Last month, I installed an infrared sauna in my house. A company offered it to me to try out, and I was willing to give it a go, knowing a little about them already. It also inspired me to dig into the research—to test it personally but also to see what studies had demonstrated in terms of benefits. I’ll say I’ve been pleased with what I’ve found from both angles.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following a new bedtime ritual: a half hour in the sauna, a cold plunge in the pool, bed. The reasoning is that after warming up my tissues in the sauna, I drop them back down to prepare for sleep. So far, it’s working. I wasn’t exactly starting from a deficit—my sleep has been consistently good ever since I changed how I consume alcohol—but I’m really happy with the new setup.
A traditional sauna heats the air around you. An infrared sauna uses infrared light to penetrate your skin and warm you directly without affecting the ambient temperature. This makes them great for home use.
Okay, but do they actually work? What good is heating your skin with infrared light?
I’ve covered the benefits of traditional saunas before—they’re great and many of them apply to infrared saunas—but today I’ll discuss the unique advantages of infrared saunas.
Perhaps the most robust evidence for the benefits of infrared saunas concern their effects on various measures and determinants of heart health. For decades, the Japanese have used an infrared sauna protocol called Waon therapy to treat heart disease and heart failure patients.
In patients with an elevated risk for heart disease, Waon therapy (spending 15 minutes a day for two weeks in the infrared sauna) reduced urinary levels of a prostaglandin linked to oxidative stress. It also reduced blood pressure.
In another group of men with an elevated risk for heart disease, the same protocol also improved endothelial function—how well the arteries hold against stress.
In men recovering from heart failure, the same protocol boosted their endothelial function and improved how well the heart performed its duties.
In people with heart failure, Waon therapy also increased exercise tolerance by improving endothelial function.
Infrared sauna therapy has also:
Proponents make big claims about the ability of infrared saunas to reduce pain of all kinds—chronic, arthritic, (as you’ll see later) fibromyalgic, post-workout. Any truth?
For people with chronic pain, adding infrared sauna therapy to a grab-bag of exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, and rehab was better at reducing pain than the grab-bag alone.
In another study of both rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis suffers, infrared sauna therapy reduced stiffness, pain, and other clinical symptoms of the respective diseases.
Later on, you’ll see that infrared saunas can improve fibromyalgia symptoms.
Clinicians aren’t sending kidney disease patients down to the local infrared sauna spot, but they are using localized infrared radiation.
In hemodialysis patients, infrared therapy improved blood flow and reduced the incidence of arteriovenous fistula (AVF) malfunctions (AVFs are artificial connections between arteries and veins often surgically created in dialysis patients).
Another study in hemodialysis patients found that infrared therapy accelerated maturation of AVFs after surgical creation.
Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are terrible to experience. What’s worse, the two—crushing, unending fatigue and constant, unjustified pain—often go together. Luckily, it seems that infrared saunas might be able to help.
In one study, researchers placed CF patients on Waon therapy (15 minutes a day in the sauna) for five days a week, 4 weeks. They didn’t report many changes during the sessions, but after four weeks they all showed improvements in depression, mood, fatigue, anxiety, and performance. An earlier study had similar results, with some patients even able to discontinue medication.
A single session of Waon infrared therapy was enough reduce fibromyalgia-related pain by 11-70% in 13 female patients with fibromyalgia.
By pre-gaming, I’m not talking about drinking cheap plastic bottle vodka with your friends before hitting the bars. I mean preparing your body for certain stressful situations. Evidence suggests that infrared saunas can improve your resilience and performance in the face of several different kinds of stressors.
Decompression stress: Pretreatment with infrared sauna can help free divers prepare for deep dives. Those who hung out in an infrared sauna for a half hour before diving were more resilient in the face of decompression stress.
UV stress: Pretreatment with infrared light can help sunbathers improve their resistance to the damaging effects of UV radiation. This is probably an evolutionary adaptation to ancestral sun exposure patterns—early morning sunlight, rich in infrared wavelengths, preparing us for the hotter, more UV-rich midday sun.
Training stress: Rugby players who exposed themselves to infrared lights (with prior consent, of course) before training showed enhanced performance and accelerated recovery. Infrared light applied before lifting weights may also reduce post-exercise strength loss. Applied during activity, it increases time to fatigue.
Nursing stress: Breastfeeding mothers who used infrared saunas enjoyed increased milk production. Many of the subjects were having trouble producing enough milk, and infrared application allowed about half to successfully nurse until weaning.
Folks make a lot of big claims online. Sometimes they cite literature, sometimes not. And many times the literature they do cite isn’t really relevant. But not always. I’ve sifted through them to pull out what look to be the most plausible yet speculative benefits.
Mitochondria: Near-infrared light—which penetrates human tissue— triggers mitochondria to produce more ATP.
Cancer: Near-infrared light may be able to target cancer cells.
It won’t equal the power of a targeted infrared sauna, but the morning sun is rich in infrared light. Get up in time to bask in it.
All in all, infrared saunas seem very promising. I certainly enjoy mine, and the scientific literature is quite persuasive and expansive—especially for an “alternative” therapy like infrared saunas. For those who have the means and the need for help with some of the conditions infrared may treat or a desire to see how it affects their recovery and resilience to stressors, I can heartily recommend either buying one or signing up for a few trips to the local infrared sauna spot.
Anyone else an infrared sauna devotee? I’d be interested in hearing from people who have been doing it for a long time—what benefits have you noticed?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.