Sauna sessions have been popular for ages. After a nice workout or a rough day, very few things are as relaxing as sitting in a sauna while your body gets revitalized. One of the more modern takes on the formula is the infrared sauna. This version doesn’t heat the air around you, and instead focuses far-infrared (the “far” here refers to its position on the spectrum) radiation towards your body to flush out toxins and relieve stress and fatigue. At least, that’s the claim.
Every brand will advertise their product as the best idea you could ever come up with, but it’s easy to go overboard and make false promises. In particular, we’re interested in the claims that these new saunas help the user sleep better. In this article, we plan on examining infrared saunas to see whether they work as well as (or better than) traditional saunas when it comes to the positive effects on your body, especially from a sleep-enhancing perspective.
What Is the Difference Between a Traditional and Infrared Sauna?
The main difference between infrared and traditional saunas is how they heat your body. A traditional sauna uses regular heaters to warm up the entire room you’re in, and as a consequence, you get hotter. Even if you have never used a traditional sauna, you probably have an image of those steaming cabin rooms with people in towels. On the other hand, infrared saunas use far-infrared radiation to apply the heat directly to your body, without affecting the surrounding air at all. Some people don’t enjoy the moist, steaming environment in a regular sauna, and this method could solve that problem. Just because the air isn’t affected, doesn’t mean your body doesn’t experience the same effects as it would in a traditional sauna. Infrared saunas are also one of the very few methods of supplying infrared light in a controlled environment.
If you spend too much time in a traditional sauna, you can face dehydration and heat-related exhaustion, which isn’t helpful to anyone in any situation. The heat coverage is also much less even than when you use an infrared sauna. Infrared radiation keeps the room cool, so you avoid that feeling of burden and heavy limbs.
How Does an Infrared Sauna Affect Your Body?
The main reason people go to a sauna, in general, is that they want relief after a hard day’s work or some simple relaxation. However, as the years go by, more and more health benefits are being discovered and talked about. We are still in need of detailed research, but theories have been worked on about how a sauna treatment can alleviate a headache, type 2 diabetes or even symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. After a session in the sauna (whether it’s a traditional sauna or an infrared one), you will sweat as much as an athlete after moderately intense exercise, and your heart rate will resemble theirs, too (100-150 beats per minute).
Scientists and researchers are hard at work figuring out the exact health benefits of an infrared sauna session, resulting in studies like this one. According to this study, there could be specific frequencies and treatment duration for alleviating specific conditions and helping certain target demographics. Further research needs to be conducted to spot potential negative side-effects and warn us about them. In particular, sleep-related benefits are being looked into by sleep researchers, as this is a potentially great way to deal with insomnia and other sleep disorders if we can find enough scientific confirmation. If you feel uncomfortable or painful during or after visiting an infrared sauna, consult your doctor to figure out why. They’re far more equipped to diagnose the issue than you are, and you may find that the problem can be solved through other means and doesn’t require you to avoid sauna sessions.
Sleep Benefits of Using an Infrared Sauna
While we don’t have a vast library of studies that detail direct and concrete benefits of an infrared sauna when it comes to your sleep quality, we can list some indirect ways that a sauna can help you sleep better. While it’s subjective, most people who use a sauna are perfectly happy to talk about the positive effects it has on their daily routine, particularly in that it relieves their joint pain and similar problems.
Relaxation is the name of the game, here. If an infrared sauna is capable of helping people who are dealing with frequent headaches, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s or rheumatoid arthritis, then the pain and pressure-relieving capability of a sauna need no further proof. But what about thermoregulation? The ability of your body to maintain and regulate its temperature is crucial to our daily life and the biological processes we depend on. From a sleep perspective, thermoregulation is affected when our melatonin production kicks in. You see, the temperature of our body, while fairly steady over the course of a given day, fluctuates just enough to signal our brain when it’s time to kickstart melatonin production.
Melatonin is commonly called the sleep hormone, as it plays a key role in regulating our sleep/wake cycles. Our body cools down in the evening and while we sleep, hitting the lowest point in the middle of the night. This drop in temperature is what signals our brain to produce the sleep hormone. As we get closer to morning, melatonin’s “waking counterpart” hormone, cortisol, takes over and energizes us for the coming day.
So how do saunas play into this? Well, one of the most common tactics you might attempt to speed up how long it takes to fall asleep is to take a hot bath in the evening. By warming up that much and then exiting the bath, the resulting cooling-off process tricks your brain into producing more melatonin. It’s the oldest trick in the book, really – and it also works with a sauna, whether it’s traditional or infrared.
