Remember that time I shared a silly pic of my head popping out of an infrared sauna? I’ve since upgraded to my favorite sauna ever, and I’ll share a link to it at the bottom of the post (Go ahead and take a peek if you can’t help it. I’ll wait…), but first I want to share with you the reason that I decided to put one in my bedroom and use it nearly every day.
The short version: I am able to burn 500 calories, read a chapter to my littles (they like to visit), take my stress levels down 10 notches, support detoxification, activate heat-shock proteins associated with longevity, and think more clearly in just 30 minutes a day . . . all while sitting down. I feel AMAZING when I get out, and can’t wait to do it all over again.
The long version: There’s a lot of science supporting the physiological benefits of saunas, and that’s what we’re about to dive into. But first, you might be wondering . . .
What is an infrared sauna?
Infrared light, which we experience as heat, is the invisible part of the sun’s spectrum. Although we can’t see it, we can feel it in the warmth of sunshine on our skin. The far infrared wavelength – which is what I’ll be focusing on in this post – is highly beneficial, penetrating deeply into tissues to induce a detoxifying sweat.
It’s so safe it’s used to keep babies warm in the NICU, and our bodies radiate it naturally. (source) The warmth of a hug? Infrared heat. The gooey feeling you get when you hold hands? Not necessarily caused by infrared heat, but your hands do in fact emit about 8-10 microns of infrared.
Traditional wet and dry saunas use heated air to warm the body, which means they typically have to be uncomfortably hot to reach therapeutic levels. Infrared saunas, on the other hand, penetrate into tissues directly, causing the body to sweat at a more comfortable ambient temperature.
But why is it so important to sweat? Here are nine reasons:
1. Increases Metabolism
Sauna therapy is sometimes called passive cardio because it raises your heart rate in a way that is similar to exercise, or as this Harvard article puts it, “the high temperatures can drive heart rates to levels often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise.”
A 30 minute session burns about 600 calories, says this article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, while this study published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes found that patients receiving far-infrared sauna therapy showed “a trend toward decreased waist circumference.”
2. Detoxifies Heavy Metals, BPA, PCB’s and other toxins
Some people say that detoxing is silly because are bodies are perfectly capable of detoxing without help. While I agree that our bodies are amazing and we have powerful innate detox capabilities, the reality is that:
- The average person carries about 700 pollutants in their bodies at any given moment. Even babies are affected – a recent study found more than 200 chemicals in newborn cord blood alone. (source 1, source 2)
- Companies are not required to study the long-term health effects of the majority of chemicals they produce, so most don’t. (source)
- An estimated 30-50% of the American population (myself included) has the MTHFR genetic mutation, which may impair detoxification
Expecting our bodies to manage those factors in addition to naturally occurring heavy metals like lead and mercury leaves is like expecting a housekeeper to keep things spotless with a band of uninvited monkeys living in the house.
Our detoxification systems need support, and there are many ways to go about that. I’ll be discussing several of them in future posts, but one of my favorites is infrared therapy because it requires very little effort on my part. All I need to do is take 20-40 minutes of time to sit and relax – one of my kids often joins me for about 15 minutes so that we can read a chapter from their current book, then the next one hops in to read their book, etc. while the other kids play just outside the sauna window.
So what does all this have to do with sweating in a sauna?
According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who holds a PhD in biomedical science, the fact that sweat contains both hydrophyllic (water soluble) and lipophilic (fat soluble) components makes it an elimination pathway for a variety of toxins, including:
- xenobiotics such as BPA (often absorbed through store receipts), PCB’s, and phthalates
- Arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury
One important note: Sweating also eliminates electrolytes, so you’ll need to replace calcium, magnesium and potassium. I use my Coconut Lime Electrolyte Drink Recipe or just water with a generous pinch of sea salt. According to Dr. Patrick, kale is also a concentrated form of electrolytes, so you can put some in a smoothie after you sauna to replenish electrolytes as well.
3. Gorgeous, Youthful Skin
One of the most unexpected – and welcome – changes I noticed when I began using a sauna regularly is how much more refreshed and “glowy” I looked after a few weeks of use.
