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April 13, 2022/Living Healthy/Wellness

Infrared Saunas: What They Do and 6 Health Benefits

This modern twist on a traditional sauna offers a lower-temperature option

A photo of the inside of an infrared sauna

Facts are facts, so let’s get one thing straight: Infrared saunas are definitely “cooler” than more traditional saunas that date back to ancient times.

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Instead of steam or flame-stoked heat, infrared saunas use infrared lamps and electromagnetic magic to create warmth. The process allows infrared saunas to operate at a lower temperature while still providing therapeutic benefits.

Consider it a modern twist on how our ancestors sweated their way to better health and wellness. To learn more about this plug-it-in approach, we turn to functional medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD.

What are infrared saunas?

Light panels do more than give infrared saunas a unique glow. They also heat things up in a completely different way than old-school saunas, which is really what sets this method apart, says Dr. Young.

The lamps in infrared saunas focus a penetrating warmth directly on your skin to bring heat-therapy benefits. Traditional methods crank up the air temperature within an entire sauna.

Those two approaches bring up vastly different readings on thermometers. Temperatures in infrared saunas typically land between 110 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 F (43.33 degrees Celsius and 57.22 C). A traditional sauna usually falls between 150 F and 195 F (65.55 C and 90.55 C).

“Infrared saunas can definitely be much more comfortable for people while delivering the same sort of benefits,” says Dr. Young.

Infrared sauna health benefits

So, why should you lounge under infrared lights in temperatures that still approach the highest ever recorded on Earth? (If you’re curious, the much-disputed world record is just above 130 F [54.44 C].)

Here are a few reasons to get sweaty under the lights.

Improved heart health

Within minutes of sitting in an infrared sauna, your body’s natural response begins. Beads of sweat appear on your skin. Your blood vessels widen and increase blood flow. Your heart rate ticks up.

“What’s happening mimics exercise when you think of the physiology,” explains Dr. Young. “There’s a benefit to that.”

Studies show that infrared saunas can help boost heart health and reduce blood pressure. Researchers equated the physical response of an infrared sauna session to walking at a moderate pace.

Soothing sore muscles

The improved blood circulation brought on by an infrared sauna session can help speed up muscle recovery following physical activity, says Dr. Young. Regular use may even help athletes improve performance.

Pain relief

Researchers found that infrared sauna therapy “may be a promising method for treatment of chronic pain.” The determination followed a two-year study where people showed improved outcomes with the treatment.

Relaxation

Warming your body seems to warm your soul, too. Setting aside some sauna time may help decrease depression, anxiety and stress. Basically, think of it as a meditation session in warmer temperatures.

Catching ZZZs

A bonus benefit to being more relaxed? Better sleep, which has also been linked to sauna use.

Fighting off illness

There’s evidence that regular sauna use can help you avoid the common cold, says Dr. Young. Saunas also reduce oxidative stress, which is associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer and degenerative diseases like dementia.

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More controversial are claims that sauna use can provide a detoxification effect as you sweat out toxins such as cadmium and lead. “That research is still in its infancy,” cautions Dr. Young.

Tips for using infrared saunas

So, you want to give an infrared hot box a try? Dr. Young offers these recommendations:

  1. Start low and slow. Dial down the temperature and keep your sessions short when you begin using an infrared sauna. “Start at something like 110 degrees for five to 10 minutes,” says Dr. Young. “See how you feel, then build from there.”
  2. Max time. Even if you’re an experienced sauna user, keep sessions below 30 minutes to avoid putting too much stress on your body. It’s best to limit visits to three to four times a week, too.
  3. Stay hydrated. The sweat that pours out during a sauna session can leave your body’s fluid levels low. “Bring water in with you,” advises Dr. Young. Sports drinks with electrolytes may also be a good option. (Side note: Avoid mixing alcohol with sauna use.)
  4. Rinse off afterward. A shower after your sauna will wash off any toxins you sweated out before they can be reabsorbed through your skin.

Risks of infrared saunas

Sauna use is viewed as a safe activity, which explains why they’ve been around for thousands of years. But be aware of the potential for dehydration, says Dr. Young. If you suddenly feel dizzy or nauseated, get out of the sauna immediately.

You also may want to avoid using infrared saunas in certain situations, including if:

  • You have multiple sclerosis. “People who have MS tend to be heat intolerant and generally should not use saunas,” warns Dr. Young.
  • You’re pregnant. Sauna use, especially early in pregnancy, can be harmful to your fetus and may cause birth defects, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
  • You’re trying to conceive. Heat is not good for sperm health.
  • You’re sick. Wait until you feel better for your sweat session.

If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, check with your healthcare provider before starting an infrared sauna routine, advises Dr. Young.

Is an infrared sauna worth trying?

Absolutely, says Dr. Young. “We see so many people who come in asking how they can move towards optimal health,” she says. “With saunas in general, and especially infrared saunas, people feel better after using them. It can be an integral part of your health practices.”

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