infrared sauna

Health Benefits of Infrared Sauna + How it Compares to Traditional Saunas

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Wellbeing Leave a Comment

Unlike traditional saunas, which use heated rocks or steam to warm the air, infrared saunas utilize infrared light to heat the body directly. This unique mechanism results in a host of benefits—such as potentially helping to fight inflammation and support hormonal balance1 and heart health.

In recent years, the popularity of infrared saunas has soared as more people seek innovative ways to improve their health, especially from the comfort of their own homes. Having reviewed the benefits in the research, I personally have an infrared sauna and recommend them to patients to support overall health, longevity, and support the body in processing environmental toxins.

In this article, we'll explore the advantages of infrared saunas and compare them to traditional saunas to help you make an informed decision about incorporating this tool into your routine.

What Is An Infrared Sauna?

In a traditional sauna, the air around you is heated in order to generate heat in the body. Infrared saunas use a light that warms your body directly without heating the air around you. 

For people who can’t tolerate the higher temperatures of a traditional sauna, infrared saunas are a great alternative.

Infrared saunas can offer an array of benefits that extend beyond mere relaxation. The gentle heat generated by infrared rays penetrates deep into the body, causing a “hormetic response”2 (a positive stress response), promoting detoxification and rejuvenation of cells and tissues. 

Potential Benefits of Infrared Saunas

Benefits of infrared sauna use may include:

  • Reducing inflammation2
  • Improved relaxation and stress relief3
  • Support for cognitive function and brain health1
  • Detoxification and removal of toxins2 through increased sweating
  • Pain relief and improved tissue recovery4
  • Improved blood circulation2
  • Boost in cardiovascular health5
  • Improved skin texture and reduced signs of aging6

Here's more about how infrared saunas can impact inflammation, hormones, and other aspects of health:

Inflammation Reduction

  • The deep penetrating heat from infrared can increase blood circulation and help reduce inflammation5 by promoting the dilation of blood vessels.5
  • This increased blood flow also helps eliminate metabolic waste products that can cause inflammation.
  • The heat exposure itself may help reduce inflammation by decreasing levels of inflammatory messengers3 like cytokines and prostaglandins.

Hormone Balance

  • Infrared exposure may increase growth hormone7 levels temporarily, which can aid muscle recovery.
  • Sessions have been touted for their hormone-balancing effects8, particularly in women experiencing high cortisol8 or hormonal imbalances during menopause.9
  • By helping to reduce systemic inflammation10 and promote relaxation, infrared sauna sessions may alleviate menopausal symptoms11 such as hot flashes, mood swings, and fatigue. 

Heart Health

  • Studies have found that infrared sauna use can reduce all-cause mortality (death) risk12 to a similar extent as exercise. 
  • Saunas have been shown to improve vascular function, reduce arterial stiffness, decrease circulating inflammatory markers and lipid profiles, and to help lower blood pressure.
  • In one study13 that followed participants for 20 years, it was found that using the sauna 4-7 times per week was associated with lower death from stroke or cardiovascular events.

Detoxification

  • Sweat can help purge the body of heavy metals14 and pollutants.
  • Infrared heat also aids in breaking down and eliminating cholesterol15 and other fatty substances.

Other Potential Benefits

  • Infrared heat penetration may help relax muscles, improve recovery from exercise16, and provide pain relief for conditions like arthritis or autoimmune diseases.
  • It can induce a short-term metabolic increase to burn more calories during the session.
  • Exposure creates mild oxidative stress that can upregulate antioxidant defense systems.
  • Sessions can support brain health by enhancing blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, potentially improving cognitive function17 and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

How Infrared Saunas Work

Infrared saunas work by using infrared light waves to heat the body directly, rather than the surrounding air.

Here's a basic overview of how infrared saunas work:

  • Infrared heaters are used instead of traditional heat sources. These emit infrared radiant energy that penetrates the body directly.
  • As the infrared rays penetrate the body's tissues, they create a dry, sweat-inducing heat that increases the core body temperature.
  • This process causes the body to sweat to cool itself down, which can aid in detoxification by expelling toxins through the sweat.
  • The direct penetration of infrared light can increase blood circulation and promote other potential therapeutic benefits.

To summarize the process, infrared saunas use direct light waves to heat the body's core instead of hot air, creating an efficient way to induce therapeutic sweating.

