In our home we have a yoga room, also called the Zen Den, and this is where our two-person infrared sauna lives. Since the infrared sauna benefits are numerous and amazing, it was really important to us to have one in our space. Even before we bought our home, we made space for the sauna in our small apartment. Josh and I nerd out on home spa days that usually include some yoga, an infrared sauna, coffee enemas, medicinal tincture mocktails, and super-potent herbal elixirs. True story (though I have pushed pause on the spa days when I was pregnant and now while nursing).
Why are infrared sauna's health benefits so extra special?
This is one of the most evidence-based methods to detoxify the body of heavy metals, other fat soluble toxins including persistent organic pollutants, flame retardants and more.
I've got all of the details for you below, along with best practices for using one.
What Are Infrared Saunas?
Infrared saunas use light wavelengths that deeply penetrate the skin, heating the body up from the inside. The average infrared sauna heats to about 60 degrees C. When you're in one it doesn't feel as hot as a non-infrared sauna, making it more comfortable to be in. However, don't let that fool you - because all of the work is happening on our insides, leading to an active sweat that has a multitude of health benefits.
What's nuts about these types of saunas is you'll be sitting there thinking "this isn't that hot. Is this even doing anything? Why aren't I sweating.... Holy moly my body has sprung a leak". And just like that, you're sweating buckets.
How Are Infrared Saunas Different From Other Saunas?
Dry saunas work differently from infrared saunas. They use a hot stove or rocks to heat up the sauna and the temperature in the room is much hotter, anywhere from 80-100 degrees C. There are also steam saunas, which use boiling water to heat the room - this leads to a humid, steamier heat (hence the name).
Non-infrared saunas make us sweat from the outside in, as opposed to the inside-out approach of infrared saunas. The mechanism of heat is different as well, with the infrared emitting light wavelengths that penetrate much more deeply than other types of saunas.
Infrared Sauna Benefits
Sauna bathing has been used for a long time in various countries around the world, starting in Finland where it was invented two thousand years ago. Saunas heat up our body temperature and make us sweat actively, which leads to some pretty amazing health benefits.
Our skin is our largest elimination organ. There are a number of different ways we can help our skin eliminate toxins - dry brushing is one of my faves - but it's tough to beat working up a good sweat. Evidence indicates that we are able to release a number of toxins through sweating, including bisphenol A (BPA, an endocrine-disrupting chemical), as well as heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. What's more, our body actually favours releasing these chemicals via sweat.
Infrared saunas are wonderful for our cardiovascular health. They can help to improve endothelial (blood vessel) function and blood flow, lower blood pressure, lower oxidative stress (which can lead to heart issues like atherosclerosis), and reduce cardiac events.
Other studies indicate that frequent saunas can lower the risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart and cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality, as well as act as a supportive treatment for those with congestive heart failure.
An infrared sauna raises your core body temperature, which may kill off potential pathogens. This study found that people who took saunas had fewer colds than those who didn't, while another showed that saunas can help improve our white blood cell profile and stimulate the immune system.
Infrared saunas are one of my favourite ways to prevent colds and flus, too.
Evidence shows that infrared saunas can benefit those with chronic pain - even helping some patients return to work. They can also treat phantom limb pain, and help with the pain from muscle damage and fibromyalgia. Since infrared saunas are a warm environment, they can help loosen our muscles and reduce stiffness, cramps, soreness and discomfort.
Many of the benefits of infrared saunas are also similar to those of regular exercise. One review concluded that "The cardiovascular demand (sweating, vasodilation, decreased after load, increased heart rate, increased cardiac output) is similar to that achieved by walking at a moderate pace." This makes it a good option for those who might be struggling with health issues that affect their ability to exercise such as chronic fatigue, autoimmune conditions, arthritis, or any other condition that makes it more challenging to participate in regular exercise.
For those of you who are athletic, infrared saunas can help with recovery after exercise as well!