One of the biggest factors when it comes to insomnia and similar problems is anxiety. We all experience it to some degree, and we come up with methods to deal with it or avoid it. The most common methods to “air out” your worries without spending a ton of money are relaxation exercises, such as meditation and yoga. By maintaining a habit such as meditation, you can help your brain balance out your sleep cycle and improve your overall health and levels of daily energy. An infrared sauna works the exact same way. Many sauna regulars do it for the relaxation and detox effect, which can be just as powerful a habit as yoga or anything similar, if not even more effective. If you want to go the extra mile, you can combine infrared sauna sessions with breathing exercises to further mellow out when it’s time to head to bed.
Infrared Saunas, Sweating and Detoxification
As we go through our days and weeks, we accumulate unwanted chemicals in our body. Environmental toxins like pesticides and flame retardants can creep into our system without our awareness, and cause health problems. We also ingest potentially harmful substances daily, and our kidneys and liver can only cover so much work. While it was thought of as an urban myth until recently, sweating has been proven to be an effective way of getting rid of unwanted materials from our body, including metals like lead or mercury.
For example, let’s look at Bisphenol-A (or BPA, for convenience). BPA is a core component of various plastics, the wrapping material used for cans in canned goods, and cash register receipts. Baby bottles are another source, introducing babies to BPA very early. Probably the most significant source of BPA is the construction material of water supply pipes, meaning that simple tap water can introduce it into our system. Given how often we encounter these items and materials, it’s fairly safe to say we’re almost constantly exposed to BPA in some form or another. It is important because BPA is directly linked to many health issues in people of all ages. Here’s a brief list of serious risks that come with prolonged BPA exposure, to set the tone:
– Prostate cancer cell stimulation
– Ovarian dysfunction
– Structural brain damage
– Increased obesity risk
– Hyperactivity and a noticeable increase in aggressive behavior
– Impaired learning
And this isn’t the full list, either. As you can see, BPA can be a contributing factor to some frightening conditions and problems. We’ve recently discovered that our body tends to favor one method or another when it expels waste, depending on the toxin involved. BPA is primarily expelled through sweat, to the point where BPA can be found in the sweat of people whose urine and blood analysis results showed no BPA content. Keep in mind; this is just one compound. So many harmful materials can sneak their way into our body, and every method we have for filtering out undesirable chemicals is valuable. Sweating is crucial for detoxification, and regular use of an infrared sauna can greatly help our body detox properly. As a result, your daily health can be improved in ways you weren’t expecting.
Can an Infrared Sauna Replace Exercise?
The short answer is – not at all. Don’t get us wrong, using an infrared sauna can prepare your body to face physical strain and sports activities more easily, but the benefits of those exercises are not included in the sauna package. You can’t sweat off the pounds as you would lose them by exercising regularly. It also doesn’t help you build muscle at all, unsurprisingly. If you combine the two activities, you can significantly improve your overall health, just don’t expect to become fit by using a sauna suddenly.
Infrared Saunas and Mitochondrial Regeneration
Mitochondria are responsible for several crucial processes in your body. These organelles make almost 90 percent of all the energy produced by the body. This energy is used for a lot of our bodily processes, including muscle contraction and relaxation and cellular regeneration. Mitochondria also play a key role in programmed cell death, which is the primary way our body gets rid of damaged cells. These cells would otherwise have a significant chance of becoming cancer cells.
The problem is that mitochondria take constant damage from free radicals in your body, and thus require constant regeneration. The short-term stress placed on your body in an infrared sauna is the perfect stimulant for mitochondrial biogenesis. Additionally, because your blood pressure gets lowered as a result of all the heat projected into your body, it improves vascular function.
Neural health is also enhanced by regular heat exposure. You see, when your body is put under heat stress (such as during sauna use or exercise – ideally both), your brain stem cells convert into new neurons, and other chemicals that improve neural health are triggered. It is possible thanks to a special compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which was directly linked to regular heat exposure.
On top of that, if you’re concerned about your heart, regular sauna use can alleviate some of those problems. Because your blood circulation is improved as a consequence of heat exposure, your heart and muscles benefit from improved blood flow. You’re also safer from strokes if you regularly use the infrared sauna, reducing the risk by as much as 62 percent if you make it a daily habit.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic