What Is Infrared Sauna Therapy?

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“Infrared saunas have been studied for a variety of problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain syndromes, and injuries,” says Melinda Ring, MD, director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Northwestern University in Chicago. It’s important to keep in mind that research on infrared therapy is limited, and more is needed to explore exactly what benefits it may provide, she explains. What’s more, much of the existing body of literature on the health benefits of sauna bathing is on traditional Finnish saunas and is not specific to infrared therapy. While some studies speak to infrared sauna bathing specifically, they are, as a whole, based on small groups of people.

Here’s a look at what more recent research suggests infrared sauna may be able to do for your health.

1. Infrared Sauna Therapy May Support Heart Health in Certain Populations

A meta-analysis of nine studies on patients with heart failure concluded that taking an infrared sauna for 15 minutes five times a week for two to four weeks improved certain heart biomarkers and measures of heart function in the short term.

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Another research review explains the potential connection between saunas and heart health.

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The authors concluded that sauna bathing, including infrared sauna use, may reduce blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, reduce inflammation, and calm the nervous system, among other changes. What’s more, the heart’s reaction to sauna bathing may also be akin to walking, something that strengthens the heart and is recommended for people who have heart failure.

2. It May Be Useful to Boost Exercise Benefits

An infrared sauna session may stimulate a physiological response similar to exercise. That said, it is not a substitute for exercise. Rather, a short infrared sauna session before a workout can serve as a nice way to warm up your muscles, says Simms. Post-exercise, it may also offer some benefits. A small study on 10 men found that using a far-infrared sauna for 30 minutes after a strenuous hour-long strength training workout helped improve neuromuscular recovery. This may be because infrared heat penetrates muscles deeper to help relax leg muscles better than room-temperature air. Plus, as the study points out, it’s a pleasant experience that makes you feel good, too.

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Studies on the use of infrared sauna and exercise recovery are not consistent across the board. Other research found that well-trained runners who performed a simulated trail-running race recovered better and faster when they used cryotherapy (cold therapy) than with far-infrared or no therapy.

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3. Infrared Sauna Therapy May Lower Stress Levels

There’s no doubt that stepping into an infrared sauna feels good for most people. And for certain groups of people, it may also do more.

A small study looked at mildly depressed people who were treated for 15 minutes once a day for five days in a far-infrared sauna and then told to lie in bed for 30 minutes.

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Over four weeks they reported fewer physical complaints (such as discomfort and pain that’s viewed as mentally distressing), more relaxation, and an improvement in appetite compared with the control group. The authors theorized that thermal therapy is sedating (boosting relaxation) and may have an effect on the nervous system, triggering the “chill and calm” parasympathetic nervous system. A change in appetite is one symptom of depression, and this study also indicates that infrared sauna use may impact hunger hormones in a positive way.

Another small study concluded that infrared sauna use among 38 obese individuals improved their quality of life (something that other research has shown is lower in folks with a higher BMI). In the study, participants sat in an infrared sauna for 15 minutes and rested in room-temperature air for 30 minutes twice a day for four consecutive days. After the four days, those taking infrared saunas reported less pain and discomfort in the short term as well as less anxiety and depression.

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An infrared sauna is a warm, quiet space with nothing to distract you, which could also potentially be a factor in its therapeutic benefits, in addition to the actual infrared exposure. It can trigger your relaxation response to decrease stress, says Simms. One caveat, says Simms: You won’t get this benefit if you go in there and scroll social media or answer emails on your phone. As one review points out, sauna bathing might release endorphins, strongly support you to stop and practice mindfulness, reduce stress and improve relaxation, and can simply give you a break in your day for self-care that’s psychologically beneficial.

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“People come out feeling really energized. An infrared sauna session can be invigorating,” says Simms.

4. It May Help Decrease Discomfort in Inflammatory and Pain Conditions

A small amount of research has suggested that those with inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, may benefit from infrared sauna therapy, which has been found to lessen pain and stiffness.

One of these studies 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 over the short term, though these differences were small.

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In addition, one randomized controlled trial found that using a typical dry sauna for eight weeks helped people with chronic tension headaches reduce headache intensity by 44 percent.

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The authors theorized that some of the effect could be from the relaxation response, which may decrease activity of the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Another trial with 46 participants found that people with a chronic pain disorder had improvements in mood and were more likely to return to work after practicing infrared sauna bathing.

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Finally, a pilot study evaluated 10 people with chronic fatigue syndrome who sat in a far-infrared sauna for 15 minutes and then lay in a bed under a blanket for 30 minutes once a day, five days a week for four weeks and found that the therapy helped reduce pain after treatment and improved mood.

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The authors theorized that this therapy may have worked by reducing the oxidative stress that may play a role in symptoms (although they did not specifically test for this); the warmth was also likely relaxing, contributing to a boost in mood.

A few things to keep in mind: Little research has been done on this topic over the past two decades, the number of participants in each study has been small, and the studies generally have lacked control groups. If you have an inflammatory or pain condition and are interested in infrared therapy, talk to your doctor about adding it to your treatment protocol.

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