Updated: Nov 16
Infrared (IR) saunas work by producing infrared light, which is a wavelength of light just past red light on the visible spectrum. We cannot see infrared light with the naked eye, it is just heat. It is how the sun and (old light bulbs) is able to produce the warmth that we feel. The light waves penetrate our skin and produce radiant heat that warms us from the inside out. If you ever walk into a steam sauna, it is immediately hot upon entering. But if you walk into an IR sauna you will not feel warmth until you have been in for a little while. This is because IR light doesn’t produce heat until it reacts with your body’s deeper tissues. Therefore, you get twice the benefits in half the treatment time compared to a traditional steam sauna.
Benefits for the chronic pain sufferer
IR saunas activate heat shock proteins which are a class of proteins involved in the repair and regeneration of damaged proteins and the synthesis of new ones. They are activated during times of bodily stress such as nutrient deficiency (fasting), are experiencing hypoxia (reduced oxygen), and most prominently during hyperthermia. They are involved in a number of bodily functions as you will see.
Environmental Toxins - First, and foremost, IR saunas cause you to sweat. The act of sweating is important in the detoxification of water soluble environmental toxins which contribute to the production and accumulation of chronic inflammation. Sweating in the sauna has been shown to remove heavy metals, BPA, PCBs, and phthalates from your body.
Inflammation - IR sauna therapy has been shown to decrease chronic inflammation through in multiple ways. IR saunas increase a transcription factor called Nrf2 which regulates genes responsible for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions. IR sauna therapy aids in the regulation of pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-6 and IL-10. This decreases chronic inflammation and facilitates a more appropriate inflammatory response in the future. Regular IR sauna use also helps lower CRP levels which are used as a general marker of inflammation. Regular IR sauna use can also decrease blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity which can be a major underlying cause of chronic inflammation.
Pain Reduction - Endorphins are your body’s natural pain relieving substances released during exercise and chiropractic adjustments, amongst other things. They decrease pain by binding to the opioid receptors in your body (so yes they are natural opioid medications). IR sauna therapy promotes a robust increase in endorphins. Your body also releases an opioid called dynorphin which in part is responsible for the feelings of discomfort while in the sauna but it also sensitizes your opioid receptors to your endorphins, making them even more effective. IR sauna therapy also stimulates the production and release or norepinephrine which aids pain reduction through the modulation of descending inhibition in the spina cord. This means less pain signals actually reach your brain.
Mitochondrial Health - Your mitochondria are responsible for making all the energy your body needs to survive and to heal. Most chronic pain sufferers experience mitochondrial dysfunction. Regular IR sauna use increases mitochondrial function by 28%.
Muscle Mass - Activation of heat shock proteins equates to less protein degradation which can help preserve muscle mass during times of disease and inactivity or recovering from injury by 37%.
Heart Disease - Heat exposure induces protective responses against the deleterious biological processes that drive cardiovascular disease and related disability. This makes IR sauna therapy a great took for most heart conditions and diseases. While sauna users experience an immediate increase in heart rate and blood pressure while using the sauna, those levels drop below baseline after the therapy has ended. Improved heart and vascular function allows more blood flow and oxygen perfusion to your damaged tissues which promotes healing. Because IR saunas are a dry heat and your sweat can evaporate more easily they are less stressing on cardiovascular system than traditional steam saunas. In reality, the physiological responses to sauna therapy are remarkably similar to those experienced during moderate to vigorous exercise, making sauna therapy a great alternative for those unable to engage in physical activity!
Other benefits of IR sauna therapy
Improved cognition, mental focus, attention span, and decreased cognitive decline
Enhanced neurogenesis (synthesis of new nerves and neurons)
Reduction in depression and other mood disorders
Increased growth hormone production
Improved physical fitness and athletic performance