Saunas have been a standard inclusion at the local gym or health club for a number of years and are ubiquitous in similar forms all over the world. Originating in Finland, the sauna has long been famed for its health benefits in Northern and Eastern Europe, Asia and the Americas.
The modern sauna, however, has changed significantly from the steam-heated cabins of old. Saunas emitting Far Infrared (FIR) light as radiant heat are now known for various health benefits and have become a popular alternative. With repeated exposure to anything electrical however, comes the fear of health risks brought on by Electromagnetic Field (EMF) exposure. This literature review will assess the health benefits and risks of treatments with traditional and FIR saunas. So are saunas good for you?Editors Note: We recently commissioned a writer to conduct a literature review of the published studies on saunas. We must make it clear that Sunlighten do not provide medical advice and you should speak with your health practitioner if you’re unsure a sauna is right for you. The following literature review was independently compiled, and we thought some of you would enjoy reading the findings of academic research in this field.
Many now associate a “detox” as a health-kick to look and feel good after a period of overindulgence. For those who work in environments with health hazards however, cleansing the body of harmful chemicals is almost a necessity. One study conducting a three week program on ten electrical workers, with 5-10 half hour sauna sessions, saw a mean drop of pesticides in adipose tissue of 21.2%.
Another study on 69 police officers in Utah who had exposure to methamphetamine and related chemical compounds were subjected to a 4-6 week treatment of exercise, nutritional supplementation (increasing doses of vitamin B3) and four hours of daily sauna therapy. Significant health improvements were seen after treatment including decreased neurotoxicity levels.
The science behind what makes bathing in a sauna good for the body goes beyond simply “sweating it all out” during detoxification. The cardiovascular system responds to the thermal stress brought on by saunas by increasing the heart rate and peripheral circulation as well as the metabolic rate and O2 consumption. One study found this to be similar to the effect of moderate exercise , making saunas a suitable option for those living in climates with limited opportunity to exercise.
Although an elevated heart-rate presents a health risk for those with a heart condition, saunas have only resulted in sudden death in extremely rare cases. One study found 1.7% of the 6,175 sudden deaths in Finland occurred within 24 hours of taking a sauna. People who have suffered a Myocardial Infarction (MI) should also not be worried. Two studies found participants suffering virtually no adverse side-effects from sitting in a sauna after having an MI, observed over the short and long term.
Saunas have also been shown to beneficial for those with high blood pressure, or hypertension. Among hypertensive men, a 7-8% increase in ventricular ejection fraction was experienced once undertaking sauna therapy as well as a decrease in blood pressure shown in two studies , one with a significant reduction from an average of 166/101 mm Hg to 143/92 mm Hg.
Saunas utilising FIR have been particularly effective for treating congestive heart failure (CHF). During multiple studies on what is known as Waon therapy, two to four weeks of sessions in a 60°C FIR sauna, patients saw a decrease in oxidative stress decreased ventricular arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) and improved vascular endothelial function. The same Japanese research team proved the therapy’s effectiveness on improving the overall prognosis of CHF in a larger study and saw an improvement in cardiac function, exercise tolerance and quality of life (QOL) in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Living with Type II Mellitus Diabetes is often associated with poor health outcomes such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess weight. The improved cardiovascular health seen from FIR sauna therapy then presents an opportunity to better the QOL of those with Type II Diabetes. Two studies saw that FIR saunas are good for lowering blood pressure and waist circumference and improving stress and fatigue levels, making the treatment beneficial for improving QOL in Type II DIabetes patients.
Other Physiological Benefits
Those suffering with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) can have their lifestyle affected significantly. Chronic pain, disrupted sleep, hormonal imbalances, allergies, gastrointestinal complications, neurocognitive problems and extreme weight change are all common symptoms of CFS. Three studies by Japanese researchers found thermal therapy with FIR saunas improved fatigue, sleep and pain as well as their appetite and emotional state and resulted in a higher rate of returning to work (82% in the thermal therapy group vs. 58% in the non-thermal therapy group).
Other conditions associated with chronic pain such as Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) have also been found to be treated with FIR saunas. One study conducting four weeks of eight sessions in a 55°C Infrared sauna saw a reduction in pain of approximately 40% and 60% for patients with RA and approximately 50% and 60% less stiffness for patients with AS. A 12-week therapy combining underwater exercise and sauna therapy on patients with FMS found reductions in pain and symptoms of 31–77%, which remained stable after a six month follow-up period (28–68%).
Electromagnetic Field Exposure
Concerns over exposure to EMF were first raised in 1970’s when early research indicated a statistical association between EMF exposure and some types of cancers and childhood leukaemia. The International Electromagnetic Fields Project was established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1996 to investigate the true health risks of exposure to EMF.
Appliances such as FIR saunas come under the category of Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) electric fields, measured as 0 to 100,000 Hz (100 kHz). Most electric power lines run at 50 or 60 Hz , which presents a risk ratio (RR) of 1.5-2 (tobacco smoking had a RR of more than 10). One piece of research suggested radiant heating appliances such as FIR saunas would also emit frequency levels of around 50-60 Hz.
A Task Group of scientific experts established by WHO in 2005 concluded that there are no substantive health issues related to ELF at levels generally encountered by members of the public. EMF can also be measured as a Gauss. Although the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council recommend no more than 1,000 mG of exposure for members of the public (24 hour exposure) , Sweden has a benchmark of 3 mG. Some earlier models of Infrared Saunas have recorded levels of 25 mG but better technology in today’s FIR saunas have much lower readings of 0.05-1 mG.
Saunas in varying models have been shown to have various health benefits. The overall effect of being subjected to thermal stress can improve cardiovascular health and help treat chronic conditions such as CFS, FMS, RA and AS. Using sauna therapy for detoxification can also be highly effective for improving the QOL of workers subjected to hazardous environmental conditions.
Although there have been shown to me some risks of EMF exposure with FIR saunas, today’s models have recorded safe levels of EMF exposure and pose no health risk; justifying its therapeutic use.
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