If you follow any notable influencers on Instagram or YouTube, it’s likely you’ll have heard of infrared saunas. It’s a self-care measure Australian influencers Sammy Robinson and Steph Smith swear by, but at a rate of about a dollar a minute, are infrared saunas worth it?
According to a study published in January 2018, regular infrared or Finnish sauna bathing can provide various health benefits, especially for those with cardiovascular related diseases, and athletes desiring increased athletic performance.
The claims, however, don’t stop there. Many influencers and spas claim that infrared saunas result in detoxification and relaxation too.
While we were sceptical, according to health and wellness expert Professor Marc Cohen, many of the claims made about saunas are actually completely true, and tested by science.
Dr. Cohen says that the benefits of saunaing are proven to reduce heart disease.
“[Saunaing] has quite conclusive benefits for heart disease,” says Cohen.
“When you are in a sauna, your heart is working harder but against less resistance, some people with heart disease can’t exercise because they have arthritis or it’s hard for them to move, for these people sauna bathing can provide a good cardiovascular workout,” he added.
He explained that saunaing opens up blood vessels, and forces the heart to beat faster due to the heat. This means that saunaing also flushes the body with blood which helps to remove built up waste products.
“Vascular disease is one of the biggest killers, when you’re in a sauna it forces your blood vessels to relax and open, when you then go into the cold after a sauna they contract, so you’re exercising your vascular system by causing relaxation and contraction of your blood vessels, it’s a way of forcing those blood vessels to exercise by changing the external environment,” he added.
As for the claim that saunaing “detoxifies” the body, Cohen says this is true, but it is not known whether this type of detoxification leads to specific health benefits.
“You actually do detoxify through sweat but we aren’t sure how important that is,” he says.
“There is some research that shows that you do excrete toxic chemicals and heavy metals through your sweat, we don’t know if that’s clinically relevant amounts to make you feel better. It may depend on how you treat the sweat once it’s on your body,” he says.
Cohen says that if you want to actually get rid of toxic chemicals in the body, you need to mop the sweat from your skin with a towel, otherwise the skin will just reabsorb the toxins.
Improves blood flow
Dr. Cohen says that infrared saunas increase blood flow, a process that helps the body regulate waste and get appropriate nutrition.
“Blood flow to an area improves the ability of that area to heal, get nutrition and remove waste products,” he says.
“The other thing is in a sauna you are opening up all the blood vessels on the surface of your body which means your skin and your superficial muscles are getting flushed with blood so any waste products are getting removed and that blood is bringing nutrients there.”
One of the most popular claims of infrared saunas is that they reduce anxiety.
“It works your flight or fight response, a lot of people think stress is the enemy, and that we need to relax more to counteract stress…. this is true with chronic stress that is out of our control, yet saunaing provides an acute stress that is fully under our control. Saunas can therefore train your body to counteract stress by exercising your sympathetic nervous system,” says Dr. Cohen.
“Saunas can help you learn to relax under stress.”
Precautions to take
The benefits of using a sauna are clearly evident, but there are several measures you should take when using a sauna to keep hydrated and achieve the best possible health benefits.
Since sweating dehydrates the body, Dr. Cohen says that hydration is important, and so is replenishing magnesium. Most adverse effects from saunas are associated with excess alcohol so it is best not to drink alcoholic drinks when saunaing.
“It’s really important when you’re sweating that you re-hydrate properly, and there are things people can do to increase their sweating, if you have a ginger tea or some other hot or stimulating beverage before you go into the sauna then it will open up your blood vessels already, so you might start sweating quicker,” Dr Cohen says.
“Most people are deficient in magnesium, because most people don’t eat enough green plants… Since you lose magnesium with sweat it’s really good to not only be hydrated properly but to replace magnesium by eating green leafy vegetables, this is important because some people get cramps if they are magnesium deficient,” he added.
What’s different about infrared saunas?
But while the evidence is there for normal saunas, where do infrared saunas differentiate?
Ultimately, Dr Cohen explains that infrared saunas emit a safe radiation that allows the body to sweat at a lower temperature. This is significant since it allows you to sauna comfortably for longer, allowing you to experience better benefits.
“The benefit of the sweating is important, if you can sweat at a lower temperature that’s a good thing because you can tolerate more and you’re more likely to do it because it’s pleasant,” Dr Cohen says.
There is some evidence that regular saunaing can reduce sperm production in men, but this is reversible.
Ultimately, the evidence shows that saunaing is an incredibly valuable practice, allowing you to get cardiovascular workout without moving a muscle, meaning for a lot of people it’s definitely worth that dollar a minute.
As a registered GP with degrees in physiology and psychological medicine, as well as PhDs in Chinese medicine and biomedical engineering, Marc Cohen blends leading-edge evidence based medical science with holistic health approaches, creating accessible solutions for the wellness conscious community.