Infrared Sauna Benefits

woman using infrared sauna

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As an athlete, you know that you constantly push your limits in the gym or on the trail. Hopefully, you also know that you need to emphasize recovery just as much as you emphasize your training. If you don't, you run the risk of substantially slowing your progress and of opening the door for potential injuries.

One unique recovery therapy that's been promoted in the past few years is the infrared sauna. How does an infrared sauna differ from a regular sauna? Can it help boost recovery? Let's discuss.

What Is Infrared?

A traditional sauna simply uses a heat source to increase the temperature of the sauna. An infrared sauna, on the other hand, uses infrared radiation to heat your body rather than the ambient air in the sauna. Radiation is often associated with danger—people envision disasters like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island when we mention radiation. However, like most things, radiation exists on a spectrum.

Radiation essentially refers to any energy form that moves through space. We usually distinguish different types of radiation by their wavelengths. Generally, radiation sources with wider wavelengths, like radio or microwave, have virtually zero safety concerns. On the other end of the spectrum exists ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and, eventually, Gamma rays. If you sit in the hot sun for hours or undergo thousands of x-ray scans, you could certainly be exposed to a health risk. Gamma rays are the most dangerous type of radiation. This is the radiation we associate with nuclear meltdowns.

Luckily, infrared radiation is on the safe side of the spectrum, with a wavelength slightly smaller than microwaves. Interestingly, we can't see or feel most types of radiation—except infrared! The way we can perceive infrared radiation is through the warming of our skin. Even though we can feel infrared, it's still a safe form of radiation since it's a non-ionizing source. Ionization occurs when a form of radiation is strong enough to remove electrons from the atoms that make up our body. When we are exposed to too much ionizing radiation, like ultraviolet, x-rays, or Gamma rays, this can actually end up damaging our DNA. With ultraviolet radiation, we often see this reflected by an increase in the risk of skin cancer after too much sun exposure.

So, after that long-winded discussion, infrared is simply a form of electromagnetic radiation and it's perfectly safe. In fact, virtually every living thing on the planet emits infrared radiation—even you. Just look at thermal imaging cameras; the reason these are useful in low light situations is their ability to detect infrared. Finally, you deal with infrared every single day that you step out in the sun. Feel the heat from the sun on your face? That's infrared radiation.

An infrared sauna works by using infrared heaters that transmit heat to you, rather than heating the air in the sauna itself. Most saunas use ceramic materials in their heater system, but there could also be some heat-resistant metals, like tungsten, in the mix. Infrared can also be used in heat lamps for food preservation or to keep animals comfy in cold weather.

Potential Benefits and Drawbacks of Infrared Saunas

Infrared saunas have been purported to have benefits for over 100 years. Initially, the extremely wealthy or even royal figures used infrared saunas or similar devices to relax. Medical and health professionals have touted countless cardiovascular and health-related benefits of infrared sauna use and a small number of studies have reported a handful of slight cardiovascular effects from infrared sauna use. Keep in mind, though, that these effects are no more robust than simply exercising and consuming a healthy diet.

A handful of small studies do suggest that infrared saunas can help lower inflammation and thus reduce soreness following intense training, but this effect is not unique to infrared saunas. Indeed, virtually any type of cryotherapy or thermotherapy can reduce inflammation and lessen the severity of muscle soreness. Moreover, simply sitting out in the warm sun could likely have the same effect since it is also a targeted form of infrared.

Another common claim is that infrared saunas promote detoxification through the infrared wavelengths penetrating your skin and promoting sweating. Indeed, infrared radiation can penetrate the skin, however, I'm not exactly sure what unique detoxification effect this would have since our bodies also emit their own infrared radiation. Furthermore, sweat isn't really the vehicle for removing toxins from our bodies. Sweat's primary purpose is to cool the skin whereas our liver and kidneys are the organs taxed with removing toxins and, for most folks, they do a perfectly fine job.

At this point, you may have noticed that I am not a strong supporter of infrared saunas. However, I will point out that there is probably no harm in using one. An infrared sauna is usually a very relaxing place to be and much more comfortable than a traditional sauna, to boot. If you enjoy the sauna but can't bear to hang out in one for more than five minutes, infrared might be a better option for you. Given that there's quite an up-front cost for owning an infrared sauna—several thousands of dollars for a full sauna—I think you'd be much better off spending your hard-earned cash elsewhere. In the event that you are tempted to purchase sessions at your local spa, your money is likely better used for a massage or even a membership to a yoga studio. Finally, you could also just add more sun tanning days into your schedule, just make sure you're using a sunscreen that blocks the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun

Final Takeaway

Infrared may be a unique type of therapy for potentially relieving some muscle soreness and it may have some positive effects on cardiovascular health. However, these outcomes are not unique to infrared; even walking can relieve muscle soreness and has positive benefits for cardiovascular health. To my knowledge, walking is free—as is hanging out in the warm sun.

If you still want to use infrared as a recovery modality, go for it! But, if you were on the fence about springing for a sauna or sessions at your local spa, I wouldn't encourage you to take that leap. There are a lot of great salespeople and marketing companies touting the benefits of infrared saunas, but the monetary cost may simply outweigh the benefits.

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