Infrared saunas can target our parasympathetic nervous systems, increasing parasympathetic activity while reducing the sympathetic side of the equation. The sympathetic nervous system is our 'fight or flight' response, while the parasympathetic is our 'rest and digest' mode. The more we can encourage the parasympathetic, the better off we are.
Another interesting study, which applied infrared rays to accupressure points of depressed patients, found that the infrared helped to boost levels of serotonin, one of our brain's feel-good neurotransmitters that also helps with sleep.
Also, sitting in a calm, quiet, warm environment where you don't have to do anything at all except relax and breathe can be wonderfully meditative.
Infrared Sauna Tips for Beginners
If you're interested in exploring the benefits of infrared saunas, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Start slowly. It doesn't feel as hot when you walk into an infrared sauna, so you may feel inclined to stay in there a long time right off the bat. You need to acclimatize yourself - start off by sitting for 5-10 minutes and work your way up from there.
- Stay hydrated. Ensure you drink enough to stay hydrated, as you'll lose fluid through sweating. Water is a great option and my number one choice, but you can also stayed hydrated with chilled herbal teas (like this ginger tea), coconut water, kombucha, smoothies or elixirs on ice.
- Listen to your body. Our bodies are wise and will start to show signs if they are unhappy. Pay attention to how you're feeling. Warm and sweaty is OK - but if you feel excessively thirsty, dizzy, nauseous, headache-y, or any other symptom that doesn't feel right, get out of the sauna.
- Don't eat a huge meal. You wouldn't gorge before going for a run or other vigorous exercise - it's best to sit in a sauna on a light or empty stomach.
- Rinse off in a clean shower. With all of the impurities released during a sauna we want to ensure they are washed away, but there are a number of toxins in traditional showers that can harm our health. Aim for bathing in non-chlorinated, filtered water afterwards.
My Infrared Sauna Routine
Prior to becoming pregnant, saunas were a regular part of our personal health routine. I took 2-3 saunas per week at 60-minute sessions. Work your way up to longer sweat sessions.
**Consult with your primary natural healthcare practitioner prior to doing this, or any intense sauna protocol**
My ideal sauna detox plan went something like this:
- 30-60 minutes of yoga/exercise
- dry skin brush
- pop a vitamin B3 (niacin to increase circulation to the extremities)
- 40-60 minutes in the sauna
- rest and rehydrate for 10-20 minutes
Please note that I did not take saunas, do hot yoga, or anything vigorous or remotely detoxifying while pregnant, or nursing.
Infrared Saunas and Pregnancy
There are a number of studies (such as this one) that claim saunas are safe for pregnant women and their babies, while others recommend pregnant women use them for a maximum of 20 minutes. There are also recommendations to avoid hot baths and to me, a sauna is more intense than a bath. I was not comfortable using our sauna while I was pregnant with Finn because I felt the risk outweighed any potential benefit. Pregnancy is not the time to detox. Get that out of the way first during your pre-conception stage.
Evidence also indicates that saunas can impact sperm production - although the results are temporary, this is still something to be aware of as you do your pre-conception planning.
Should you buy an infrared sauna, or use someone else's?
In my experience, testing the waters with a public sauna is a good way to reap the benefits and see how you tolerate it. Then if cost and space permit, many people like to purchase their own because they love it so much.
What Sauna Do We Have and Questions To Ask If Purchasing One
We purchased our sauna from this company back in 2013 but it has since closed. It also seems that prices have more than doubled in that time. Some questions to consider if making the purchase:
- Is it glued together or tongue and groove? Avoid glue as it can off-gas when it heats up
- What type of wood and what is the wood finished with? Again, ensure no offgassing
- Is the sauna wired and giving off EMFs? Opt for a low/no EMF sauna
- What type of heaters? Carbon or Ceramic? In my research it looked carbon had greater impact, and a longer lifespan
- How does it get assembled? Will you be able to do it on your own or will you need to hire someone to help?
- What size do you want? We got the two person sauna and I wish we'd gotten the three. If you have the room, a three person sauna is what I'd recommend.