Harnessing Heat: The Ultimate Guide to Sauna Therapy for Enhanced Health
We often hear about sweating it out being good for us, but this can take on many forms. One of the ways to ‘sweat it out’ is to use a sauna, and it may surprise you just how long this practice has been around for.
In this in-depth guide we’ve looked at the history of saunas, their many proven health benefits, the science behind them, and why (and how) you should be getting sweaty.
The History Of Saunas And The Evolution Of Infrared Technology
Sauna therapy is often viewed as a trendy modern practice, but its roots actually reach thousands of years into the past.
The Finnish are thought to be the first group of people to turn sauna therapy into a tradition and many historians date the practice back as far as 7000 B.C. In fact, the Finnish sauna was so influential that it’s still found in various forms in households and spas across the globe. Today, there’s one sauna on average per household in Finland and dry heat saunas in developed nations are based on the original Finnish sauna blueprint.
But it wasn’t just the Finnish who recognised and enjoyed the benefits of saunas. Elsewhere in the world, other cultures and civilisations were also creating their own traditions around the concept of saunas and steam rooms.
The Romans and Greeks used bathhouses to purify their bodies through profuse sweating, and the Native American and Māori cultures wove sweat lodges into their physical and spiritual health practices. Even the Turks of the Ottoman Empire used Turkish Hammams, or hot bath houses, for relaxation and purification of the body.
Centuries later, the infrared sauna was created thanks to the advent of electricity. It was John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the man behind the cereal too!) who transformed his beliefs on the health benefits of sweating into the modern therapy that is still in use.
Kellogg used the first electric light bulbs to create ‘incandescent light baths’. These baths required users to enter sauna-like cabinets fitted with bulbs that produced a great amount of heat and induced heavy sweating. Kellogg also discovered that the incandescent bulbs he was using emitted infrared light that penetrated deep into the layers of the skin. This was the very first prototype of the infrared saunas we still use across the globe.
In 1893, Kellogg revealed his incandescent light baths to the world at the Chicago World Fair. The invention quickly exploded in popularity, with NASA taking an interest in the infrared wavelengths produced by Kellogg’s system in the 1960s. Additionally, it was around this time when a Japanese medical professional was granted the first patent for a ceramic infrared sauna that used far-infrared wavelengths for the purpose of treating patients. Later in 1979, the very first full spectrum infrared saunas entered the US market, and they have been optimised since then to offer superior safety, efficacy, and comfort.
Today’s modern infrared saunas are considered effective and safe holistic health tools. They offer a wide range of features such as halotherapy and chromotherapy, along with a sleek modern design that draws inspiration from the original Finnish saunas.
Just a few examples of their proven benefits include a study that found that people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome experienced a reduction in symptoms after incorporating infrared saunas into their treatment regimens. Another paper published in 2015 found that infrared saunas aided in reducing men’s muscle soreness and sped up recovery after strength training exercises. The health benefits of saunas are undeniable, and they’ve certainly stood the test of time for many good reasons.
Types of Infrared Sauna
A few different types of infrared saunas are available on the market, each with a different range of benefits. What sets these types apart is the length of wavelength they use to deliver infrared light into the dermal layers. The main types of infrared saunas include:
- Near infrared saunas. Near infrared (NIR) is the shortest of infrared wavelengths and offers the deepest levels of penetration into the skin. More than half of the sun’s total energy emissions are comprised of near infrared radiation.
- Mid infrared saunas. These infrared wavelengths are longer than near wavelengths. They can penetrate deep into the soft tissues of the body when used as a therapeutic treatment. Mid infrared is often used in spa and treatment settings to improve circulation and encourage more oxygen flow around injured and inflamed areas.
- Far infrared saunas. Far infrared (FIR) is a long form wavelength similar to the infrared heat our own bodies exude. These waves are often used to stimulate the sweat glands, promote more heat generation in the body, and raise the body’s core temperature to encourage heavy perspiration.
- Full-spectrum infrared saunas. These saunas emit all three of the other types of infrared wavelengths; far, mid, and near. They grant users access to the full range of benefits from across the infrared spectrum. Full-spectrum saunas promote detoxification through sweating, reduce inflammation and pain, improve circulation, and relax the muscles.
The Science Behind Infrared Saunas
Infrared light creates heat in the body, which accounts for many of its suggested detoxifying benefits. When you’re exposed to an infrared light, waves from the light penetrate your dermal layers and soft tissues, slowly heating up your core body temperature. This activates your sweat glands and leads to profuse sweating. In turn, this accelerates your body’s elimination process, allowing it to sweat out toxins more effectively.
