Far-infrared sauna therapy has become increasingly popular. You can find them at gyms, spas, and health centers. There are convenient options for your home, including foldable and portable easy-to-use options for small spaces. The benefits of infrared sauna therapy include improved detoxification, better immune health, decreased inflammation, improved pain relief, improved insulin sensitivity, better endurance, increased heart health, lower stress, and improved mental health.
In this article, I want to discuss the benefits of infrared sauna therapy. I will go over the difference between infrared saunas and traditional steam saunas. I will also offer some tips on how to get started and optimize the benefits of infrared sauna therapy. Let’s get into it.
What Is Infrared Sauna
Saunas have been used throughout history and across cultures. Just think about Roman and Turkish baths, Japanese hot soaking tubs, and Native American sweat lodges. Saunas are not uncommon in apartments and homes in Finland.
There are different types of saunas though. Many saunas use dry heat from heated rocks or a closed stove. Steam saunas use steam from a generator filled with boiling water. Infrared saunas are a relatively new invention and date back to 1965 in Japan. In the late 1970s, infrared saunas started to gain popularity worldwide.
Today, they are among the hottest topics in the holistic health and functional medicine field. Thanks to modern technology, you can find various options to use in your home, even if you live in a tiny studio apartment. But what is infrared sauna therapy, and how is it different from other forms of saunas?
Infrared saunas use infrared energy. Infrared heaters release infrared wavelengths that create heat as they penetrate your skin. This means that your body is directly heated from the inside out as the light waves get absorbed through your skin.
Just think about the sun. Sunlight has far-infrared light (FIR). When it’s sunny outside, the sun warms your skin and your body. As a result, you may start sweating. Infrared saunas work very similarly but create more heat than your average sunny day.
There are various types of infrared saunas:
- Near-infrared sauna: Near-infrared light and heat therapy is also known as phototherapy. It may support your immune function, wound healing, skin health, and revitalization.
- Mid-infrared sauna: Mid-infrared technology offers a longer wavelength that can penetrate your tissue deeper. They may support muscle relaxation, circulation, oxygen release, and recovery from injuries.
- Far-infrared sauna: Far-infrared technology (FIR) offers the longest wavelengths. FIR wavelengths are between 5.6 and 20 microns. FIR saunas may support detoxification, metabolism, and cardiovascular health, among other benefits.
Far-infrared saunas are the most powerful and are also the most popular. There are also full-spectrum saunas that offer a combination of all infrared wavelengths depending on your needs.
FIR technology offers a non-invasive light therapy. It is completely safe to use. Infrared saunas heat up your muscles and internal organs. This supports the detoxification of your organs and tissues and allows toxins to be removed from your tissues through the bloodstream and eventually get eliminated through sweating. It may help to improve liver detoxification, help kidney filtration, decrease inflammation, reduce stress, support muscle relaxation, improve oxygen delivery to your cells, support cardiovascular health, improve your immune system, support metabolic pathways, and more (1, 2).
Infrared Sauna vs Traditional Sauna
So what’s the difference between an infrared sauna and a traditional sauna? Great question.
Traditional sauna, also known as a steam sauna, creates heat by using a heating element and water. For example, in rock saunas, water is poured on high-temperature coal or rocks to create steam. Just like infrared saunas, steam saunas also make you sweat. However, there is a water element.
Steam saunas generally create higher temperatures at 150 – 190°F or 65 – 87°C compared to infrared saunas at 110 – 150°F or 43 – 65°C. However, steam saunas first heat the surrounding air, then the heated steam room heats up your body. Thanks to infrared heat, infrared saunas heat up your body directly as infrared waves penetrate your skin. This may offer greater benefits despite the lower temperatures.
You may experience more health benefits from infrared sauna therapy than from traditional saunas. When you are using steam saunas, most of what your body is releasing is water. Infrared sauna therapy may allow your body to sweat and release more toxins by perspiring 80% water and 20% toxins and waste.
Infrared saunas are also easier to access and maintain. There are options for home use, even if you have a small apartment and a lower budget. They heat up quicker and the benefits may be more immediate.
Benefits of Infrared Sauna Therapy
Let’s learn about the many potential benefits of infrared sauna therapy.
Detoxification is one of the main benefits of infrared sauna therapy. Your skin is your largest detoxifying organ. It helps to eliminate toxins through sweating. Since infrared saunas help to enhance sweating, they may help to speed up the detoxification process through the skin. According to a 2012 systematic review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Research, sweating may help to eliminate heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, and other toxins (3).
