Saunas are often perceived as a way to relax after a workout at the health club, or maybe you know them from Finnish sauna culture as a way to bond with friends- and then jump in an icy lake. Perhaps you picture the Russian Banyan, where you are beaten with birch branches. Saunas are actually known throughout the world- there are traditions of saunas in Thailand, Japan, and Korea in East Asia; the Hammans of Turkey are essentially saunas, as are the sweat lodges of the native North Americans. They can be found in the old cultures of Mexico, and parts of Africa. Since then, they have been adopted worldwide as a place to relax and decompress. Disparate cultures have embraced saunas for hundreds or even thousands of years not just for relaxation. Saunas have long been known by many societies to offer health benefits. For purification and mental clarity in the sweat lodge. To enhance circulation by jumping in that cold lake after a Finnish sauna. To refresh the skin and stimulate blood flow from that birch beating in the Russian Banyan. The unifying theme was that they were meant to both relax and stimulate the body and to treat a number of complaints. They were also rituals meant to be endured.
Luckily, today’s modern saunas are far more comfortable than some of the ancient varieties. Heat is much more controllable, dry saunas can avoid the choking steam that can make it hard to breathe, and best of all, infrared saunas, particularly Far Infrared Saunas (FIRS) can offer a much more comfortable experience with no steam, lower heat levels, and safe directed radiant heat that can be tolerated longer and relaxes the whole body while treating a variety of conditions.
So what distinguished FIRS from traditional wet and dry saunas? Traditional wet saunas use a system of heating a wood stove or hot rocks to which ladles of water are occasionally added to create bursts of steam. Dry saunas are similar but without water. More modern versions of these traditional wet or dry saunas may use a 220v heater to generate the heat. These types of saunas typically heat the air to about 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat from traditional saunas heats the person, mainly by convection, and some people may find them uncomfortable at those temperatures, particularly when they are the wet variety. Controlling temperature in the more traditional types of saunas is more difficult, especially to cool down. FIRS, on the other hand, heat the temperature to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit and do so through infrared elements that radiate heat directly to the body- similar to those found to warm infants in neonatal units. Most people find the lower, directly radiated heat more comfortable.
As Dr. Richard Beever writes in the journal Canadian Physician in July 2009:
“As infrared heat penetrates more deeply than warmed air, users develop a more vigorous sweat at a lower temperature than they would in traditional saunas. The cardiovascular demand imparted by thermoregulatory homeostasis (sweating, vasodilation, decreased afterload, increased heart rate, increased cardiac output) is similar to that achieved by walking at a moderate pace. As such, FIRS might be of particular benefit to those who are sedentary due to various medical conditions, such as osteoarthritis or cardiovascular or respiratory problems.”
Take note of that comment about sweating. One of the problems with wet saunas is that they decrease the amount of sweating compared to dry saunas because all of the moisture in the air means that your body doesn’t need to produce as much sweat to cool you down. It appears the FIRS cause you to sweat even more than traditional dry saunas do, and at lower heat levels as well. You want to sweat! Sweating helps bring out toxins and also appears to help with cardiovascular health.
Health Benefits of Saunas
As mentioned earlier, traditional cultures utilized saunas not just for relaxation and rituals, but for health benefits as well. That long-known understanding of sauna cultures has been studied more and more in recent decades by the modern scientific community. There are a lot of studies, and although many are small, there are some large multi-year studies as well. What seems clear is that the vast majority of studies conclude positively about the health benefits of saunas in general, and for FIRS as well. All saunas seem to help a variety of medical conditions with very few downsides. In fact, the few downsides that have been seen in the studies result from the use of traditional saunas rather than FIRS for the most part. Side effects like “dry sauna-induced burns”, “sauna lung (from wet heated air)”, and “non-exertional heat stroke” are the types of side effects that a cooler, dry, directly radiated sauna is unlikely to cause. Studies are still emerging, but have been extremely positive so far. Dr. Beever, cited above, summarizes:
“Although the evidence is limited, it does suggest a number of benefits of FIRS use, including effects on systolic hypertension, New York Heart Association class and clinical symptoms of congestive heart failure, premature ventricular contractions, brain natriuretic peptide levels, vascular endothelial function, exercise tolerance, oxidative stress, chronic pain, and possibly weight loss and chronic fatigue. No adverse events were reported in any of the studies.”