How to Use an Infrared Sauna 

Use these tips to get the most benefit from using an infrared sauna:

  1. Go Slow. Begin with a 10 minutes or less session and see how you feel.
  2. Time Limit. While saunas have many benefits, using them beyond 30 minutes could be too much stress on the body. 
  3. Hydrate. You’re going to sweat, which is why hydrating before you begin and taking water in with you can help you get the most benefit without over stressing the body. 
  4. Shower After. Using a fat containing soap, like goat’s milk, can help with removing fat soluble toxins you’ve excreted. But at the very minimum, rinse off to wash out the toxins that are now on your skin. 

Infrared Sauna vs. Traditional Sauna: How Do They Compare?

When it comes to sauna options, the choice between a home infrared light sauna or a traditional model boils down to personal preference and desired outcomes. That said, infrared saunas offer some potential benefits that traditional saunas do not, such as:

  • Deeper penetration and better heat absorption by inner tissues and organs.
  • Lower temperatures.
  • Greater detoxification, circulation, and pain-relieving effects.
  • Pain relief and circulation.
  • Convenience, since they are typically easier to install at home, smaller, and don't require special plumbing.

While both types of saunas provide benefits like relaxation and cardiovascular effects, the deeper penetrating infrared wavelengths give infrared saunas an additional therapeutic advantage over traditional steam or dry heat saunas.

The biggest difference between traditional versus infrared light saunas is how they heat your body. 

Infrared wavelengths are able to heat the body directly instead of just heating the air. This allows you to experience a more intense sweat at lower temperatures than a traditional sauna.

Traditional saunas, typically heated to temperatures between 150°F and 195°F, rely on convection and conduction to heat the air and, subsequently, the body. They usually feel very hot and humid, which can be uncomfortable for some people.

In contrast, infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures, ranging from 120°F to 140°F, yet still deliver deep-penetrating heat that warms the body directly.

In terms of installation and maintenance, home light saunas often offer greater convenience for home use. They require less space, preheat quickly, and consume less energy compared to traditional saunas. They also don't require the use of hot rocks or burning wood.

Additionally, the reduced heat in the surrounding air of infrared saunas is generally more tolerable for people who struggle with breathing in the hot, humid air of traditional saunas.

Are Infrared Saunas Safe?

Infrared sauna therapy is generally safe for most adults18; however, there are potential risks to be aware of. 

Dehydration and overheating are the primary concerns associated with infrared sauna use. To help prevent these side effects and minimize risks:

  • Be sure to stay hydrated before, during, and after a session.
  • Limit the duration of each session to avoid excessive heat exposure. Generally, it's recommended to start with shorter sessions of around 10 to 15 minutes1 and gradually increase the time as your body acclimates. Most people find 20 to 30 minutes per session to be sufficient.
  • Listen to your body and exit the sauna if you start feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or uncomfortable. 
  • Don't drink alcohol or eat a heavy meal before sauna use since this might exacerbate dehydration and make it harder for your body to regulate your internal temperature.
  • Always follow the manufacturer's guidelines for operating the sauna, and never exceed the recommended temperature.

Who Shouldn't Use Infrared Saunas?

Certain people should avoid using infrared saunas due to a higher risk of experiencing side effects. This includes anyone with:

  • A history of heat intolerance or sensitivity to infrared light.
  • Heart conditions.
  • Uncontrolled hypertension.
  • Pregnant women.

If you have any type of serious medical condition, err on the safe side and talk to your healthcare provider before using an infrared sauna to make sure it's safe.

Key Takeaways on Benefits of Infrared Sauna and How They Compare to Other Saunas

  • Infrared saunas offer unique benefits, including enhanced detoxification, relaxation, and rejuvenation, compared to traditional saunas.
  • The gentle heat of infrared saunas penetrates deep into the body, promoting brain health, hormone balance, and relief from conditions like menopause symptoms and inflammatory conditions.
  • When considering sauna options, weigh factors such as space, installation, and desired outcomes to determine whether an infrared or traditional sauna best suits your needs.
  • While infrared sauna therapy is generally safe, it's essential to stay hydrated, limit session duration, and consult with a healthcare provider, especially if you have underlying medical conditions.
  • Pregnant women, those with heart conditions, and those with heat sensitivity should exercise caution.

