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Can an infrared sauna make me fitter and healthier?

Infrared saunas have seen their popularity soar in influencer and social media circles for offering all the physical and mental health benefits of a traditional sauna. But do they really deserve their new-found status as a central component of all life-extending weekly wellness programmes?

Infrared saunas are the latest in a long line of effective hot and cold therapy treatments lauded for improving both immediate and long-term physical and mental health.

Unlike Finnish saunas, infrared saunas don’t heat the air around you but use infrared lamps to directly warm your body via waves of light that penetrate deep into your muscles and other tissues for a wealth of health benefits including better blood flow and circulation, and muscle recovery and relaxation. Here’s everything you need to know about infrared saunas including how they work and what they do to upgrade your weekly wellness routine.

What is an infrared sauna?

It’s a type of sauna that uses infrared light to create heat. Unlike traditional Finnish saunas, which heat the air or use steam to warm the body indirectly, infrared saunas directly heat your body using lamps that emit infrared light. This light is experienced as radiant heat, which is absorbed by the surface of the skin.

Infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures than traditional saunas, typically ranging from 45°C to 60°C (113°F to 140°F), which many users find more comfortable. The direct heating method of the infrared sauna allows for deeper tissue penetration, potentially providing enhanced therapeutic benefits (see below for more details).

How does an infrared sauna work?

Infrared saunas use lamps or heaters to emit a specific wavelength of light – infrared radiation, which is a type of electromagnetic light not visible to the human eye – that is absorbed directly by the body’s tissues, causing heat generation from within rather than heating the air around.

This process, known as conversion, skips the conventional convection and conduction methods used by traditional saunas to directly stimulate warming at a cellular level. How? The body absorbs these infrared rays, which causes water molecules in cells to vibrate, effectively increasing internal core temperature while also stimulating sweat glands.

This infrared light spectrum is divided into three categories: near, mid, and far. Each category penetrates different layers of the body’s tissue, allowing for targeted therapeutic effects, from surface level skin rejuvenation to deep muscle relief.

What’s the difference between an infrared sauna and a traditional sauna?

The primary difference between an infrared sauna and a traditional sauna lies in their heating methods and operational temperatures. Traditional saunas use a heater to warm the air, which then heats the body indirectly through convection and conduction.

Infrared saunas use infrared light to heat the body directly without warming the air around you. This allows infrared saunas to operate at lower temperatures, generally between 45°C to 60°C (113°F to 140°F), compared to traditional saunas which can reach up to 90°C (194°F). This direct heat method can penetrate deeper into the tissue, which can make the sauna session feel more intense despite the cooler air temperature.

How do infrared saunas enhance health and wellness?

The efficacy of infrared saunas is grounded in the principle of deep tissue warming. This process not only helps to detoxify the body by expelling toxins through sweat but also promotes improved blood circulation, enhancing oxygen delivery and nutrient transport to areas of the body that need it most. This mechanism supports muscle recovery, boosts the immune system and can aid in weight loss by increasing metabolic rate, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

When is the best time to have an infrared sauna?

The optimal time for an infrared sauna session depends on personal preferences, schedules and goals. Many people prefer using the sauna either in the morning to start the day energised and with a clear and focused mind, or in the evening to help unwind and promote a good night’s sleep.

Post-workout is also a popular time for an infrared sauna session because it can significantly decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and improve muscle recovery by enhancing blood flow and reducing inflammation, according to the Journal of Clinical Medicine. Ultimately, as with all wellbeing activities consistency is key, so finding a time that can become a regular part of your routine will provide the most benefits.

How long does as infrared sauna session last?

The exact duration depends on the specific goals of the session, such as relaxation, detoxification, or muscle recovery, as well as the individual’s tolerance to heat, but a typical session lasts between 20 and 45 minutes. Beginners should start with shorter sessions of about 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase the duration as they become accustomed to the heat. It is important to listen to your body and stop if you feel dizzy, uncomfortable, or excessively tired.

How often should I do infrared saunas?

The optimal frequency of infrared sauna sessions can vary based on individual health goals and responses. For most people, three to four sessions per week are beneficial and safe. For those using the sauna for specific health issues like chronic pain or detoxification, daily sessions may be advantageous, provided they are well-tolerated and approved by a healthcare professional.

What physiological responses are activated by an infrared sauna?

Infrared sauna use activates several key biological processes. The primary mechanism is hyperthermia, the elevation of the body’s core temperature, which mimics the effects of a fever. This artificial fever stimulates the immune system, enhancing white blood cell function and increasing the production of antibodies and interferon, both crucial for fighting off infections.

The heat stress from a sauna induces a cardiovascular workout as the body works to cool itself, causing an increase in heart rate, cardiac output and metabolic rate, similar to the effects observed during moderate exercise. This can help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health

What are the main advantages of infrared saunas over other saunas?

Infrared saunas offer several distinct advantages over traditional saunas, primarily because of their heating mechanism. Their ability to directly heat the body using infrared light allows for deeper tissue penetration, which can enhance muscle relaxation and increase detoxification through more effective sweating at lower temperatures.

These lower temperatures also make infrared saunas more accessible to people who find the high heat of traditional saunas uncomfortable or medically inadvisable, and the direct heating from infrared can result in more efficient sessions, as the body begins to sweat faster and at a lower ambient temperature, potentially using less energy and reducing operating costs.

Finally, research suggests that infrared saunas may offer significant detoxification benefits: the sweat produced in infrared saunas contains a higher concentration of toxins – up to 20% of total sweat volume – compared to traditional saunas where just 3% of sweat is made up of toxins, according to research conducted at the University of Alberta in Canada. This hints at the potential benefits of infrared saunas in promoting the elimination of heavy metals and other harmful substances from the body.

What are the main disadvantages of infrared saunas over other saunas?

Infrared light directly heats the body so some users may experience too intense of a heat sensation, particularly those who are sensitive to light or have certain skin conditions. The deep penetration of heat can also sometimes be uncomfortable or result in mild burns if not used correctly.

Other factor to consider is that the research on the long-term health effects of repeated infrared exposure is less established than traditional sauna use, which has been used as a central component of health and wellness routines in various cultures for centuries.

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