Infrared sounds like a technical term, but you’re already familiar with it: it’s heat.
Different types of infrared light have various healing effects, and that’s why the best saunas now use infrared. Modern infrared saunas are engineered to interact with your body in specific ways.
Read on to learn how infrared light works, why it’s beneficial for your health, and how to select and use an infrared sauna.
Infrared (IR) saunas use infrared bulbs, also called heat lamps, to heat users within an enclosed area.
Unlike traditional saunas, which use heated rocks to warm up the room, IR bulbs heat your body directly because they emit infrared light. As a result, IR saunas are usually cooler (100-150°F) than traditional saunas (which are around 200°F).
Infrared light is mostly invisible to the human eye, but you can perceive it in the form of heat.
Most saunas use IR bulbs between about 700 nanometers and 3000 nanometers, which have different effects[*]:
- Near-infrared (NIR, 700-1400 nanometers), which is also found in natural sunlight, is easily absorbed by water in your body, but still affects your epidermis (skin) and your cells.
- Mid-infrared (MIR, 1400-3000 nanometers) penetrates more deeply, increasing blood flow and causing you to sweat more.
- Far-infrared (FIR, over 3000 nanometers) is the most effective at raising your core temperature.
As you can see, your goals will dictate the best type of infrared light depending on the health benefits you want to achieve.
Practically speaking, the way that IR saunas work is by converting electrical energy into infrared light, a form of heat radiation.
Unlike other types of sauna, infrared saunas can precisely deliver NIR, MIR, FIR, or a blend of the three. Some infrared saunas use LED bulbs to do this, while others use incandescent bulbs with a filament.
The healing principles behind infrared saunas are based on some fascinating biology and evolutionary history.
Natural sunlight at the earth’s surface is nearly 50% non-visible infrared light, which is known to have biological effects in humans and other animals[*]. Most people don’t get much sunlight on their naked bodies, so it makes perfect sense that adding more IR light to your life has health benefits.
Fires made from wood also release infrared light, including mid- and far-infrared[*]. Scientists think that human ancestors first used fire over a million years ago, so that’s a long history of looking at, and sitting near, IR light[*].
If you’ve ever spent a relaxing evening next to a campfire, what you experienced most likely had a biological and physical basis.
#1: Increased Calorie Burn and Weight Loss
When you sweat in a sauna, your blood flow increases and you burn more calories. One name for this effect is a “passive aerobic workout.”
According to an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association, sweating can increase your calorie burn by 300-800 calories over 30 minutes in a sauna[*].
And while some researchers have questioned that figure, another study shows that heat exposure in a sauna can increase your resting metabolic rate by a full 33%[*].
#2: Detoxification and Sweating
Infrared light also creates exclusion zone (EZ) water inside your cells[*]. First discovered by Dr. Gerald Pollack, EZ water is a gel-like form of water with a negative charge that can provide your cells with energy.
EZ water formation is a powerful detox mechanism–it pushes any particle or solute larger than a (very small) hydrogen ion out of your cells, where you can then sweat it out[*].
#3: Relief from Pain and Arthritis
These healing benefits occur because IR light improves cellular metabolism, increases circulation, allows your muscles to relax, and helps carry off waste products.
#4: More Nitric Oxide
When it comes to infrared saunas, nitric oxide has nothing to do with Vin Diesel movies and everything to do with some amazing health benefits.
Increasing your exposure to IR light boosts your nitric oxide levels[*]. In your body, nitric oxide acts as both a vasodilator and a trigger for the creation and release of neurotransmitters.
#5: Greater ATP Production
This health benefit is astounding but slightly complex, so put on your nerd glasses for a moment and study up.
Most of the cells in your body have mitochondria, which are responsible for producing energy in your body. They create ATP (an energy storage molecule) using food and the oxygen you breathe.
ATP has a lot of electrons in its molecular structure, which power your body. When you need energy, your body breaks down ATP to release electrons.
Your mitochondria have an energy-absorbing pigment called Cytochrome C Oxidase (CCO), also called Subunit 4. Can you guess what type of energy CCO absorbs?
That’s right, it absorbs infrared light. And when it does, it increases the amount of ATP you produce…without requiring food or calories[*].
As a result, when you expose your body to infrared light, you gain “free” energy that can drive cellular processes.
This remarkable effect explains many of the healing benefits of infrared light. When you supply more energy to specific areas of your body, especially injured or inflamed tissue, those cells gain the ability to heal themselves.
#6: Injury Healing
When you apply the ATP-boosting effects of infrared light under practical conditions, the result is faster healing, or healing of long-lasting injuries.
Near-infrared light boosts ATP production in bone cells, which may lead to faster healing of broken bones[*]
NIR is also the most effective wavelength for healing skin abrasions[*].
Infrared light can even heal your retina, prevent cell death in your eyes, and may help protect you against macular degeneration and other vision disorders[*].
#7: Brain Healing
When it’s powerful enough to penetrate the skull, infrared light can accelerate brain healing[*].
This therapy is also promising for depression, anxiety, and PTSD[*].
NIR can even help preserve neurons in your brain, which researchers think could slow or halt Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease[*].
#8: Skin Benefits
Not surprisingly, infrared sauna therapy is great for your skin.
Sweating alone can help clear up your skin[*].
#9: Better Recovery and Athletic Performance
Because infrared light can heal, regenerate, and stimulate damaged tissue, it can increase athletic performance.
Athletes can use IR light before or after exercise to enhance their performance and recovery[*].
According to data from over a thousand athletes, near-infrared light can increase muscle mass gained after strength training, as well as decrease muscle stress and inflammation[*].
If you’ve never used an infrared sauna before, start slowly. Most manufacturers agree that ten minutes is the minimum length for health benefits, but if you experience nausea, dizziness, or other symptoms, you can start with less.
Once you become accustomed to the heat, you should aim for 15-30 minutes daily in an infrared sauna. It’s fine to do more than one session per day, as long as you stay hydrated and pay attention to how you feel.
Chances are a spa, gym, or clinic near you has an infrared sauna you can use. Be sure to ask exactly which type of infrared sauna it is.
According to research, near-infrared offers the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to health, but mid- and far-infrared also have unique properties.
If you’re looking to buy an IR sauna for home use, Sunlighten saunas are full-spectrum saunas. That means they offer NIR, MIR, and FIR wavelengths, so you can get all the benefits of infrared light simultaneously.
Don’t have access to an infrared sauna? A traditional sauna will still give you a healthy dose of far-infrared radiation and some of the benefits of an IR sauna–like a faster metabolism, detoxification, and clearer skin.
You should consider a sauna if you want to:
- Burn more calories
- Decrease pain, inflammation, and swelling
- Heal faster
- Improve your cognition or recover from a brain injury
- Have clearer skin
- Recover quicker and enhance your athletic performance
Basically, infrared saunas offer something for everyone.
However, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first, especially if you take prescription medication, are ill, have health issues, or haven’t had a physical recently.
And don’t use the sauna if you’ve had alcohol, taken drugs (including stimulants), or are dehydrated.