What is Infrared Sauna Therapy?
“Infrared saunas have been studied for a variety of conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain syndromes, and injuries,” says Melinda Ring, MD, executive director of Northwestern University’s Osher Center for Integrative Health. from Chicago. It’s important to keep in mind that currently research on infrared therapy is limited and more is needed to explore exactly what benefits it may bring, she explains. Additionally, much of the existing literature on the health benefits of sauna baths relates to traditional Finnish saunas and is not specific to infrared therapy. Although the studies below focus specifically on infrared sauna baths, they are, by and large, based on small groups of people.
Here’s a look at what more recent research suggests the infrared sauna can do for your health.
1. May Support Heart Health in Certain Populations
Another research review, published in August 2018 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, explains the potential link between saunas and heart health. The authors concluded that sauna baths, including infrared sauna use, can lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, reduce inflammation, and calm the nervous system, among other changes. Additionally, the reaction of the heart to sauna bathing can also be akin to walking, something that strengthens the heart and is recommended for people with heart failure.
2. May be helpful in increasing the benefits of exercise
Studies on infrared sauna use and recovery from exercise are not consistent across the board. Other previous research has shown that well-trained runners who perform simulated trail running recover better and faster when using cryotherapy (cold therapy) than with far-infrared or no therapy.
3. May Reduce Stress Levels
There’s no doubt that stepping into an infrared sauna is good for most people. And for some groups of people, it can also do more.
A previous small study involved mildly depressed people who were treated for 15 minutes once a day for five days in a far-infrared sauna and then told to stay in bed for 30 minutes. Over four weeks, they reported fewer physical complaints (such as discomfort and pain considered mentally distressing), more relaxation, and improved appetite compared to the control group. The authors hypothesized that heat therapy is sedative (stimulates relaxation) and may have an effect on the nervous system, triggering the “cold and calm” parasympathetic nervous system. A change in appetite is one of the symptoms of depression, and this study also indicates that infrared sauna use can have a positive impact on hunger hormones.
Another small study, published in September 2020 in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine, concluded that infrared sauna use in 38 obese people improved their quality of life (something other research has shown is lower in people with higher BMIs). In the study, participants sat in an infrared sauna for 15 minutes and rested in room air for 30 minutes twice a day for four consecutive days. After the four days, those who took infrared saunas reported less pain and discomfort, as well as less anxiety and depression.
An infrared sauna is a warm, quiet space with nothing to distract you from, which could also be a factor in its therapeutic benefits, in addition to actual infrared exposure. It can trigger your relaxation response to reduce stress, Simms says. One caveat, says Simms: You won’t get that benefit if you go out there and scroll through social media or respond to emails on your phone. As a review published in April 2018 in Evidence-Based Alternative and Complementary Medicine points out, sauna bathing can release endorphins, strongly help you to shut down and practice mindfulness, reduce stress and improve relaxation, and may simply give you a break in your day to take care of yourself, which is psychologically beneficial. “People come out really energized. An infrared sauna session can be invigorating,” says Simms.
4. May Help Reduce Discomfort in Inflammatory and Painful Conditions
A small amount of research has suggested that people with inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, may benefit from infrared sauna therapy, which has been shown to reduce pain and stiffness, the review concludes. aforementioned in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicinewhich examined the results of four studies specific to rheumatological diseases.
One of these earlier studies, published in Clinical Rheumatology, concluded that people with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis who used infrared therapy eight times over a four-week period had less pain, stiffness and fatigue in the short term, although these differences were small.
Additionally, this same review looked at two randomized controlled trials of people with chronic pain who used infrared therapy. A randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that using the sauna for eight weeks helped people with chronic tension headaches reduce headache intensity by 44%. The authors hypothesize that part of the effect may come from the relaxation response, which may decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Another small trial with 46 participants found that people with chronic pain disorder had improved mood and were more likely to return to work after sauna use.
Finally, a pilot study published in Internal Medicine evaluated 10 people with chronic fatigue syndrome who sat in a far-infrared sauna for 15 minutes, then lay in bed under a blanket for 30 minutes once a day, five days a week for four weeks, found that the therapy helped reduce post-treatment pain and improved mood. The authors hypothesized that this therapy may have worked by reducing oxidative stress which may play a role in symptoms; the heat was also probably relaxing, helping to improve mood.