The Heat Is On: Can Infrared Saunas Help You Stay Healthy?
From promoting detoxification to good sleep, here's why this wellness trend has become more popular
One of the perks of my local Y is the sauna in the women's locker room (the men's has one, too). Occasionally after a swim, I will sit for a few minutes in the 190-degree heat, enjoying the all-encompassing warmth and the loose-limbed, boneless relaxation it always produces.
So I was intrigued by the latest trend in saunas. Instead of heating the air, an infrared sauna uses infrared lamps that operate at a somewhat lower temperature, around 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
The infrared lights weren't overwhelmingly bright, and the room was hot but not unbearably.
The lamps heat the room, and your body, for a slew of potential health benefits that adherents say can include enhancing your immune system, relieving pain, improving your skin, and promoting deep relaxation and better sleep.
That last part got my attention. Now in my 50s, I've struggled with insomnia for years, so I was willing to try it. So I signed up for a session, and since then, I have been going once a week.
Here's a closer look at what to expect and what health experts say about this latest wellness trend.
At the infrared sauna, I was shown a small room with a locking door that included an even smaller room with a glass wall. You slip off your clothes (yes, all of them) and sit on or wrap yourself in a towel.
Because of the color, the infrared lights weren't overwhelmingly bright, and the room was hot but not unbearably. So I sat, listening to drifty/floaty music, meditated for a few minutes, and waited to sweat. I didn't, at first. Then, about 15 minutes in, I felt a trickle down my back. Then another.
Within minutes I was drenched and started drinking from my bottle of water. Finally, after 40 minutes, I toweled off, dressed and headed home to shower. That night, I slept for eight glorious uninterrupted hours and signed up for another session shortly after.
The Next Step For Infrared Light Treatment
Infrared light has been used for treating skin conditions for years, says athletic trainer Anthony Breitbach, vice dean of the Doisy College of Health Sciences at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.
"An infrared sauna is one of the most powerful tools to detox and increase the detoxification process."
"Infrared is a type of light therapy that creates some reactions with the skin that create a lot of positive effects, like the stimulation of the epithelial cells [which act as a protective barrier and secrete and absorb different substances in your body]," says Breitbach.
"It's a heating modality, and some of the effects of heat include relaxation, sweating and decreased pain as it has analgesic effects."
Exposing your entire body to this light via an infrared sauna "allows the heat to penetrate your skin to a little deeper level and enhances detoxification at a cellular level," says functional medicine expert Jill Carnahan, MD, author of "Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith."
"When you're in a hot room, it will cause you to sweat, and that is one of the primary ways we release toxins [like parabens and solvents] that accumulate in our tissues," she says. "The infrared light is a push that helps release toxins on a cellular level. An infrared sauna is one of the most powerful tools to detox and increase the detoxification process."
"Saunas encourage the body to sweat and circulate blood, which are strategies to assist with detoxification and cardiovascular health," says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist and educator at the Institute for Functional Medicine in Federal Way, Washington.
While there is still scant clinical evidence about infrared sauna's potential health benefits, research indicates that several toxins can be released through sweat.
"Therefore, there can be a benefit to several conditions where toxins might be implicated as a root cause, such as arsenic in Type 2 diabetes," says Minich. As a result of the dilation of the blood vessels, it may also lead to a feeling of greater relaxation.
"The clinical studies on infrared saunas would suggest that they could be helpful in reducing pain in those with inflammatory-based conditions such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis," adds Minich.
However, "more studies are needed on infrared saunas to definitively understand populations of people they can best benefit, along with their mechanisms of action."
Other Potential Benefits
Carnahan treats many patients at her practice, Flatiron Functional Medicine in Louisville, Colorado, with complex or chronic autoimmune disorders and says that toxic load is often one of the contributing factors to these conditions.
More than 80% of her patients use infrared saunas and benefit from healthy glowing skin; more energy, better sleep and less brain fog.
"People may not think of saunas affecting optimal cognition but detoxing your body enhances cognitive function, so patients over 50 who use them may have better clarity and improved memory," she adds.
Before You Go
Intrigued? Infrared sauna studios are popping up around the country. If you plan to try one, keep the following tips in mind:
- If you have chronic health conditions, check with your doctor to ensure you can handle heat exposure.
- Start low and slow. Carnahan says the ideal temperature is 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit; if you're new to saunas, start with a shorter session, like 5 to 10 minutes, to see how your body responds before opting for a more extended session.
- Drink plenty of water during and after the session to rehydrate. "Regardless of the type of sauna, replenishing electrolytes and water is always a concern," says Minich. "Therefore, it best to ensure adequate hydration status before and after the sauna."
- Shower immediately afterward to rinse off toxins and sweat.
The Bottom Line
While some of the purported benefits (like boosting immune function) lack supporting research, infrared saunas appear to aid detoxification, ease pain, enhance relaxation and promote better sleep.
At about $20 for a 40-minute session, I've found it an inexpensive and relaxing addition to my overall wellness program.