I WAS ADVISED to try an infrared sauna by a physical therapist/personal trainer, who told me I hadn’t completely “de-toxed” from the Lyme disease I had six years ago. The theory goes that while antibiotics kill off the Lyme-causing spirochetes, endotoxins released by the bugs remain. Although I was unconvinced about the need or effectiveness of being “de-toxed,” going to a sauna seemed like a small and possibly enjoyable effort to make.
Elevated body temperatures created by infrared saunas — used for many health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and Type 2 diabetes — have shown “some evidence of benefit [although] larger and more rigorous studies are needed,” according to the Mayo Clinic website. Infrared saunas are popular in Japan, called “Waon therapy,” used mostly to treat chronic heart failure.
The “most far-reaching assertions for this technology center on detoxification,” according to a Scientific American article — but the article goes on to quote USC M.D. Roger Clemens’s assertion that “the most efficient system” for detox is the kidneys, liver, GI tract and the immune system: “Except when one of the major organs breaks down, there isn’t a medical device…that can accelerate the body’s natural process of detoxification.”
Conventional saunas use heat to warm the air, up to between 150 and 185 degrees F — with a maximum 194 degrees allowed at ceiling level; both the heated air and the heat concentrated in piles of rocks warm your body. By contrast, infrared saunas use light waves from the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum to create heat without heating the surrounding air – compared to feeling the sun’s warmth on a cold day. (“Sunshine” refers to light plus heat, and “sunlight,” to the light alone.)
The goals of all saunas — sweating and increased heart rate similar to that created by moderate exercise — can be reached at lower temperatures in infrared saunas, making them preferable for people who can’t tolerate the high heat of conventional saunas.
Compared to these, some estimates have infrared saunas inducing two to three times the sweat volume, as much as 500 grams, and consuming around 300 calories, which is equivalent to running several miles. Supporters claim that the toxin content of sweat from infrared saunas is as high as 15 percent, versus less than 1 percent while sweating as a result of exercise. Also, sweat produced during exercise is ineffective for de-toxing, which requires you to be in a state of calm, rest or sleep — under the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The infrared sauna I was advised to try was “far infrared” or FIR*. While some believe that FIR saunas emit more harmful waves than plain infrared saunas, FIR supporters contend that their thermal effects penetrate deeper into the tissues, causing blood vessels and capillaries to dilate more and leading to better circulation and better evacuation of body toxins and metabolic wastes via sweat.
Because I couldn’t locate a far infrared sauna in the DC area, I opted for plain infrared and chose one at Tulsi Holistic Living – Natural Health Center on MacArthur Boulevard. Entering Tulsi, I descended from the noisy street into a newly renovated space with calming shades of green and hushed voices. Before the sauna, I had a (required) 5-10 minute consultation with a Tulsi “holistic practitioner” to check out my health issues.
At Tulsi, one can also have a full “Detoxification Consultation,” a thorough exam leading to the creation of a “customized protocol” that can include diet, bodywork and lifestyle recommendations. The “Detoxification Massage Treatment” includes Swedish/lymphatic massage as well as “dry brushing” treatment with a soft brush to stimulate the skin, and “castor oil treatment” – not consumed but placed on the skin.
The general advice on infrared saunas calls for one or two a week in four-to-15-minute sessions to avoid mobilizing too many toxins at once. Among the local options I found, however, 45 minutes was the minimum — at Tulsi costing $65.
After stripping down to a bathing suit (brought by me), I entered the sauna, the size of a large phone booth, located in the back of a larger room. The staff member who interviewed me called in several times during the sauna to make sure I was okay.
My main impression: very hot! While infrared saunas can go as high as 145 degrees F., I was unable to go much above 125 without opening the door and fanning in cooler air. The drawbacks: trying to get comfortable for 45 minutes on a hard seat that was too short for lying down; and no shower available afterwards. Compared to a traditional sauna, I sweated less and thus felt less “cleansed.”
Infrared light therapy can also be obtained using a Biomat, a body-length pad that produces infrared light via amethyst crystals and sounds more comfortable. At The George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine, Biomat therapy can be covered by insurance as part of a physical therapy course or pain clinic treatment.
Unfortunately, as with most of the well-being options I’ve sampled, health benefits require more than one shot. Also, it surely helps to start off with serious health complaints. As I have written about other well-being options such as acupuncture, I’m glad these are available in the event of future health issues too subtle for traditional MDs to diagnose or treat. For now, my local well-being to-do list is still pretty long.
*Within the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, “far” infrared waves are longer, closer to the length of microwaves, whereas “near” are closer to those of visible light.
— Mary Carpenter
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series that samples local healthy-body experiences, including integrative health, acupuncture, yoga therapy and flotation tanks – most of which claim to aid in de-tox. Suggestions are welcome.