Infrared, as mentioned above, is classified in three different bands: near, mid, and far radiation. Near infrared has a wavelength of 0.7– 1.4 μm (700-1400nm); mid infrared has a wavelength of 1.4– 3.0 μm (1400-3000nm); and far infrared has a wavelength of 3.0– 100 μm (3000 nm– 0.1 mm). Near infrared, or luminous infrared, penetrates the skin and soft tissues most effectively, and distributes energy into larger areas of tissue than mid and far infrared radiation do.
According to Healthline, dry to humid saunas often range between 150 to 195°F (66 to 91°C) in temperature and don’t exceed temperatures of 212°F (100°C). Humid or wet saunas tend to be 100 to 110°F (38 to 43°C) on average. The health publication recommends beginners should start using dry to humid saunas for around 5 to 10 minutes per session. Humid to wet saunas should be used for under 15 minutes per session to begin with. As you adjust to using a sauna, you can customise the length of your sessions to a comfortable duration.
Heat shock proteins
Infrared saunas generate heat that the body perceives as a mild stressor, promoting the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs). HSPs play a crucial role in cellular stress response and offer various benefits when induced through infrared sauna use, such as improved cellular health by improving cellular integrity and prevent the accumulation of non-functional or toxic protein aggregates, enhanced stress resistance, anti-inflammatory effects, better muscle recovery and exercise performance, and potential neuroprotective effects.
According to research conducted in 2022, many modern diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases and cancers, can be linked to dysfunctional heat stress proteins. And infrared could help to regulate these proteins and improve your health as a result.
Health and Wellness Benefits of Infrared Saunas
Infrared sauna use is associated with a wide range of health and wellness benefits, many of which have been confirmed by scientific research. One of the most well-known benefits of infrared saunas is their ability to induce and accelerate the process of eliminating toxins through the body. This effect is often enhanced even further with the use of the Niacin Detox Protocol. A practice that pairs infrared sauna with controlled doses of vitamin B3 to promote cellular releases of heavy metals and toxins.
According to Clearlight, the detox protocol encourages you to take between 50mg and 200mg of niacin per dose to induce the niacin flush response. This causes the blood vessels in the skin and body to dilate, improving blood flow and elimination. Amounts of niacin of up to 5000mg have been used historically to detoxify soldiers exposed to Agent Orange during the Gulf War. But we recommend staying below 200mg per dose depending on how you respond to it.
Disclaimer: The Niacin Detox Protocol is a specific method for detoxification that involves the use of high doses of niacin. This protocol should only be undertaken under the guidance of a qualified healthcare professional who is knowledgeable about its use.
Infrared saunas have also been found to aid in muscle relaxation, pain management and injury recovery. A research review from 2018 found that regular dry sauna bathing sped up muscle recovery following strenuous physical activity, and shows promise in helping athletes to improve their performance. Another group of researchers found that infrared sauna treatments could be an effective solution to chronic pain after conducting a two-year study.
While the evidence is still young, infrared saunas may provide an immune system boosting effect, helping users to stave off common colds and infections. Research shows that saunas can reduce oxidative stress, which hinders the body’s ability to fight off pathogens. This keeps the immune system in excellent condition, allowing it to attack pathogens that could otherwise cause mild to moderate illness.
Using a sauna could also reduce your stress levels, improve your mental health, and extend your lifespan. A recent study published in 2021 found that regularly enjoying infrared sauna treatments could reduce your risk of depression and limit feelings of stress and anxiety. The study’s results were produced by a single session, which indicates that using a sauna regularly could amplify these benefits for mental wellness.
The technology may be beneficial for those looking to achieve weight loss, enhance their metabolisms, and restore insulin sensitivity. A study conducted by Binghamton University found that participants who used an infrared sauna for 45 minute sessions thrice per week lost 4% of their body fat over a period of 16 weeks. Other research proves that infrared saunas may play a role in normalising blood pressure and addressing cardiovascular risk factors, while showing some potential for treating obesity, high cholesterol levels, and circulatory problems.
Lastly, infrared could even benefit the health of your skin and hair and help to combat the signs of ageing. Sweating benefits your skin by allowing it to purge dirt, oils, and other impurities from your pores – impurities that could otherwise cause acne, dullness, and uneven texture. Infrared improves circulation to the hair follicles and helps to support new hair growth. Broad spectrum infrared exposure can promote new collagen synthesis to keep the skin looking youthful for longer.
Infrared Saunas for Improved Sleep
Saunas can significantly improve sleep quality through several interconnected mechanisms that work together to create a relaxed state of mind and body. Here’s how saunas contribute to better sleep.