Research has shown that sauna therapy may help police officers and firefighters to eliminate any toxins they encounter through their work and reduce the risk of any health issues (4, 5). Firefighters run into fire and are exposed to all kinds of toxins every day. If sauna therapy can help that level of toxin exposure, imagine what it can do for your body.
Autophagy is your body’s cellular recycling system. It helps your body to break down and reuse old or damaged cellular parts and cells. By recycling old components, your body can build newer and healthier cells. Autophagy may help to reduce the risk of disease and improve the chance of recovery (6).
Your body is always looking to achieve homeostasis and balance. In times of stress, it needs to prepare for survival. This means looking for optimal function and energy efficiency. As a response to stress, it will break down older and damaged cells to leave room for new and healthier ones. The higher-than-normal temperatures created by infrared sauna lead to temporary stress in your body, which is perfect for autophagy and cellular renewal. According to a 2005 research published in Dose-Response, repeated exposure to mild heat stress may activate your body’s internal antioxidant, repair, and degradation processes and support anti-aging (7).
Decreased Inflammation and Pain
If you are experiencing chronic pain or chronic health conditions, you are likely excited about this potential benefit of infrared sauna therapy. Chronic inflammation is the root cause of most chronic symptoms and health issues. Infrared sauna may help to decrease chronic inflammation by improving autophagy, lowering chronic stress response, improving relaxation, optimizing circulation, supporting the oxygenation of your blood cells, and boosting immune health.
By reducing inflammation, infrared sauna therapy may reduce pain related to exercise, chronic pain, and chronic health issues. According to a 2018 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Research, sauna bathing may help to reduce cardiovascular and rheumatological diseases (8). According to a 2008 study published in Cardiovascular Pathology, it may help to reduce inflammation related to autoimmune myocarditis (9).
A 2015 study published in Internal Medicine has found that it may improve pain, fatigue, and mood associated with chronic fatigue syndrome (10). It may also be a great option if you have fibromyalgia, muscle pain, and joint pain. According to a 2008 study published in Clinical Rheumatology, infrared sauna may be beneficial for pain and symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (AS) (11).
Better Immune Health
Infrared sauna therapy may also help to improve your immune response and immune health. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics has found that only 15 minutes of sauna use may help to improve immune response, white blood cell count, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil counts, and plasma volume (12). They found that while both athletes and non-athletes saw immune health improvements, benefits were greater in athletes. This shows that combining regular infrared sauna sessions with regular exercise may be the best combination for improved immune health.
Infrared sauna therapy may also help to improve your skin health. A 2006 study published in Yonsei Medical Journal has found that infrared radiation may help to improve collagen and elastin production, increase fibroblast production, and improve skin texture and skin tone (13). Sweating from infrared sauna therapy helps to bring natural moisture to the surface of your skin and may help with natural hydration. It may help to remove and prevent build-up of dirt and debris, remove dead skin cells, kill harmful bacteria, and reduce infections and acne. It may also help to improve circulation, blood flow, and blood vessel dilation, creating a post-sauna glow (14, 15).
Improve Insulin Sensitivity
After you eat, your food is broken down into sugar. As the sugar enters your bloodstream, your pancreas will release insulin to help the sugar enter your cells to make energy. Insulin also informs the liver to store blood sugar for later. However, if there is a lot of sugar entering your bloodstream, your pancreas needs to work extra hard to make enough insulin. Over time, this may cause your body to become insulin resistant. It means that your cells can’t respond to insulin well, and your pancreas will end up making more and more insulin, but can’t keep up, leading to high blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance may increase your risk of pre-diabetes, diabetes, fatty liver, and other chronic health issues.
Insulin sensitivity, on the other hand, means that your body only needs small amounts of insulin to keep up with the blood sugar. Fortunately, infrared sauna therapy may help to improve insulin sensitivity. A 2007 animal study published in the International Journal of Hyperthermia has found that only 30 minutes of heat treatment 3 times a week for 12 weeks led to a 31% decrease in insulin levels and an improvement in blood sugar in insulin-resistance diabetic mice (16). A 2010 study published in the Condition Journal of Diabetes has found that far-infrared sauna therapy may also improve cardiovascular benefits in people with type 2 diabetes by helping to lower blood pressure and waist circumference (17).