Far infrared wavelengths increase the production of collagen (which makes skin supple) and elastin (which makes it elastic), and also improves the delivery of nutrients to the skin via increased blood flow.
4. Optimizes Your Biological Age
We have two ages: Our chronological age (the actual time we’ve been alive) and our biological age, or the rate at which we’re aging on a cellular level.
Most of us have all had the experience of being surprised to find out that someone is far younger than we had imagined — for instance, when an individual we thought was in their late 50s turns out to actually be in their mid-40s,” Dr. Terry Grossman, founder and medical director of the Grossman Wellness Center in Denver, explained for Everyday Health. “And, by the same token, we will occasionally discover that someone is considerably older than we had guessed. The reason for these discrepancies is often because their biological ages are different than their chronological ages.” (source)
According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, “Almost all the primary causes of aging have stress at their root. Inflammation is a prime example and in fact it’s been identified as one of the key drivers of the aging process . . . . However somewhat paradoxically, stress isn’t always bad. Short term stress can result in a reduction in long term chronic stress – in other words we can build resilience. This is because short-term exposure to stress can strengthen the cellular response mechanisms in the body to stress. This is called hormetic stress.”(Source: Sauna Use And Building Resilience to Stress)
Exercise is a type of hormetic stress, as is cold stress and – you guessed it – heat stress. Sitting in a sauna creates heat stress, which causes the body to increase it’s production of heat shock proteins, which help repair damaged proteins and protect DNA.
Normally we produce fewer heat shock proteins as we age. However, some people have genetic mutations that cause them to maintain higher production. Specifically:
Centenarians, or people who live to be at least 100, tend to have an increased expression of heat shock proteins – the same proteins that are produced in a sauna. (source)
In another study, researchers found that exposing C. elegans worms to sauna-like conditions – thus producing heat shock proteins – extended their lifespan by about 30%. (source)
5. Relaxation & Stress Reduction
Our lives are typically full of chronic stress and very little running away from tigers. Unfortunately, unlike short-term stressful experiences, which produce a rise in cortisol and a physical response (such as running away) followed by a reduction in cortisol after the event, our bodies stay in “high alert” stage for hours, days and even sometimes months without a reset.
Our bodies often can’t distinguish life-threatening situations from non-critical situations, and therefore react to everything just in case. That’s a problem because:
When you repeatedly experience the mobilization or fight-or-flight stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.” (source)
Fortunately, it’s not necessary to renounce civilization and move into a yurt to reclaim relaxation – you can manually reset your stress response. Exercise is one way to do it – sauna therapy is another.
When you expose your body to heat stress, your cortisol levels (an indication of stress) will typically stay the same or even rise. However, when you remove the stress by stepping out of the sauna, they’ll drop almost immediately and set a new baseline that is lower than before. Your body thinks the “tiger” is gone and has reset, leaving you feeling relaxed.
In addition to helping with stress, sauna therapy stimulates the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which is why I feel AMAZING when I finish a session. (source 1, source 2)
6. Soothes Sore Muscles
This is my husbands favorite benefit. Soothing infrared heat penetrates into sore muscles and joints, increasing the flow of nutrients (glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and oxygen) to the area while removing lactic acid and other metabolic byproducts.
7. Benefits Cognitive Function
- Creates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) and protects existing neurons from damage (source)
- Significantly increases norepinephrine levels, a hormone that supports focus and attention. (source)
- Increases “prolactin, a hormone which encourages the growth of myelin (the insulation around the nerve fibres in your brain), which determines how fast your brain works.” (source)
8. Supports Cardiovascular Health
As I mentioned earlier, infrared sauna therapy is sometimes called “passive cardio” because, as this Harvard article puts it, “the high temperatures can drive heart rates to levels often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise.”
“The cardiovascular effects of sauna have been well documented in the past. It lowers blood pressure, and there is every reason to believe that its effects are good for blood vessels,” says Dr. Lee of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (source)
9. Supports Immune Function
According to Mark Timmerman, M.D. of the North American Sauna Society, “During a sauna session, white blood cells increase in the bloodstream, suggesting an elevation of the body’s natural defense against illness.”