When you spend time in a sauna, your body releases endorphins, which are “feel-good” chemicals that create a sense of well-being and relaxation. This calming effect helps to reduce stress and anxiety, making it easier for you to drift off into a deep sleep. Regulation of body temperature: A sauna session raises your body temperature, which subsequently drops once you leave the heated environment. This cooling-down process sends signals to your brain that it’s time for sleep, helping to synchronise your body’s internal clock and promote a more restful slumber. Spending time in a sauna encourages you to disconnect from daily stressors and focus on your well-being. This dedicated relaxation time can help lower cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress, further promoting a peaceful night’s sleep.
A study completed in 2019 aimed to explore the demographics, motivations, and experiences of regular sauna-bathers worldwide. An online questionnaire collected information from 482 regular sauna-bathers from different countries, who sauna-bathed approximately 1-2 times per week. The results showed that sauna-bathing had various benefits, including sleep benefits, with 83.5% of respondents reporting improved sleep after using a sauna.
Infrared Saunas and Performance Enhancement
When it comes to enhancing athletic performance and endurance, infrared saunas are valuable tools that can help to reduce muscle hypertrophy and aid in muscle recovery. A small study from 2015 found that far infrared sauna treatments led to increases in recovery after strength training sessions in men. The study noted that Far Infrared Sauna bathing seems to have positive effects on the neuromuscular system, improving recovery for maximum endurance and athletic performance.
Infrared treatments stimulate the body’s production of growth hormone, which declines naturally with age and can lead to frailty and sarcopenic obesity, along with hindering physical performance and stamina. Men and women who were exposed to two dry heat sauna sessions at 80 °C (176 °F) for 7 days experienced a 16-fold rise in their growth hormone levels by the third day of the study.
A study on the use of supplements to enhance recovery during sauna sessions notes that electrolytes and calcium should always be replenished during treatments to reduce muscle cramps, dehydration, and fatigue. Sauna users should drink plenty of fluids before and after their sessions, and must eat electrolyte-rich foods like avocado, fish, nuts, seeds, and cooked spinach after their sauna sessions. If you’re wanting to lose weight for health, fitness or lifestyle reasons, regular sauna sessions combined with intermittent fasting can also speed up weight loss and activate autophagy.
What are the Dangers of Infrared Saunas?
According to Dr Melissa Young, MD at the Cleveland Clinic, there are a few general safety guidelines that you should follow when using an infrared sauna to enjoy a safe experience. She recommends starting your sessions at a lower temperature like 110°F (38 to 43°C), and only increasing the temperature when you feel comfortable doing so. Dr Young encourages users to keep their sessions under 30 minutes each, to stay hydrated before, during and after sessions, and to rinse off any toxins eliminated after each treatment by taking a shower.
As mentioned above, it’s important to remain hydrated at all times during your infrared sessions. The sweating they induce can quickly lead to electrolyte imbalances, dizziness, and even cardiac arrhythmia in some cases.
Men should also take care when using infrared saunas, especially if they and their partners are trying to conceive. Infrared saunas can negatively impact male fertility by reducing the mobility and counts of sperm, and even inducing changes to cellular DNA. Temperatures above 98°F create a sub-optimal environment for sperm cells and may reduce their concentrations and lead to lower fertility levels.
Dr Young at the Cleveland Clinic notes that people with certain medical conditions should check with their doctors before using any infrared sauna technologies. These people include pregnant women, patients with multiple sclerosis, couples who are trying to conceive, and anyone suffering from an active illness like the common cold or Covid-19. Special care should be taken if pregnant. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, sauna use during pregnancy can cause birth defects and harm unborn foetuses.
As an infrared sauna user, you may have questions about the safety of extremely low frequencies (ELFs) and electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) emitted by saunas. Dr David Carpenter, who represents the School of Public Health, State University of New York, believes that over 30% of all childhood cancer cases stem from excess EMF exposure. This is why it’s important to choose a low EMF and low ELF sauna brand with emission levels that do not exceed the threshold of concern of 10 volts/meter (v/m). All Clearlight Infrared sauna models offer the lowest ELF and EMF levels of any infrared saunas on the market today.
When using a sauna, it’s important to protect your hair to prevent damage from the high heat and humidity. To avoid dryness and breakage, it’s recommended to use a sauna cap, which is a heat-resistant cap designed to cover the hair. Sauna caps are typically made of wool, felt or neoprene, which can withstand high temperatures.
Choosing the Right Infrared Sauna
The first step to choosing the right infrared sauna is finding one that meets your specific needs. Whether you need a compact sauna, a larger machine, a luxurious look and feel, or a cabin that reaches specific temperatures, knowing what you want will help you to find the best solutions to your health challenges.
