Whether you prefer traditional, Scandinavian-style dry heat or infrared, your stress will melt away in the sauna.
In Native American sweat lodges around the U.S., and in Scandinavian saunas and Siberian banyas far across the ocean, our ancestors knew that something about high heat in an enclosed space was extremely healing.
For centuries, any serious spa offered the dry heat of a sauna in which to sweat, detox and rejuvenate. Just the hiss of water hitting hot rocks alone could stimulate a relaxation response. Now, traditional saunas have been joined by another option as many spas have added, or switched to, infrared saunas.
Both types have their fan base—and some of us love them equally well. Each one will work when you want your pores to open up and sweat out stress and toxins.
The infrared sauna works a little differently, though, as we first learned on a visit to the Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary on Koh Samui, in Thailand. The heat of an infrared sauna is deeply penetrating, but you don’t immediately feel it, because it’s the inside of your body that is heating up, while the air temperature surrounding you can still be as “low” as 90 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a traditional sauna, the temperature would range between 150 and 190, and if you haven’t been in one for a while, you can—and should—only stay for five or 10 minutes initially, to build up your tolerance.
With the infrared sauna, the internal heating of your body isn’t as immediately intense. Yet it has been shown to stimulate circulation at a greater level than the traditional sauna, because the near-infrared light waves penetrate more deeply inside the body. This is said to happen because the water molecules in our body—and water makes up 70 percent of our physical being—begin to vibrate.
The result of this interior heat is an increased metabolism and calorie burn (your core body temperature can rise three degrees in 30 minutes, which could mean burning an extra few hundred calories), and the promotion of a detox effect. It can also help cardiovascular conditioning, assist with relief from certain kinds of chronic pain (especially in muscles and joints) and make skin look luminous. Those with skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis have found these types of saunas exceptionally healing.
Many who have tried infrared simply enjoy the practical aspect—they can read, listen to music or meditate, without being distracted by extreme sweating.
The other aspect of infrared saunas that is appealing is that their efficient size means they can fairly easily be purchased and placed in a spot in your home, starting at less than $2,000. The cabinets are attractively designed in woods such as cedar, hemlock or a combination of both.
If the word “infrared” frightens you, you may want to know that this is the kind of heat that babies get in incubators. Also, organizations such as NASA and the American College of Cardiology have given their thumbs up to infrared saunas.
Research shows they are an excellent aid for people who suffer from ailments associated with poor circulation and fatigue, says Sang Lee, Director at PLH Products, Inc., a Californian firm that includes Health Mate, an environmentally conscious company focusing exclusively on infrared saunas.
“But it’s not just a new trend or a quick-fix, like so many other health products out there,” Lee says. Owning one, or using one regularly, “is an investment in your health.”
During the first few weeks of infrared sauna use, you should do no more than three sessions a week. After six weeks, you can do daily sessions. It’s best not to immediately jump in the shower afterward, as you want your body to stay in the heated state for a while.
But if you like the feel of intense heat—and the almost immediate perspiration it triggers—you may continue to prefer the traditional sauna. Mark Raisanen’s heritage is Finnish—the word “sauna”’s linguistic namesake—and he is the national sales manager for the firm Saunatec, Inc., a company founded in Finland in 1919. While his wife prefers infrared saunas unless she has a cold, he likes the traditional style.
“Anyone with clogged sinuses, a head cold, or other nasal and respiratory issues often finds relief with the traditional sauna by adding water to the rocks and creating steam,” he says. “They often will add eucalyptus to the water, too.” And it isn’t just that you feel better: Inhaling the super-high heat in a standard sauna can kill cold and flu viruses.
So choose the sauna you prefer—or choose both. Your body and soul will benefit.