For thousands of years, people have been using heat for health benefits.
Sweat lodges, Turkish hammams, and Finnish saunas are just a few of the ways that heat therapy has been adopted worldwide. The benefits of saunas are well-documented.
In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of sauna therapy for a variety of conditions as well as those of adding light therapy to a traditional sauna.
Why Do People Use Saunas?
The health benefits of regular sauna bathing are many. These include weight loss, heart health, and increased blood circulation. Included in these are extended lifespan, healing, and relaxation. Saunas help with stress relief, high blood pressure, detoxification, increased metabolism, improved immune function, better sleep, pain reduction, and even anti-aging.
What you may not know is that adding red light therapy to a traditional Finnish sauna bath can amplify some of the effects and offer added benefits.
The Benefits of Sauna Treatment
Science has confirmed many of the benefits of traditional sauna bathing. These are apparent, whether for traditional Finnish saunas or infrared saunas. Both of these raise core body temperature.
Do Saunas Help with Weight Loss?
There are credible claims that sauna bathing helps with weight loss. One study observed 45 overweight young men to see if repeated sauna bathing would help them lose excess fat.
After four 10-minute sauna sessions with four 5-minute cool-down breaks in between, the men showed a significant reduction in body mass. What’s interesting is that the physiological changes brought on by heat weren’t the same for each sauna treatment. The changes intensified during each successive exposure to extreme heat.
Sauna bathing increases sweating. This can cause loss of body mass, although it’s important to note that much of this loss is due to dehydration and not actual fat loss. So can you actually lose fat while using a sauna? The answer may be ‘yes,’ if you add red light therapy to traditional sauna bathing.
Red and near-infrared light treatments cause fat cells to develop temporary fissures. Lipids leak out through these fissures and are expelled by the body. One study found that 80% of the fat was released from the treated fat cells after just 4 minutes. After 6 minutes, nearly all the fat had been expelled from the fat cells.
How Saunas Improve Heart Health
Regular sauna bathing can promote heart health. The extreme heat of a sauna increases the bioavailability of nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels. Heat also activates heat shock proteins.
High levels of heat shock proteins have several protective effects on cells. According to several studies, heat shock proteins reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Heat shock proteins also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Inflammation has been linked to the development of heart disease, so this treatment for inflammation may be a significant contributor to heart health.
This suggests that regular sauna therapy may protect cells against oxidative stress which has been linked to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Sauna therapy also improves ventricular arrhythmias (chaotic/rapid heartbeat) in patients with chronic heart failure. It also reduces inflammation and promotes short-term improvement in cardiovascular function.
Adding red light therapy to a traditional sauna can offer additional heart health benefits. As is the case with traditional saunas, red light promotes nitric oxide increase to promote better blood circulation.
Red light therapy can also improve the production of cellular energy called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. The increase in ATP production leads to enhanced cardiac function by boosting the performance of the cells that make up the heart and cardiovascular system.
Blood Pressure and Hypertension
The increase in nitric oxide is linked to lower blood pressure, which means that repeated sauna treatment could be beneficial for people with high blood pressure.
Adding red light therapy to sauna bathing can restore cell function so that blood vessels are better able to dilate and contract properly, as found in a study on the effects of diabetes on circulation. Red light can be used to not only improve blood flow but even slow down the development of age-related cardiovascular disease.
The Impact of Saunas on Lifespan
Anecdotal evidence shows that frequent sauna use can increase lifespan. While there are no studies confirming increased lifespan after using traditional saunas, it stands to reason that the known benefits of saunas are beneficial for cardiovascular health, which reduces the risk of premature death due to cardiovascular diseases.
A 20-year study published in JAMA Internal Medicine followed male Finnish sauna users and found that men with the longest lifespans and lowest risk of cardiovascular disease used saunas 4-7 times weekly. Increased blood flow, reduced blood pressure, and increased heart rate during sauna bathing are equivalent to low-to-moderate intensity exercise and better cardiovascular health.
The effect of far-infrared saunas on physical frailty also shows positive results. One study observed elderly Japanese women with physical frailty. After twice-weekly far-infrared sauna treatments for 3 months, study participants experienced significant improvements in health-related quality of life including moods, walking speed, and oxygen uptake.
Sauna bathing can benefit cardiometabolic diseases (CMD) which are common in high-stress occupations. CMD is characterized by low-grade inflammation that leads to hypertension, insulin resistance, atherosclerosis, and obesity. Regular sauna therapy has physiological benefits at the cellular level, and these benefits are observable after a single sauna treatment.
Red light therapy boosts cellular performance, which has a positive ripple effect on not only the area of the body treated with light, but other areas as well. For example, improving gut health using red light therapy can have direct and indirect benefits to the entire body.
How Saunas Contribute to Healing and Recovery
Heat shock proteins help accelerate healing, say the authors of a study that observed their effects on diabetic wounds. Heat shock proteins have several important healing functions. They support protein synthesis and proper protein conformation, repair damaged proteins, and reduce inflammation.
Heat shock proteins also reduce oxidative stress to support cellular survival. This has been observed in diabetics, where oxidative stress is widespread in the body.
The extreme heat of a sauna, whether it’s a traditional sauna or a far-infrared sauna, increases circulation to bring oxygen and nutrients to the injury site for faster healing.
Adding red light therapy to a regular Finnish sauna bath can also help accelerate healing by lowering inflammation and increasing circulation. This also increases collagen synthesis for better wound healing and scar reduction by increasing ATP production.
Saunas and Athletic Performance
Saunas were popularized in the 1930s by Finnish Olympic athletes. Since then, many athletes have used sauna treatments to accelerate athletic recovery. One study found that repeated heat exposure can increase an athlete’s capacity for prolonged exercise. This was confirmed by another study that showed saunas help athletes prepare for athletic competition in desert conditions by improving athletes’ tolerance to heat.
Regular sauna bathing increased male runners’ time-to-exhaustion by 32 percent and increased their plasma and red blood cell volume.
Fast muscle recovery after intense exercise improves athletic performance. Both traditional and infrared saunas promote the healing of the microscopic tears in muscle fibers that occur during exercise. One study observed ten healthy men who participated in alternating strength training and endurance training sessions followed by a 30-minute far infrared sauna therapy session. Deep-penetrating infrared heat supported muscle recovery from maximal endurance training.
Adding red light therapy to a traditional Finnish sauna increases collagen synthesis, which enhances muscle recovery by rebuilding muscle and athletic performance by building muscle mass.
Using red light therapy before knee exercises resulted in measurable gains in knee extensor muscle thickness as well as peak power. Red light therapy also helps prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for faster return-to-play after intense workouts.
Exposing the human body to heat and intensive exercises is known to stimulate development of more sweat glands and promotes them growing larger in size. Improve your physical capacity by adding PlatinumLEDs photobiomodulation lights to your sauna or exercise routine and train your sweat glands to achieve more efficient thermoregulation so your body can not only survive but thrive!
Functional Medicine Doctor of Physical Therapy, Dr. Alayna Newton, PT, DPT, FAFS
Relaxation and Stress Relief
Many people use saunas for relaxation and stress relief. Sauna bathing may treat major depressive disorder (MDD) which can be brought on by prolonged stress. After just two consecutive minutes of elevated core temperatures, participants experienced better moods and reduced depression symptoms.
Adding light therapy to traditional sauna bathing can reduce stress and depression. In the above study, 10 patients with major depression including PTSD and anxiety received four 4-minute red light therapy treatments. This resulted in mood improvements in 6 out of 10 patients.
Using Saunas for Detox
Sweating in a sauna is one way to eliminate toxins, including heavy metals. Interestingly, women discharge toxic elements through sweat better than men do. Both traditional Finnish saunas and far-infrared saunas help users achieve profuse sweating.
Regular sauna bathing can also improve skin health. Sauna users experience better skin barrier function, skin hydration, and faster recovery of water loss.
Adding red light therapy to regular dry sauna bathing can also promote detoxification by stimulating the formation of endothelial cells which make up the walls of lymph vessels.
Stronger Immune System
Heat stress increases the activity of monocytes, which are a type of white blood cell. These cells help remove dead and damaged tissues, break down bacteria, and promote angiogenesis. This is the formation of new blood vessels.
A single sauna session can increase white blood cell counts according to a study that observed 9 non-athletes and 9 runners. Both groups received a 15-minute sauna treatment which raised their core temperatures by 1.2 degrees C and increased white blood cell counts, particularly in the athletes.
Adding red light therapy to a sauna session can also stimulate stem cells which are part of the body’s repair mechanism. Stem cells can become specialized cells to help repair tissues damaged by disease.
Chronic Pain Relief
Patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced less pain, stiffness, and fatigue after eight infrared sauna treatments over four weeks.
22 patients with chronic pain reported less pain and better moods after repeated infrared sauna bathing once a day for four weeks.
Adding red light therapy to a sauna treatment can further support pain management by reducing inflammation, promoting blood flow, and accelerating healing. Red light also has analgesic effect which can reduce pain perception.
Sauna treatments may reduce the risk of respiratory disorders including asthma, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
One of the hallmarks of red light therapy is its ability to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is implicated as a major cause of asthma and other chronic respiratory disorders.
Heat therapy increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor ( BDNF) which is associated with neuronal regeneration and better cognitive function.
Red light therapy has been used to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI), common in athletes, by healing and protecting injured brain tissue. The subject of this study, a professional hockey player, had suffered several concussions. 8 weeks of red light therapy significantly reduced headaches and improved his cognitive scores including memory, attention, executive function, and processing speed.
Sauna Treatment Tips
You can experience the benefits of a sauna with either a traditional Finnish sauna or an infrared sauna. Saunas can be used several times a week. If you’re new to sauna treatments, it helps to start slowly with lower heat settings, short sauna sessions, and a thorough cool-down afterward. Be sure to hydrate well before, during, and after the treatment.
Consult your doctor before sauna bathing if you have any chronic conditions or if you are pregnant.
Red Light Therapy and Sauna Treatment: The SaunaMAX PRO
We have discussed how adding red light therapy to a traditional Finnish sauna can provide added support to your health.
How does using red and near-infrared light differ from an infrared sauna session? Red light therapy uses red and near-infrared light, which doesn't generate heat but supports health through an interaction of light photons and cells. You can use red light therapy to amplify and add benefits to traditional Finnish saunas.
Only one red light therapy device is rated for use in a sauna: the PlatinumLED Therapy Lights SaunaMAX PRO. This device features a combination of red, near-infrared, and blue wavelengths for comprehensive benefits on the skin’s surface and deep into the body.
Red light therapy can be a fantastic complement to regular traditional Finnish sauna bathing, and you can even use it whenever you don’t feel like taking a sauna.