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References

  1. Rhonda P. Patrick, Teresa L. Johnson. Sauna use as a lifestyle practice to extend healthspan. Experimental Gerontology. 2021. 154. 111509.
  2. Henderson KN, Killen LG, O'Neal EK, Waldman HS. The Cardiometabolic Health Benefits of Sauna Exposure in Individuals with High-Stress Occupations. A Mechanistic Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021. 18(3). 1105.
  3. Joy Hussain, Marc Cohen. Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018.
  4. Mero A, Tornberg J, Mäntykoski M, Puurtinen R. Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus. 2015. 4. 321.
  5. Jari A. Laukkanen, MD, PhD, Tanjaniina Laukkanen, MSc, Setor K. Kunutsor, MD, PhD. Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2018. 93(8). P1111-1121.
  6. Lee JH, Roh MR, Lee KH. Effects of infrared radiation on skin photo-aging and pigmentation. Yonsei Med J. 2006. 47(4). 485-90.
  7. Kukkonen-Harjula K, Kauppinen K. How the sauna affects the endocrine system. Ann Clin Res. 1988. 20(4). 262-6.
  8. Podstawski R, Borysławski K, Pomianowski A, Krystkiewicz W, Żurek P. Endocrine Effects of Repeated Hot Thermal Stress and Cold Water Immersion in Young Adult Men. Am J Mens Health. 2021. 15(2).
  9. Chien LW, Liu SJ, Chang Y, Liu CF. Local thermal therapy effects on menopausal symptoms and bone mineral density. J Altern Complement Med. 2011. 17(12). 1133-40.
  10. Laukkanen, J.A., Laukkanen, T. Sauna bathing and systemic inflammation. Eur J Epidemiol. 2018. 33. 351–353.
  11. Li-Wei Chien, Shu-Ju Liu, Ying Chang, and Chi-Feng Liu. Local Thermal Therapy Effects on Menopausal Symptoms and Bone Mineral Density. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2011. 17(12).
  12. Joy N. Hussain, Marc M. Cohen, Nitin Mantri, Cindy J. O’Malley, Ronda F. Greaves. Infrared sauna as exercise-mimetic? Physiological responses to infrared sauna vs exercise in healthy women: A randomized controlled crossover trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2022. 64.
  13. Benefits of sauna bathing for heart health. UCLA Health. 2023.
  14. Kuan W-H, Chen Y-L, Liu C-L. Excretion of Ni, Pb, Cu, As, and Hg in Sweat under Two Sweating Conditions. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022. 19(7). 4323.
  15. Lee E, Kolunsarka I, Kostensalo J, Ahtiainen JP, Haapala EA, Willeit P, Kunutsor SK, Laukkanen JA.. Effects of regular sauna bathing in conjunction with exercise on cardiovascular function: a multi-arm, randomized controlled trial. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2022. 323(3). R289-R299.
  16. Ahokas EK, Ihalainen JK, Hanstock HG, Savolainen E, Kyröläinen H. A post-exercise infrared sauna session improves recovery of neuromuscular performance and muscle soreness after resistance exercise training. Biol Sport. 2023. 40(3). 681-689.
  17. Cernych, M., Satas, A., & Brazaitis, M. Post-sauna recovery enhances brain neural network relaxation and improves cognitive economy in oddball tasks. International Journal of Hyperthermia. 2018. 35(1). 375–382.
  18. Crinnion WJ. Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant- induced and other chronic health problems. Altern Med Rev. 2011. 16(3). 215-25.
About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is a women’s hormone expert and prominent leader in women’s medicine. As a licensed naturopathic physician who is board certified in naturopathic endocrinology, she takes an integrative approach in her clinical practice. A fierce patient advocate and completely dedicated to uncovering the root cause of hormonal imbalances, Dr. Brighten empowers women worldwide to take control of their health and their hormones. She is the best selling author of Beyond the Pill and Healing Your Body Naturally After Childbirth. Dr. Brighten is an international speaker, clinical educator, medical advisor within the tech community, and considered a leading authority on women’s health. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and a faculty member for the American Academy of Anti Aging Medicine. Her work has been featured in the New York Post, Forbes, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Bustle, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, Elle, and ABC News. Read more about me here.