How would you feel if someone told you that spending about 15-20 minutes in a comfortable, relaxing space would not just make you feel better but also do great things for your long-term health? That’s the way most people who walk into a sauna feel.
For thousands of years, people of all ages have taken comfort in “houses of heat” for relaxation and the health benefits that come along. It is an important cultural aspect in central European countries like Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Finnish saunas, in fact, are one of the most popular across the world.
Today, you can find them in gyms, spas, beauty salons, etc. for recreation and sometimes physical therapy (referred to as thermotherapy) in clinics. Private saunas at home, on the other hand, are a much more recent trend. It is particularly popular among people whose lifestyle does not permit exercise. For example, those who suffer from heart conditions and chronic pain are allowed limited exercise. A little time in a sauna after consultations with a physician might help. That is where infrared saunas come into the picture.
Back to Sauna Basics
Saunas were originally made of wood and were expensive and tough to maintain. With the industrial revolution came some changes in the business that eventually led to modern-day infrared saunas.
These make use of infrared radiation on the electromagnetic radiation spectrum which extends from the red end of the visible light to the microwave range which is not visible to the naked eye. They have a wavelength range of 700 nanometers (nm) to 1 millimeter (mm). Of that, near infrared ranges from 0.78–3 μm.
We cannot see IR rays but can sense the heat they emit. These rays are divided into near, mid and far-infrared radiation. Full-spectrum saunas emit all three kinds of IR rays. But most saunas emit near-infrared (NIR) or far-infrared (FIR) radiation.
An infrared sauna, unlike a traditional sauna, uses light to heat up the human body. Your heart rate increases, your blood vessels dilate and as a result, you sweat. This leads to an increase in blood circulation. This is basically what happens when you do moderate exercise too.
Scientists believe that because of the interaction between IR rays and the water in your body, there is some impact on your health and several studies have shown it to be positive. IR saunas cause an increase in body temperature which is not harmful as long as your pores open up and lead to perspiration. This helps maintain your core body temperature.
Benefits of Near-Infrared Saunas
According to Dr. Richard Beever, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the University of British Columbia, infrared heat penetrates deeper than warm air which makes you sweat at a lower temperature when compared to a traditional sauna. A few short sessions in a near-infrared sauna is said to have quite a few health benefits.
Near-infrared light has gained goodwill because it can be used in treating bones and healing wounds. It is also greatly useful in veterinary medicare to treat brain injury from stroke or trauma.
- Heart Health: Intense exposure to heat for a short term increases your body temperature and activates the autonomic nervous system. This leads to increased heart rate, skin blood flow and sweating. As a result, the body’s temperature is balanced. This kind of sauna therapy focuses on the capacity of mammals to maintain body temperature.
- In Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s: NIR therapy is being considered effective in stopping the death of neurons in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. It is used to treat tissues with some success.
- Cancer: Humans have been able to develop optical imaging systems that make use of NIR light to identify and predict breast cancer patients’ response to chemotherapy about two weeks after they start treatment. Near-infrared light is also helpful in treating some types of skin cancer on the face.
- Healing Wounds: Specific wavelengths of near-infrared light is used in healing wounds and for other anti-inflammatory purposes. However, this is not for open wounds in which case you should see a doctor instead of going for a sauna session.
- Skincare: In dermatology, near-infrared radiation is used as a complementary process when treating skin inflammation after cosmetic surgery and also in preventing sunburn. That’s why a physician might suggest sauna sessions. It is also used to treat actinic keratosis, which is the formation of a rough patch on the skin after many years of being exposed to the sun.
- Chronic Pain: Studies have shown that pain caused by injury to the spinal cord can be reduced using NIR light treatment. Scientists have described it as “an exciting prospect”. NIR light is used to reduce stiffness in joints and help ease spasms in muscles.
- Recovery in Athletes: NIR light therapy is also used to help high-performance athletes recover from fatigue and injury after training. The mitochondria in our cells, generate energy, respond well to this kind of therapy.
Pseudoscience and Myths on the Subject
As is the case with most things that feel good, there is some exaggeration about the benefits of (near and far) infrared sauna therapy. Here’s two big ones. While they are not entirely myths, they are not completely true either. So how do you decide? Read the arguments from both sides.
There are many questions as to whether saunas help with detoxification. While many sauna manufacturers show scientific evidence to back their claims, many others completely dismiss those claims. So what is the truth? As always, it lies somewhere in the middle.
Sweating is an important function of the human body, whether it is organic or induced by a sauna. There is no dispute that it helps remove toxic elements from the body. There definitely are studies that show that regular sauna bathing can increase removal of toxins through heavy sweating. Industrial toxicants like heavy metals (arsenic, lead, mercury) and pesticides can be removed through sweat and help enhance metabolic pathways in the body.
But the studies have their limitations and scientists have said that all we know at the moment is that some of it works and it needs further investigation. Subjects with specific conditions need to be examined after taking their dietary choices, supplements and other interventions that cause sweating into account.
This popular misconception comes from the fact that we sweat a lot and that is the weight that is lost. While mathematically it is true, weight loss from sauna sessions is not a fact. Every sauna session requires you to drink two to four glasses of water before and/or after the session. So what you do is lose some water weight and put it all back in right after. Otherwise, it leads to dehydration with or without lightheadedness. It can also interrupt and hence damage kidney functions.
Some others think it’s about staying in there for longer than prescribed, which is something you can sneak in at home. But the result is pretty disastrous. Overheating is not to be taken lightly. When you spend more than 20 minutes in there forcing your body to sweat out more water than necessary you put yourself in serious jeopardy.
And those who advocate burning of calories often neglect to mention that you burn a little more than what you do while sitting still. If you think that’s helpful then go ahead.
Some Precautions: Look before You Leap
It is safe for most people to use a sauna but as always, there are a few things to keep in mind before starting a session.
- Don’t Go Drunk or High: There is an increased risk of dehydration, arrhythmia and even sudden death in some cases when you go into a sauna drunk or high on drugs. So definitely wait till you are sober. The sudden death scenario is quite unlikely but it’s not something to gamble with because you might not be there to find out what happens.
- Don’t Take Your Time: Limit your sessions to 20 minutes even if you are a veteran. If you’re a first-timer keep it down to 5-10 minutes at low temperature till you build some tolerance.
- Drink Water: Do not ignore this. Sweating leads to the loss of a lot of vital minerals from your body. You need to get them all back with two to four glasses of water during or after stepping out of a sauna.
- In Health and Sickness: This might apply to your partner, not a sauna. If you are unwell, it is a terrible idea to get inside a sauna. Wait till you are perfectly fine.
- Pregnant: This is a bit tricky. It is different for different situations and different saunas. So you absolutely must ask your physician before you take a chance.
- Children: Your manufacturer might have said it’s okay and a lot of times it is okay for children above six years of age to use a sauna. But don’t let them go in there alone. And again, keep an eye on how long they’ve been there for.
Near-infrared saunas are greatly recommended by physicians who want to use light therapy along with regular treatment. But even if you don’t have any problems, with a little research you will be able to educate yourself about the benefits of NIR radiation on your skin and enjoy the experience. Happy sauna-ing.