Next, you should look for an infrared sauna with a high quality design, a sturdy look and feel, and a body constructed from robust, heat-resistant materials. Ideally, your infrared sauna should come with built-in EMF protection and EMF emissions that do not exceed the recommended threshold mentioned above.
Your chosen sauna brand should provide transparent information about the EMF and ELF emissions associated with their products. It should also offer safety features designed to limit their potential effects on your health. All sauna heaters’ EMF and ELF emissions should be tested, and the best brands run their electrical wires through metal conduits to block the emission of these harmful frequencies.
It’s worth taking the size, design, and installation process of your sauna into account. Ensure that it will fit comfortably in the space you have set aside for it, and that its design both meets your needs and pleases you on an aesthetic level. Your choice of sauna should also be able to be quickly and easily installed by trained professionals.
Moreover, you should seek out infrared saunas that offer you the best quality for your budget. Assess different price ranges and the benefits they bring and choose the optimal solution that aligns with how much you are willing to spend. Your sauna should come with a warranty that protects you in the event of electrical faults or mechanical malfunctions.
Clearlight is our infrared sauna partner of choice thanks to the exceptional quality and longevity of their systems. The company offers a 5 year warranty that covers every part of the sauna, and offers options that can easily be plugged into a standard wall outlet for simple installation. Clearlight saunas have been thoroughly tested for ELF and EMF emissions and are certified as low emission, ensuring superior safety during use.
Maximising Your Infrared Sauna Experience
Maximise the benefits you reap from your infrared sauna sessions by preparing well in advance. Avoid drinking alcohol before using a sauna and ensure that you are well hydrated before you enter. Sit up straight, wear light clothing or a towel while using the sauna, and schedule the length of your session based on your specific needs at the time.
When it comes to sauna session tips and techniques, there are also a few golden rules to follow. If your sauna offers a chromotherapy guide with different colour options, try to use a single colour for at least 3 to 5 minutes to boost your benefits. Leave digital devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops outside – and leave yourself plenty of time to cool down with a shower or swim after each session too. It’s important to wash away any toxins that your skin has eliminated through your sweat glands to prevent them from being reabsorbed or harming the health of your skin over time.
Also, as well as washing away the toxins from your skin it is beneficial to flush out any residual toxins left in your bodily tissues that have not been entirely excreted via sweating. Drinking plenty of water is an effective way to do this. Additionally, detoxifying supplements such as Sulforaphane, GlyNAC, Glutathione, and TUDCA can support the body’s natural detoxification processes. Sulforaphane is a potent antioxidant that stimulates the production of enzymes that help to eliminate toxins from the body. GlyNAC helps to support liver function, which is essential for toxin elimination. Glutathione is another antioxidant that protects the liver and helps to remove toxins from the body. TUDCA is known to protect the liver from damage caused by toxins. By incorporating these supplements into your post-sauna routine, you can optimise your body’s detoxification processes and improve your overall health and well-being.
Your sauna sessions can also be integrated into your wellness and athletic performance routines. Integrate them strategically by scheduling your sauna session for after a period of intense physical activity, or whenever you experience the greatest amounts of pain, swelling or inflammation in your body. If you’re using infrared saunas to enhance your mental health, try scheduling your sessions early in the day to boost your mood and leave you motivated to tackle your everyday responsibilities.
Infrared Sauna Testimonials and Success Stories
Many people have used infrared saunas with great success and have shared their stories to inspire others to get sweaty. Jennifer Davis-Flynn of Yoga Journal used an infrared sauna for 30 days and documented her journey online. After this time, she noted that her skin’s appearance, acne, and eczema had improved. She experienced faster post-workout recovery and enjoyed relief from chronic pain relating to a plantar fasciitis on her left foot.
Yang of Yang’s Nourishing Kitchen documented her experiences in a blog post titled, “My First Infrared Sauna Experience + Why I Love It”, sharing that the treatment reduced her fibromyalgia symptoms like chills and brain fog, improved the texture of her skin, and reduced the number of mystery rashes she experienced due to autoimmune responses. She also believes that the therapy strengthened her immune system during her treatment experience.
Some professional athletes have used infrared saunas and experienced a range of benefits. Sports personalities like LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Kobe Bryant are known to take advantage of the benefits of infrared wavelengths. They all report faster recovery, improved endurance and strength, and overall improvements in their health.
Even seasoned medical professionals have endorsed infrared sauna technologies. Dr. Joseph M. Mercola recommends infrared to increase heat shock protein production and stimulate blood flow, particularly to the brain. Dr. Ernst van der Wall, chief of cardiology at the Netherlands Leiden University Medical Centre, believes that saunas prompt significant increases in heart rate while lowering vascular resistance, thereby reducing blood pressure.
