Q: How do infrared saunas differ from regular saunas, and do infrared saunas have special health benefits?
A: Traditional saunas use a wood stove or electric heater to heat the air, which indirectly heats the body. In contrast, infrared saunas use radiant heat (energy beyond the wavelength of visible light) to heat the body directly. Infrared heat penetrates more deeply than warm air, and it allows you to sweat in a lower, more comfortable room temperature, compared to a conventional sauna. But are there health benefits associated with infrared saunas?
An increasing number of spas and health clubs offer infrared saunas. Home models cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.
Many claims are made for saunas in generalthat they remove toxins, cure disease, boost immunity, help in weight losswith little if any scientific support. Advocates of infrared saunas claim even greater effects in reducing pain, stress, fatigue, blood pressure and cholesterol, among other benefits.
A 2009 review in the Canadian Family Physician concluded that there is "fair evidence" (based on one study) for the use of infrared sauna in chronic pain; "inconsistent data" that it helps weight loss or blood sugar control; and "no evidence”"that it reduces cholesterol. The best evidencethough still very preliminaryis for its use in congestive heart failure and for lowering blood pressure. But it’s hard to do double-blind controlled studies of any sauna treatment, so a placebo effect can't be ruled out.
If you like it, a sauna may help you relax, both physically and mentallybut it is certainly not your lazy way to perfect health," as one website advertises. It’s safe for healthy people, but if you are pregnant or have a heart or circulatory problemespecially unstable angina or a recent heart attacktalk to your doctor first. You should not use any sauna if have a fever, have been drinking alcohol or are prone to fainting.
By the way, there's no evidence that saunas "detoxify" the body. The function of sweating is to cool the body, while the kidneys and liver eliminate toxins. And don't believe claims that using a sauna is the equivalent of engaging in aerobic exercise because it raises your heart rate.