Do infrared sauna sessions reap real health benefits? Here’s a look at the research.
I love a good sweat sesh. 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.
Infrared sauna spas often market themselves as one-stop wellness shops that can promote:
- Weight loss
- Skin purification
- Decreased stress
- Improved mood
But do infrared saunas actually work? Read on to find out.
What Are Infrared Saunas??
Infrared saunas use infrared (IR) light to induce heat within the body.
But how do infrared saunas work? 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 said to kick in.
There are three types of infrared light rays:
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’ll likely find this type of wavelength at trendy infrared sauna spas from coast to coast.
Infrared Saunas vs. 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.
Additionally, 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.
Do Infrared Saunas Work?
Infrared saunas boast countless beauty and wellness benefits of IR therapy. But are they actually valid? Here are the verdicts.
Anti-Aging Claims: Research Is Inconclusive
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.
If you’re looking for ways to actually boost your collagen levels, add a collagen supplement (like HUM Nutrition’s Collagen Love) to your daily routine to help support levels from the inside out. Additionally, try adding collagen-rich foods into your diet.
Weight Loss Claims: Research Is Inconclusive
There are lots of claims around infrared saunas help with weight loss. However, there are no actual studies to back these claims up. The only weight loss that’s known to come from infrared saunas includes a loss of water weight due to thermoregulation, or sweating.
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! (Just don’t forget to hydrate after.)
Anti-Constipation Claims: Not Enough Research
Do infrared saunas help you poop? Unfortunately, there isn’t any research on this topic to give a straightforward answer. However, research has shown that applying heat to your lower body can help support bowel movements. By that logic, there may be some kind of benefit to exposing your system to high heat for a short period of time. However, you’re better off ingesting foods rich in fiber that help support your body’s detoxification system.
Anti-Fatigue Claims: Confirmed
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 stress.
However, given that the study assessed only 10 participants, we should take the results with a grain of salt.
Another study of 10 men found that sitting in an infrared sauna for 30 minutes after high-intensity exercise was favorable for muscle recovery and for maximum endurance performance.
Anti-Depression Claims: Confirmed
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 your 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. If you’re struggling with weight, fatigue, or depression, it’s best to speak to a doctor.
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.