Better Heart Health
Infrared sauna therapy may not only be helpful for the cardiovascular health of those with diabetes but everyone else. Since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US and the second leading cause in Canada, the heart health benefits of infrared sauna therapy are exciting (18, 19).
A 2019 study published in BioMed Research International has found that only 10 minutes of dry sauna use 4 times a week may help to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and body mass index in sedentary overweight men (20). A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Hypertension has also found that sauna therapy may help to reduce hypertension (21).
According to a 2001 study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, thermal therapy may improve impaired vascular endothelial function in heart disease (22). A 2015 research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has found that sauna bathing may reduce the risk of heart disease and the risk of death related to cardiovascular events (23).
Improved Physical Endurance and Recovery
If you are an athlete or work out a lot, you may love this potential benefit of infrared sauna therapy. It may improve your physical endurance and support muscle recovery. When you are working out, an increase in body temperature may put extra strain on your body. Working out in hot climates, summer times, or heated rooms (e.g., hot yoga) can be difficult. Infrared sauna may help to improve your body’s self-cooling mechanism and also help your body to perform better under hot conditions (24, 25).
A 2014 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science has found that sauna therapy helped endurance athletes with heat acclimation and performance at a hot-desert-based ultra-running race (26). A 2014 study published in Springer Plus has found that far-infrared sauna use may improve speed recovery from maximum endurance performance and training in athletes (27).
Improved Stress Relief
The final important benefit of infrared sauna therapy is stress relief. It may support relaxation and mental well-being. According to a 2019 study published in Medical Principles and Practice, regular sauna therapy may reduce the risk of psychotic disorders (28). According to a 2015 study published in Internal Medicine, it may help to improve mood, depression, and anxiety in people with chronic fatigue syndrome (10). Spending time in a quiet space during your sauna therapy without electronic devices and other distractions may be a great opportunity for practicing meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation, further enhancing its stress-relieving and mental health benefits of infrared sauna therapy.
Difference Between Infrared and Steam Saunas
You may be wondering why I am recommending infrared sauna therapy instead of steam saunas. The short answer is that infrared sauna therapy offers more health benefits.
One of the main ways your body eliminates toxins is through perspiration. While both infrared saunas and steam saunas lead to sweating and detoxification, combining the benefits of saunas with infrared technology allows your body to sweat out a significantly greater amount of toxic debris in just one infrared sauna therapy session. Infrared sauna therapy allows your body to perspire 80 percent water and 20 percent toxins and waste, white traditional steam saunas only allow your body to release 3 percent sweat while sweating 97 percent water. You can see that infrared sauna therapy is much more effective than traditional steam saunas.
How to Use Infrared Sauna
Infrared saunas are available at various health and wellness centers, alternative health offices, spas, and gyms. You may also purchase your own infrared saunas. There are some very convenient portable infrared saunas you can use in your home. They can be folded up and stored easily between uses.
If you’ve never used an infrared sauna before, I recommend starting with a short session. Five minutes is enough for the first time. Build up the length of your sessions gradually to 20 minutes or longer. I aim to sweat profusely for 20 minutes or so during my sessions.
You may use your infrared sauna at any time during the day. You may even try two sessions a day if your time allows it. Evening infrared sauna sessions may support rest and sleep. In the morning, they may help you to get your days started relaxed and energized. I’m in my home sauna usually 3 times per week, especially during the cold winter months, and definitely during COVID shutdowns when sweating in a gym or hockey rink wasn’t an option.
Exercising before your infrared sauna session can kick-start detoxification, sweating, and lymphatic cleansing. Dry brushing before your session may help to stimulate your lymphatic flow as well. Don’t forget to take a shower after you are done with your sauna. It’s important that you remove toxins, sweat, and dead skin cells. I bring a moist cloth into my sauna, to towel off the sweat periodically as it is produced. Use natural, organic, and, ideally, fragrance-free soap to avoid toxin exposure after your sauna detox session. For added benefit, I turn my after sauna shower to cold after a morning or afternoon session.
Follow a nutrient-dense diet and support your gut health with probiotics. Reduce your overall environmental toxin exposure so your body doesn’t have to work extra long hours detoxing. Lead a healthy lifestyle. Move your body regularly. Reduce your stress levels. Sleep 7 to 9 hours a night.
If you are experiencing chronic symptoms, I recommend that you speak with your doctors first for more personalized health information and support. I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article.
If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and overall health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here.