Article edited for scientific accuracy by Illuminate Labs Blog Editor Taylor Graber MD
Sauna use is becoming an increasing health trend, and for good reason. Using the sauna has been associated with a host of health benefits in medical studies.
In this article we’ll review some of the proven health benefits of sauna use, and explore whether infrared saunas are healthier than traditional dry saunas.
Proven Benefits of Sauna Use
Reduced Blood Pressure
Saunas have been known traditionally to be beneficial for the cardiovascular system, but it’s only recently we’re seeing these benefits proven in medical research.
One study from Finland tracked men for nearly 25 years and found that those who used the sauna were significantly less likely to develop hypertension, even when other conflicting factors were controlled for like obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption and family history of hypertension.
In 2018 some researchers published a review examining many medical studies on saunas and cardiovascular health. They found that long-term sauna use reduced risk of hypertension, but suggested more research was needed.
The proposed mechanism by which saunas reduce blood pressure is an improvement in endothelial function. The endothelium lines the inside of blood vessels, and its dysfunction is the cause of many chronic diseases.
Using the sauna may help relieve chronic pain, which is one of the most debilitating and increasingly common conditions in the modern world.
A thorough research review assessed clinical trials on saunas for pain management and found that all 7 studies reviewed showed a positive effect. Patients had different types of pain in each study: some with chronic fatigue syndrome, some with rheumatoid arthritis, and others with general chronic pain. In all cases saunas were effective for pain reduction.
The reason saunas were effective for pain wasn’t explored in this review, but we’d suggest it’s due to two things: a hormetic response and the anti-inflammatory effects of sauna use.
Hormesis is the process of biological adaptations to short-term stressors. Humans generally respond favorably to certain short-term stressors like the extreme heat of a sauna. It makes the body more resilient and influences metabolism in a favorable way.
Saunas have also been shown to have a generally anti-inflammatory effect. Since much chronic pain is mediated by long-term inflammation, as we discussed in our Relief Factor review, this would directly benefit chronic pain patients.
Improved Airway Function
There is less research on this topic, but early studies have found sauna use to be effective in improving airway conditions.
One study found that sauna use improved airflow in patients with allergic rhinitis, and another study found similar airway benefits in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) patients. The second study also found that patients had improved exercise tolerance after sauna treatments.
These studies suggest that sauna use may improve lung function, which is impressive since very few treatments (outside of standard exercise) have been found to do so. We hope there’s more research done on this topic in the coming years.
Infrared Sauna Vs. Traditional Sauna
Infrared saunas use novel technology so it’s often assumed by consumers they’re healthier, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
A traditional sauna heats the body by simply heating the room. Most saunas are called “dry saunas” which indicates the room has high heat and low humidity. Steam rooms, often called “wet saunas” have high heat and high humidity. Most saunas at gyms are dry saunas.
Infrared saunas work by using specific wavelengths of light to heat the body directly. The room itself doesn’t heat up.
The main mechanism of action in both infrared and traditional saunas is a beneficial cardiovascular effect in response to significantly increased body temperature. This is the same for both types of saunas, so we can assume neither is likely to be significantly healthier than the other.
The cardio benefits and also the detoxification benefits of significant sweating should be the same for both regular saunas and infrared saunas.
One area where infrared saunas may provide additional health benefits is the exposure to certain wavelengths of light, but research in this field is still emerging. We know from medical studies that far infrared light (FIR) can penetrate the skin up to 1.5 inches, and directly impacts biological processes and cellular signaling.
Most of the studies showing the benefit of red light therapy involve longer wavelengths than that used in saunas. A review of many studies done on red light therapy (which is also called Low Level Light Therapy) found that it was effective for skin improvements as well as some inflammatory conditions, but the wavelengths used were lower than nearly all commercial infrared saunas would use.
Overall we can conclude that there may be some additional health benefits to infrared sauna use over traditional sauna use, but there isn’t currently enough research supporting it to justify the expense just for the secondary health benefits.
Even for consumers considering an infrared sauna for the secondary skin and other health benefits, we would recommend considering red light therapy at lower wavelengths instead, because there’s significantly more research on it and the longer wavelengths can penetrate more deeply into the skin.
Another benefit of regular sauna use is the cost is much more affordable compared to infrared saunas. Many gyms have saunas included, while infrared saunas are usually a specialty treatment with a high cost per trip, or need to be purchased for thousands of dollars.
Sauna Side Effects
Saunas generally have low risks and have been used by humans for thousands of years. There are even medical trials on saunas being used by high-risk populations like those with heart failure (which showed improvements in the patients).
One often neglected side effect of saunas is they can cause negative changes in male fertility parameters like sperm count and motility.
The testicles are extremely sensitive to heat, and exposures to extremely high heat like saunas impact sperm function. These changes are usually reversible, but it may be advisable for men seeking to have children in the near future to avoid saunas.
We also recommend that patients with chronic health conditions speak to their doctors before beginning sauna use. Even though it’s a healthy practice, like exercise, the short-term stress to the body can be a risk factor for those in poor health, and only a doctor can determine if a patient is healthy enough to begin sauna use.
Do Saunas Help You Lose Weight?
Saunas can be effective as a weight loss practice because they increase metabolic rate and calorie burn similar to exercise.
However we believe that some of the unsourced claims online about the potential weight loss are exaggerated. Many sites (most selling saunas or gym memberships) claim you can lose up to 600 calories in a regular sauna session and we haven’t seen any medical data supporting that.
We’d expect the calorie burn to be similar to a moderate-intensity workout, so perhaps 100-200 calories in a regular session but this is just our guess and there haven’t been any studies specifically on this topic.
Saunas have many health benefits and can be a beneficial health practice for both healthy and unhealthy people. We don’t believe based on available research that infrared saunas are better than traditional saunas.
This may change as more research comes out about secondary benefits of light therapy, but most of the benefits seem to come from light devices emitting longer wavelengths of light than those emitted by infrared saunas.
Traditional saunas are significantly more cost-effective, and are what we’d recommend to nearly all consumers.