I love a good schvitz. From hot yoga and sweat lodge ceremonies to vacationing in warmer climates, I’ll always opt to turn up the temp. In my constant quest to meet—rather than beat—the heat, lately I’ve been turning to infrared saunas to get my fix.
First, what’s an infrared sauna?
Infrared saunas use infrared (IR) light to induce heat within the body. They emit wavelengths of light that your skin absorbs via convection. From there, your core temperature rises, and that’s when the wellness benefits are supposed to kick in.
There are three types of infrared light rays: near, medium, and far. They’re differentiated by wavelength, and each is said to offer a unique advantage. However, far infrared rays are praised as the most beneficial. You’re likely to find this type at trendy infrared sauna spas from coast to coast.
Are they different from traditional saunas?
Infrared saunas differ from traditional saunas in several ways. First, standard steam saunas require pouring water over hot stones to create a heated environment. Steam saunas are thus more humid than infrared saunas. Also, standard sauna temperatures can reach as high as 195 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, infrared saunas only need to be heated to around 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for IR light to optimally penetrate the body.
hype vs. hoax
Infrared sauna spas boast countless beauty and wellness benefits of IR therapy. But are they actually valid? Here are the verdicts:
Anti-aging: it’s a toss-up
I’m all about getting my collagen fix, so my fingers are crossed that the anti-aging claims of IR radiation ring true. But after reading a 2006 study, it’s not looking so *hot* for me. Researchers looked into the effects of IR radiation on type I procollagen and MMP-1 (interstitial collagenase) levels. One-time IR exposure showed increased levels of type I procollagen and decreased MMP-1 within 24 hours. Conversely, regular IR exposure (three times a week over four weeks) showed the exact opposite. Even further, the researchers suspect that regular IR exposure can potentially spur photoaging and connective tissue damage. Yikes! Excuse me while I do the math to see if I can balance my sweat sessions to call it a wash…
Image via @lucyontheground
Weight loss: ambiguous
Infrared sauna brand Sunlighten sponsored a 2008 study investigating the effects of far-infrared sauna therapy on people with type II diabetes. Participants sat in an infrared sauna for 20-minute sessions three times a week over three months. The researchers found that infrared sauna benefits may extend to reducing both waist size and blood pressure. However, improvements didn’t noticeably extend to weight loss.
But the impact of sweat therapy on metabolism and calorie burn shouldn’t be totally discounted. Dr. Ward Dean, an anti-aging and life-extension expert, indicated early on that saunas do have legitimate merit.
As he writes in a 1981 letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “Sweating is a part of the complex thermoregulatory process of the body involving substantial increases in heart rate, cardiac output, and metabolic rate, and consumes considerable energy.” He notes that while water weight may bounce back upon hydrating after a sauna session, calorie count won’t. He concludes: “Regular use of a sauna… may well be as effective a means of cardiovascular conditioning and burning of calories as regular exercise.” Skip a workout, bask in sauna heat, and still reap cardio and calorie-burning benefits? Sign me up!
Fatigue: potentially beneficial
Waon therapy is a Japanese far-infrared sauna experience that translates to “soothing warm therapy.” Their Research Institute conducted a 2015 study on the effects of their IR treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. Participants sat in an infrared sauna for 15 minutes five days a week over four weeks. Their perceived levels of fatigue lowered significantly following infrared sauna treatment. They also reported leaving treatment in a better mood and with less anxiety. However, given that the study assessed only 10 participants, we should take the results with a grain of salt.
Personally, I haven’t noticed a massive difference in my fatigue symptoms following IR treatments. But I do leave feeling relaxed and restful, so that’s a plus.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison published a 2016 study that investigated the impact of hyperthermia in treating major depressive disorder. Participants sat beside infrared lights and heating coils until their body temperature reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, they turned off the infrared devices and rested for 60 minutes. An impressive 40 percent of participants showed significantly lowered indications of depression after just one session. Moreover, they reported still feeling better six weeks following IR treatment. The researchers believe that the heat induced from infrared saunas stimulates the production of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter that regulates mood. While you shouldn’t necessarily swap your meds for infrared sauna therapy, the latter could be a good complement to combat the blues.
I’d like for all of the purported infrared sauna benefits to ring true—at the very least to justify the cost of treatment. But research backs only some claims, while others remain questionable. At any rate, since I love the heat and haven’t noticed any negative side effects, I don’t see myself giving up my infrared sauna habit anytime soon.