients were randomized into sauna-treated or non-treated groups, with the sauna group undergoing a two-week program of a daily 60 degrees C far-infrared-ray dry sauna treatment for 15 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes of bed rest. Heart rate variability normalized in the sauna group (including having plasma brain natriuretic peptide concentrations decrease) compared with the non-treated group. (3)
2. Helps Lower Chronic Pain, Including Pain from Arthritis
Researchers from Saxion University of Applied Science in the Netherlands found that infrared sauna treatments can help reverse chronic pain with little to no side effects. They studied the effects of infrared saunas in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis over a four-week period, with a series of eight IR treatments. Sauna therapy was well-tolerated with no adverse effects, and they found that a significant percentage of patients experienced decreased symptoms of pain and stiffness.
Fatigue also decreased in both groups of patients compared to before beginning treatment, leading the researchers to conclude that infrared treatment has statistically significant short-term beneficial effects in patients experiencing pain without causing any worsening disease symptoms or unwanted side effects. (4)
3. Lowers Side Effects of Diabetes
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine found that far-infrared sauna use is associated with improved quality of life in people with type II diabetes, even when compared to other lifestyle interventions. People with diabetes often suffer from complications such as pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, congestive heart failure and other heart problems, but sauna treatment seems to improve pain threshold and contribute to overall well-being — naturally treating diabetes symptoms.
Patients were tested at the Fraser Lake Community Health Center in Canada, undergoing 20-minute treatments three times weekly over a period of three months. Patients completed a 36-item short-form health survey before and after the treatment period. The results found that a significant percentage experienced improved physical health, general health and social functioning following treatments, as well as lower stress and fatigue levels. (5)
4. Improves Quality of Life and Overall Well-Being
For many years, patients suffering from chronic pains have used thermal heating treatments to find relief. Studies have found that regular and repeated thermal therapies are promising methods for lowering chronic pain that can interfere with quality of life without the need for medications.
Researchers from Nishi Kyusyu University in Japan found that infrared sauna heat therapy might work even better to lift someone’s mood and well-being when coupled with other holistic treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise rehabilitation.
Their 2005 study split 46 patients with chronic pain into two groups, one receiving multidisciplinary treatments without infrared heat therapy and the other receiving all forms of treatment (cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation and exercise therapy, and repeated thermal therapy using far-infrared ray dry saunas). Therapy treatments were performed once a day for four weeks, and results were tracked immediately after treatment and then again two years after discharge.
According to the patients’ test scores, self-ratings for pain, depression and anger significantly decreased after treatment in both groups. However, pain and anger were significantly lower in the group also receiving infrared sauna therapy. Two years after treatment, 77 percent of the patients in the infrared sauna group felt well enough to return to work, compared to just 50 percent in the control group. (6)
Who Can Benefit from Infrared Saunas?
Researchers have been studying the effects of saunas for decades when it comes to pain management and relaxation. Infrared saunas are relatively new compared to conventional saunas but have picked up attention recently for helping naturally treat multiple health problems with little to no side effects.
Some studies have shown benefits of infrared sauna therapy for people with:
- cardiovascular disease
- high blood pressure
- congestive heart failure
- rheumatoid arthritis
- chronic fatigue
- poor digestion
- depression and anger
- chronic muscle and joint pains
One of the biggest benefits of infrared saunas is that they’re comfortable and simple to use, even for people who struggle with pain or who have sensitive skin and stomachs when it comes to heat, all with no need for medications or doctor visits.
Is It Safe, and What Are the Potential Side Effects?
How does an infrared sauna treatment feel exactly, and what can you expect?
Many people choose to undergo treatments at a spa, although some purchase the device to keep in their own homes (it can legally be bought in Canada and is sold online). The machine looks similar to a tanning bed, with parts that look like fluorescent lights covered by cylindrical carbon shells. They release light waves that aren’t visible, and the experience happens at a much lower temperature than with a conventional sauna.
Usually, someone lays on an infrared heating pad, allowing for the light to reach all sides of the body. Treatment times vary but usually last for 15–30 minutes (although some experts recommend no more than 20). Also like a tanning bed, patients might be told to gradually turn up the heat a notch every few minutes to reach the highest amount.
A lot of sweating should be expected, although it’s not painful and many people find it relaxing. Some find that afterward they feel a bit lightheaded and like they just came off a day at the beach! Drinking water and getting plenty of rest are recommended. Most people don’t feel any different otherwise, although in some people with high levels of pain, they report they feel an improvement almost immediately.
No serious adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas, and this type of treatment seems to be safe for the majority of people, even those who can’t normally tolerate other types of saunas or heat treatments. FIR wavelengths are luckily too long to be perceived by the eyes, so they don’t damage sensitive eye tissues like other light therapies can. FIR light is also considered “gentle radiant heat,” so although it can penetrate up to 1.5 inches (almost four centimeters) beneath the skin, it isn’t painful and doesn’t cause a burning effect.
That being said, it’s still a good idea to talk to your doctor or health care practitioner about starting treatments with infrared saunas if you have sensitive skin, a history of heart problems or take medications. Infrared saunas are powerful devices and capable of changing your perspiration and heart rates, so it’s safest for some people to work with a knowledgeable practitioner while starting treatments to monitor their reactions and progress.