Healthy Outlook: Sweating it out in an infrared sauna
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
There’s something to be said for working up a good sweat.
After a long workout or hard physical labor, I sometimes feel as though the earned perspiration is stress leaving my body. On a stressed-out whim this week, I decided to go let the infrared sauna at Optimal Wellness and Cryospa, 4931 W. Sixth St., Suite 112, do the work for me.
The biggest difference between how the infrared sauna and a traditional sauna operate is how they heat you. A traditional sauna, with or without steam, makes you sweat by heating the surface of your skin. The infrared sauna, on the other hand, heats you from the inside out. The waves penetrate deep into the body’s tissues and warm you from the core, said Tashina Case, the business’s general manager.
Proponents of infrared saunas — such as Sunlighten, the Overland Park-based company that made the one at Optimal Wellness — claim this deeper heat penetration causes the body to release significantly more toxins through sweat (15-20 percent of measured perspiration) than traditional saunas (3 percent).
Additionally, they claim benefits including lowering blood pressure, aiding weight loss, relieving pain, improving circulation and the body’s healing abilities, and even “natural anti-aging” as it purifies and rejuvenates skin.
Looking into the research behind this, even that which is touted on spas’ and sauna-makers’ websites, doesn’t lead to too many firm conclusions (1). I don’t like to discount anything based on science or lack thereof, though, particularly in this realm. In general, I don’t think western science does a good job exploring how well alternative treatments work. That’s a topic for another day, but my goal here is to share my experience after going into it reasonably skeptical but open-minded.
I can’t promise life- or health-altering results. I can promise, though, that you will sweat buckets. Literally, streams of sweat will pour from places you didn’t even know they could — and it feels surprisingly good. It’s liberating.
The sauna offers several choices of programs that use different types of infrared rays — near, mid and far — with different purposes and durations. Some of those are 30-minute programs, such as pain relief and weight loss; longer programs include 40-minute relaxation and 45-minute cardio.
I went twice to make sure I had a good grasp of the experience and could offer some comparisons and tips. I’m all about intensity, so the cardio, which “starts at a high intensity to increase heart rate and cardiac output then lowers to sustain heart rate level,” according to the program guide, was my pick both times.
The machine fairly quickly heated up to a cozy 130 degrees. For reference, a traditional sauna should generally be heated to at least 150 degrees. But it is dry heat, and sweat just rolls off of you.
The inside of the sauna is softly lit by remote-controlled lights that can be switched to roughly 16 different colors or can strobe or fade through all the colors. A guide inside the sauna lists chromotherapy benefits of several colors; for instance, strong blue light “lubricates joints and articulations. Helps address infections, stress and nervous tension,” according to the guide. Case said that color also helps beat winter blues.
“Those lights really do kind of shift your mood,” she said.
I don’t think I drank enough water before my first session, and my calves felt a bit crampy afterward, so that’s tip No. 1: hydrate very well before, during and after.
I brought along a heart rate monitor on my second visit. It is safe to wear your Fitbit, Apple Watch and so on in the sauna, but I wanted to ensure the most accurate reading. In a 45-minute session, mostly sitting still, I burned 270 calories.
Perhaps the most surprising benefit I noticed after my visits was that my skin was a bit clearer. To me, that signals that it may have helped eliminate some impurities.
I found the sauna to be quite relaxing and mood-boosting. It’s kind of like a mini-vacation sitting in that box, letting your mind wander. It would probably be a nice place to meditate, if that’s up your ally.
Some tips if you go:
• Did I already mention you should drink plenty of water before, during and after? Case said she recommends clients drink at least 8 ounces of water before they arrive, but I’d at least double that. Keep drinking water while you’re in the sauna (just ask for a refill when you need it), and drink at least 24 ounces afterward, Case said.
• At the risk of being too obvious, don’t plan to go about the rest of your day immediately after a sauna visit. You want to plan to go straight home and shower, as washing off should help prevent any toxins you sweat out from being reabsorbed into your skin.
• Wear clothes you don’t plan to wear again before you wash them. You can dry off fairly well when you get out of the sauna, but you still won’t want to wear the same clothes again. I’d suggest wearing clothes you would wear to go exercise.
• You can use your phone if you want to. (Mine held up well, although it wouldn’t let me use flash when I tried to take a few photos for this article. When it felt really hot, I just set it on the floor near the sauna’s opening as a precaution.) The touch screen inside the sauna also offers Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora and several other media options.
• You can walk in for the infrared sauna, but it needs a few minutes to preheat. The most efficient option is to call Optimal Wellness ahead of time at 785-551-7440 or book online at optimalwellnesscryospa.com. First visits are currently $17.50, and subsequent sweat sessions are $35.
(1) In general, studies had sample sizes too small for me to comfortably cite, or their findings weren’t statistically significant; however, a summary of evidence from a July 2009 publication of the College of Family Physicians of Canada did find some benefits to patients with congestive heart failure and high systolic blood pressure.