Dr Brent A. Bauer, MD notes that many studies on infrared saunas found evidence of benefit when it comes to treating dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, congestive heart failure, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and even lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes.
An Always-Hot Topic
Infrared saunas offer a wide range of science-backed benefits for health, wellness, and athletic performance. If you choose to embrace this technology in a safe way, you can use infrared treatments on a regular basis to improve your performance and stamina and recover quicker after physical activity. Additionally, you can reduce pain and inflammation and benefit your mental health and the condition of your skin, hair, and circulatory system.
When it comes to predicting future trends and developments in infrared sauna technology, statistics project that global sauna market value is forecast to reach a value of $120.5 billion by the year 2028. According to Mordor Intelligence, the industry’s growth is being fuelled by increases in tourism, increasing disposable income rates in developed nations, and rapid urbanisation. By the year 2030, an article by Medium predicts that saunas may be equipped with more precisely engineered stove systems that create the perfect, adjustable levels of steam, heat, LED lighting, flat screen entertainment options, and more.
German ‘Aufguss’ sauna shows are becoming more popular among an international audience too. Quality saunas may become more cost-effective, portable, and easier to use in the foreseeable future.
While the exact future of infrared sauna technology is yet to be revealed, experts predict that it will become increasingly easier and more beneficial to use saunas for health and wellness purposes as they become more advanced.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most common misconceptions about infrared saunas?
The most common misconceptions include perceiving infrared saunas as unsafe to use, that you need to be clothed to use them, and that infrared wavelengths can damage the skin like UV rays from the sun can. Infrared saunas do not emit any UV rays and are thus safe to use if you do so according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
How do I maintain and clean my infrared sauna?
Always use your sauna when your body is clean. Wipe down your sauna’s seat, walls, and heater with a damp cloth after each use to keep them in good condition. Lay a towel down on your bench and under your feet when using your sauna to minimise dirt, skin, and sebum transfers. Allow your sauna to air out after each use to keep it smelling and feeling fresh.
How often should I use my infrared sauna?
Regular users use their saunas for up to 3 or 4 sessions per week at 20-30 minutes per session. Athletes and patients with chronic health and pain issues can use their saunas up to twice per day.
Can children use infrared saunas?
Infrared saunas can be safe for children to use. However, you should always speak to your family healthcare provider before allowing your children to use a sauna. Always start at the lowest temperature when allowing children to use your infrared sauna and supervise them at all times to ensure their safety.
Why do I feel worse after using an infrared sauna?
You may feel worse after using your sauna if you have certain medical conditions like heart disease or hypertension. Saunas can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which can lead to dizziness, fainting, muscle weakness, and heart palpitations.
How do I properly use an infrared sauna?
Start using your sauna at a low temperature of 110°F (38 to 43°C) for 10-15 minutes per session. As you become more comfortable with this level of heat, you can increase the temperature and the duration of your sessions up to 30 minutes each.
How many calories can I burn using an infrared sauna?
An adult can expect to burn around 250-600 calories in a 30-minute sauna session, depending on their age, height, weight, and level of physical fitness. As your basal metabolic rate improves, your body may also burn more calories during infrared sauna sessions.
What is the best way to use essential oils in an infrared sauna?
You can use essential oils in a cordless diffuser, as a diluted mist spray, or applied to your towel or skin while you use your sauna. Create an essential oil mist for your sauna by combining 8 drops of your favourite essential oils with at least 250ml of clean water. Add the mixture to a spray bottle and use as needed.
What are the best essential oils to use in a sauna?
Some of the most popular essential oils for use in saunas include eucalyptus, peppermint, tea tree, and lavender. Eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils are great for opening the airways, while lavender is known for its relaxing properties.
What should I wear when using an infrared sauna?
Many people choose to use their infrared saunas unclothed. But you can also use yours wrapped in a towel or while wearing light, breathable clothing made of natural textiles like cotton.
How long should I stay in an infrared sauna?
As a beginner, your sauna sessions should last around 10-15 minutes each. As you become more familiar with using an infrared sauna, you can expand your sessions to up to 30 minutes each, but no longer.
Is it safe to use an infrared sauna while pregnant?
No. Infrared saunas can harm unborn foetuses and cause birth defects. Pregnant women should never use infrared sauna technologies and should also seek the advice of their doctors before using these technologies post-partum.
What temperature is recommended for an infrared sauna session?
Dry to humid saunas range between 150 to 195°F (66 to 91°C) in temperature. Humid or wet saunas range between 100 to 110°F (38 to 43°C) on average.