Mens sana in corpore sanoAccording to the North American Sauna Society, saunas are on an upward trend. Sauna Society President Eero Kilpi estimates that half of saunas in the United States are infrared saunas. Far from a new technology—infrared therapy has been studied since the early 1980s—they are among the easiest, yet most complete treatments for guests to experience at spas. They get to sit and relax, perhaps read or listen to music while the light turned heat penetrates deep into the skin and soothes bones and muscles, improves blood flow, burns fat and promotes mental health—all while inducing healthy, detoxifying sweat. Infrared saunas can also turn out to be the perfect complement to any facial or body care to prepare the skin right before a treatment.
Sauna experts suggest on average that new sauna users should start with a 20 to 30 min session a week, and slowly increase to biweekly sessions before treating themselves to a full hour. At the Sweat Shop in Los Angeles, CA, bathers are advised to use the infrared sauna for an average of 40 min and use the rest of their 1 hr booking to shower and relax.
OriginsThe Finnish are often credited for spreading the 2,000 year-old tradition that consists of warming up the air of an enclosed space, which mixture of steam and heat bring the “bathers” to sweat profusely (the word “sauna” means “bathhouse” in Finnish). The practice, found in many other cultures—ancient Rome and its Roman bathhouses, Turkey and its hammams, Central America and its temazcales, North America and its sweat lodges, Japan and its mushi buros, Russia and its banyas—has undeniable benefits. First and foremost, sweating allows the body to rid itself of toxins. Research has shown that saunas not only help the body detox, but can alleviate certain ailments as well. It is also good for the heart, just like a nice jog would be. Saunas are also effective for mild depression and fatigue—in other words, they soothe the body and mind.
Yet conventional saunas also put the body under very high temperatures of 160 °F and more. While some enjoy the extreme heat, for others these temperatures are uncomfortable, unbearable or simply contraindicated. People with certain medical conditions, such as those who have suffered a heart attack, have chest pains, high blood pressure or severe asthma should refrain from indulging in sweat therapy. While infrared saunas are much safer, clients who have known health predicaments should consult with their doctors first, and pregnant women should abstain from their use. Sauna experts suggest on average that new sauna users should start with a 20 to 30 min session a week, and slowly increase to biweekly sessions before treating themselves to a full hour. At the Sweat Shop in Los Angeles, CA, bathers are advised to use the infrared sauna for an average of 40 min and use the rest of their 1 hr booking to shower and relax.
Heat from withinInfrared saunas combine the benefits of traditional saunas and those of infrared therapy. Infrared (“below red”) is a naturally occurring light invisible to the naked eye that emits energy and heat, and that has been shown to have great healing properties. Rather than heating up the air like an oven, infrared saunas warm the person inside out as the infrared energy penetrates the skin, affects it at the cellular level, and creates sweating conditions similar to that of a conventional sauna, but at much lower and tolerable temperatures, mostly below 120 °F.
Far and nearInfrared saunas are at times divided into the different categories of infrared there are—infrared is typically broken down into near, mid and far, but the ranges can vary (our bodies fall within the mid infrared division, thus the ancient tradition of palm healing relies on the principle of infrared heat). Infrared saunas at spas generally fall within the far infrared range, which means that the infrared heat comes from ceramic or carbon panels, or the near infrared range, where the energy is transmitted from infrared heat lamps (some spas feature full spectrum—near, mid and far—infrared saunas). Studies on the effects of both near and far infrared saunas have shown numerous benefits. Indeed the enclosure of the sauna and the healing properties of infrared therapy can be a powerful combo.
Benefits of infrared saunasSweating: Infrared saunas produce sweating similar to that of a typical sauna, which allows for toxins and other unhealthy chemicals to be expelled from the body.
Heart: Studies have shown that infrared saunas benefited patients with congestive heart failure.
Skin: The infrared wavelengths penetrate the tissues, help heal the different layers of the skin and improve skin tone, so the skin is purified and rejuvenated.
Blood circulation: Infrared therapy has been shown to stimulate blood flow, bring oxygen to the body’s cells and increase muscle recovery.
Pain relief: Studies have shown that exposure to infrared lights has a soothing effect. They relieve bone and muscle aches, improve joint stiffness (arthritis symptoms were ameliorated) and also act as a calming agent.
Endorphin stimulation: Otherwise known as happy hormones! An infrared sauna session triggers the release of endorphins, which helps the client feel reinvigorated, thus fighting mental fatigue and depression.
Weight loss: Infrared saunas can help the body get rid of fat. The heart rate increases and the body burns some extra calories.
The vast array of literature on infrared saunas can be confusing because there is some disagreement as to the levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF) the panels used in far infrared saunas emit (near infrared saunas have very low EMF levels), and whether these are a health hazard. EMFs influence the body and can create biological stress. Studies have shown that EMF exposure of more than 3 mG (milligauss is the unit to measure magnetic fields) already shows signs of biological influence, but the evidence can at times be weak, and EMF exposure remains an open question. In addition, our bodies are “bombarded” daily with electric fields of varying frequencies, from our cellphones to our computers, hair dryers, microwaves, power lines, radars and more, all of which are well above 3 mG.
Some spas, such as The Sweat Shop in Los Angeles, choose to advertise their EMF levels to assuage their clients. The EMF levels of their infrared heaters, says the company, are “virtually undetectable.” Other facilities, such as Balanced Health and Fitness in Santa Cruz, CA, feature near infrared saunas, where infrared lamps are favored. While most saunas are enclosed spaces with benches for clients to sit on, at Balanced Health and Fitness, clients get to lie down on the infrared sauna bed.
“I’m definitely a strong proponent of thermotherapy in whichever mode it comes,” said Kilpi of the Sauna Society. But the sauna aficionado believes that the infrared sauna session should be more than sitting and sweating while waiting for the timer to chime. Going to a sauna, Kilpi argues, is a whole mind and body experience. Clients should have access to a shower and a restful private area to retreat to at intervals at their discretion, where perhaps they can indulge in a fresh drink, before reentering the sauna. Ideally, says Kilpi, guests should have access to the outdoors to breathe in some fresh air and truly enjoy their experience to the fullest. Infrared sauna owners wishing to incorporate more of an “authentic” experience into their menu could accommodate a space for their clients by the sauna’s entrance with chairs and magazines, and perhaps a diverse array of beverages. Of course, Kilpi dreams of bringing back the leisure and pleasure that conventional saunas represented in distant times. But in our fast paced world, time is of the essence, and infrared saunas are a great way to enjoy the perks of sweat and light therapy all in one sitting.
And so it is that Herschel, the German astronomer, continues to bring “music” to people’s ears.