Why Far Infrared Saunas are even better
FIRS may be more effective than traditional saunas in a number of areas, be better tolerated, have fewer side effects, and be more comfortable. All saunas, including FIRS, can be utilized for a number of conditions according to studies, with the most studied being cardiovascular conditions. Almost all sauna studies have been done in supervised settings, and taking a sauna under a professional’s care is likely to make your experience safer, more comfortable, and more effective. A 2018 review of the research literature on the use of saunas for health benefits by Hussain, et al, found that studies had concluded positively for sauna’s effectiveness, especially in cardiovascular diseases, but that regular usage was key:
“Despite differences in sauna types, temperature, frequency, and duration of interventions, the far-infrared sauna studies involving cardiovascular disease and congestive heart failure patients suggest favourable outcomes that reinforce earlier findings of interventional Finnish sauna studies and cardiovascular disease [75–79]. This suggests that heat stress, whether induced by infrared or Finnish-style sauna, causes significant sweating that is likely to lead to hormetic adaptation and beneficial cardiovascular and metabolic effects. This is further supported by the two large observational studies that found striking risk reductions for sudden cardiac death (63%) and all-cause mortality (40%) as well as for dementia (66%) and Alzheimer’s disease (65%), in men who used a sauna 4−7 times per week compared to only once per week.”
Saunas improve your mood
Sauna usage has also been found in numerous studies to have positive psychological effects. Hussain, et al, cited above:
“In addition to having profound physiological effects, sauna bathing is reported to have beneficial psychological effects that are reflected in the many reports of improved well-being, pain tolerance, and other self-assessed symptom-related scoring [34, 36, 43, 45, 46, 50–56, 58, 60, 68, 69)”
FIRS can help with detox
Sweating in saunas particularly, which as we’ve seen is done more effectively with FIRS technology, can aid in detoxification. We are being assaulted by toxins and more and more subtly dangerous chemicals as a byproduct of our modern society. While we can’t (and shouldn’t) roll back time, we can engage in an ongoing regimen of detoxifying our bodies. Saunas can be an integral part of that. The summary of sauna studies cited above continues:
“Improved adaptation to stress with regular sauna bathing may be further enhanced by excretion of toxicants through heavy sweating. Many industrial toxicants including heavy metals, pesticides, and various petrochemicals may be excreted in sweat leading to an enhancement of metabolic pathways and processes that these toxic agents inhibit . Sweat-induced excretion of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury has been reported with the rates of excretion matching or exceeding urinary routes . There is also recent evidence that toxic chemicals and xenobiotics such as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, organochlorine pesticides, bisphenol-A (BPA), and phthalates may be excreted via induced sweating at rates that exceed urinary excretion.”
Saunas may also act as cellular therapy, therefore reducing oxidative stress and helping the body to heal itself in a variety of conditions:
“On a cellular level, acute whole-body thermotherapy (both wet and dry forms) induces discrete metabolic changes that include production of heat shock proteins, reduction of reactive oxygenated species, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation pathway activities, increased NO (nitric oxide) bioavailability, increased insulin sensitivity, and alterations in various endothelial-dependent vasodilatation metabolic pathways” (Hussain et al, linked above)
More research needs to be done on these cellular interactions, but all signs are that a sauna’s effect on your cellular health could be profound. Anything which can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, help regulate insulin and improve metabolic pathways is likely to not only create the opportunity for better health in general but to be very compatible with an exercise regimen.
Try Far Infrared Saunas today!
The fact that Far Infrared Saunas in particular are easier for the body makes them appropriate for individuals who find it difficult to exercise- the obese, those with arthritis, heart conditions, and others. Not only can saunas provide some of the same benefits of exercise to those individuals, but they can help people to reach an energy level where some exercise can be reintroduced for a healthier overall life. Progressive Medical Center has a wealth of experience in the use of FIRS to treat a variety of these conditions. Why not give an effective, more comfortable sauna plan under expert supervision a try?