When you hear the word ‘sauna’ your mind probably goes to that dark, suffocatingly hot chamber in the corner of your gym’s locker room. You know, the one filled with a bunch of semi-nude strangers who were just in your spin class?
That’s called a dry sauna, and it’s enjoyed a long tenure as one of the most common ways for people looking to tap into the benefits that come with short, controlled stints of exposure to intense heat.
Heat therapy has been used for hundreds of years as a natural, non-invasive way to achieve certain health outcomes. Studies show regularly-used sauna treatments reduce the risk of fatal cardiovascular disease , boost immunity , relieve musculoskeletal pain, promote vascular health and lower inflammation .
But infrared saunas, which use colored lamps that generate electromagnetic radiation, do it even better, says Tiffany Lester, MD , a physician at Parsley Health. Read on to learn how you could benefit from the heat.
“Infrared emits thermal radiation that directly penetrates and applies heat to your tissue,” says Dr. Lester, making it a more efficient and effective way to achieve the same desired results.
Both infrared and dry saunas crank up the heat to temperatures well into the triple-digit range. But how they heat the room, and therefore how your body heats up, is totally different.
Dry saunas start with the room—usually turning on an electric heater or burning wood to create heat—which then raises your body’s temperature. Though humidity is kept very low, the extreme heat (some can get up to 180-degrees) can be too grueling for some people to stick out long enough to reap the positive impacts.
By contrast, the infrared sauna uses panels that emit colored infrared light to heat your body directly without warming the air around you. Temperatures typically max out at a notch lower, around 140-degrees, which makes it a more enjoyable experience that’s more accessible to those who can’t handle the heat.
The direct application of heat allows your body to get the most out of the treatment because the infrared heat penetrates deeper into your tissue, triggering a more transformative and dramatic response, says Dr. Lester. This theory is backed up by early-stage research, including a study from the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology , which found it can trigger changes in the neurological system and provide therapeutic benefits at the cellular level.
As Dr. Lester explains it, bringing the body’s core temperature up tricks our regulatory system into thinking it needs to course-correct from this unforeseen spike. While your body’s first line of defense against toxins is the liver and kidneys, it also eliminates the bad stuff by sweating. When that process kicks into gear, your body’s core temperature rises. It also gets to work internally, increasing circulation to power the detoxification process which leads to better blood flow, boosted immunity, and improved muscle recovery.
With the lower air temperatures of the infrared sauna, your body is able to tolerate this good-for-you process for a longer period of time which allows you to maximize the benefits of heat therapy in a way that the more severe conditions of a dry sauna don’t. (And that’s even if you can find a dry sauna that’s hot enough. Check out the one at your local gym and chances are it’s not hitting 180 degrees.)
Scientists who have studied dry sauna generally agree that its many benefits can also be attributed to the way that heat stress raises your heart rate, nearly doubling the amount of blood it pumps each minute, according to Harvard Health Watch . This blood perfuses your entire circulation more efficientlywhich ultimately results in an improved ability to detox, Dr. Lester says. This same principle likely applies to infrared sauna.
According to Dr. Lester and other supporters, incorporating trips to the infrared sauna into your wellness routine can be good for most people, unless they have a pre-existing heart condition or are pregnant. There is early research to indicate that regular users could see quicker muscle recovery after endurance workouts, improved circulatory and cardiovascular health , and even a potentially lower risk of dementia .
People who suffer from chronic conditions may see even greater benefits. Those with chronic fatigue syndrome may notice more energy and people dealing with fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis could have fewer symptoms, Dr. Lester said.
It’s important to note that most of these studies have been done on groups as small as 10 adults, not large, controlled studies.
Potential benefits of infrared sauna extend beyond the physical body. Dr. Lester points to initial research that suggests two to four sessions per week could cause “increased self-esteem, decreased pain tolerance and increased feelings of well-being,” though she’s quick to point out that there’s “more [research] still to be done.”
How you feel exiting the sauna may mirror how you feel after exercise. These similarities have led some to suggest it could be used as a replacement for working out. And our bodies often feel lighter after losing water weight through sustained sweating.
“Our endocrine systems also respond to the heat by increasing growth hormone, adrenaline and beta endorphins, which is why we feel so good after a session,” Dr. Lester adds.
But, according to Dr. Lester, even though you may feel happy and perhaps a little slimmer after sweating it out in the sauna, there’s no substitute for movement.
“It is definitely not a replacement for physical exercise as it is critical we move our bodies every single day,” she said.
Infrared sauna’s efficacy is most powerful when used consistently, Dr. Lester says. She recommends most people use it alongside a consistent exercise regimen, suggesting a fifteen-minute weekly session to see maximum benefits.
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).
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