December 8, 2022
April 25, 2022
The Scientific Answer To This Question
*Disclaimer: The written article is based on a summary of existing literature on the topic of infrared saunas. The article is for educational purposes and the information provided below cannot be taken as a promise to help with acute health problems or diseases.
The claims in the article are backed by 13 scientific references. All references are numbered. You can access the text of the reference by clicking on the number.
As the founder and CEO of Clearlight Infrared® Saunas, I’m often asked the question “how does sauna affect brain performance and health?” The answer to that question is complicated so I decided to write a blog post on the topic. First of all, to give you a clue, sauna heat does affect the brain but the way it does differs whether you’re using a traditional sauna such as a Finnish sauna or a (full-spectrum) infrared sauna.
So here’s the setup of the argument of what I'm trying to accomplish:
In this blog post, I’ll first talk about how sauna heat affects the brain. I then consider how this concept relates to the different types of saunas - different saunas affect the brain differently. Finally, I’ll show you how you can use a sauna for your brain most optimally by adding red light therapy to your routine.
In the last two decades, many studies have been carried out studying extremely high sauna temperatures and their effect on general and brain health (1; 2; 3; 4). The main finding of these studies is that your brain is the weakest link in the chain in increasing what is called your “core body temperature”.
“Core body temperature” is the temperature that is measured at your torso. Your head and your brain is the bodily area that first “gives up” when trying to increase that core body temperature as much as possible. Overheating your head leads to classical heat intolerance symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, lethargy, disorientation, and nausea. You’ll want to avoid these symptoms if possible while still increasing your body’s temperature.
In the studies I cited above, increasing the core body temperature to a maximum extent allowed participants to counter their clinical depression in just one session. The key to reaching that very high body temperature was to prevent the brain from being heated up in the first place.
In the study setup, the core and extremities of the participants were treated with very high levels of infrared light. The participants’ head, however, is continually cooled down by cold and wet towels, so that the brain's temperature stays low. Why? Well, water conducts heat more effectively than air, and hence, the wet towels allow study participants to keep the temperature of their heads cool.
A simple analogy to understand this principle is to consider how the human body responds to sunlight, specifically high levels of ultraviolet light. The skin around the human skull is thin and easily gets sunburned, which is why surfers and other people who spend lots of time around the water preferably use sunscreen on this bodily area compared to the rest of the body.
Hat-wearing was invented for the same purpose…
Why does cooling down the head matter? Well, avoiding very high temperatures of your brain can be an advantage that maximises the health benefits you get from sauna visits. These benefits include mood improvements and countering a (clinical) depression, as well as many other sauna benefits.
So, how to implement that principle? Let’s find out:
Different saunas use different ways to heat up your body. Finnish saunas, for instance, can reach maximum temperatures of up to 110-120 degrees Celsius.
Full-spectrum and far infrared saunas, however, only reach maximum temperatures of 50-60 degrees Celsius (5; 6; 7; 8).
Now, the heating mechanism of both of these sauna types is also very different. Traditional saunas like Finnish saunas and steam rooms heat up the air or increase humidity to make the environment feel very warm to your body.
Different types of infrared saunas, on the other hand, use several types of infrared light for heating. Rather than heating up the air, the infrared light is emitted by different types of panels - such as ceramic and carbon heaters. And instead of heating up the air around you, that infrared light enters your body. Penetration depths of that light vary from several millimetres to several inches (9; 10; 11; 12; 13). That light is then taken up into your cells, bloodstream, and other tissues.
Infrared light thus heats up your body "from the inside out". Traditional saunas heat up your skin instead, and that heat is transferred from your skin into deeper tissues of your body.
Now here’s the deal:
A well-designed infrared sauna doesn’t directly heat your head and therefore brain. On the contrary, at Clearlight Infrared® Saunas we’ve specifically designed our saunas so that only your core and extremities are targeted, never your skull.
The end result is that you’re not directly heating up your brain with an infrared sauna. With a traditional sauna, however, the temperature is spread around across the entire room and therefore uniformly heats up your body. Hence, the traditional sauna model doesn’t adequately take into account that weakest link I’ve talked about in the previous section.
Now, there’s more to the story though and you might ask the following questions:
“But Johannes, the temperatures inside a traditional sauna can be 50-60 degrees higher than their infrared counterparts, so aren’t these superior anyway despite the slight downside of heating up your brain? Doesn’t the core body temperature get higher in a traditional sauna?”
The answer is “no”...
In fact, infrared saunas are superior for maximally increasing your core body temperature up to a whopping 43 degrees Celsius. That threshold is reached despite the fact that the air temperature stays relatively low inside an infrared sauna.
The benefit of that lower air temperature is that you’ll get a very gentle experience. The experience is gentle because you’re not exposing your skin to potentially painful air temperatures. And, also, to reiterate, well-designed infrared saunas don’t target your brain, maximising the health benefit potential while minimising side-effects such as feeling tired. Traditional saunas do target that area, thereby affecting your weakest link in reaching a high core body temperature.
You might then ask: “is there ever any reason to expose your brain to heat or light?” The answer is “yes” and I’ll explore why in the next section:
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So, what do these facts about heating up the skull and brain imply? Well, there are two solutions to this problem that I’ll treat in this section.
The first solution is to use a Clearlight Sauna Dome™ if you want to maximise the core body temperature while minimising the heating of your head. The second solution entails using red light therapy - which provides your brain with both red and infrared light that is non-heating.
Let’s begin with the first option:
The studies I referenced on using an infrared sauna for countering depression specifically used a Clearlight Sauna Dome™ model, which uses infrared light, for its setup. By clicking the following link, you can see a picture of that Clearlight Sauna Dome™.
That Dome is a portable sauna that's easily storable and also portable.
Moreover, the benefit of that Clearlight Sauna Dome™ is that your head is never exposed to any infrared light or heat. As a consequence, you can heat up your core and extremities to very high temperatures, thereby achieving the necessary increase in core body temperature that has the depression-countering effect.
Again, these studies imply that additional depression-countering benefits exist by increasing your core body temperature to very high levels. If you’re interested in reading more about this principle, then read my blog post about The Infrared Sauna Depression Benefits You Might Not Know About.
If your goal is to achieve maximum temperatures while avoiding overheating your brain, then the Sauna Dome is the perfect choice for you. Next up, there’s a second option:
So, you now know that infrared saunas use infrared light, which heats the body up from the inside out.
Red light therapy, which I’m introducing now, uses both red light and infrared light. So, you might think that red light therapy also overheats your brain.
Well, in this specific instance that inference is incorrect. To be more precise, only parts of the infrared light spectrum overheat the brain. The very specific wavelengths of near-infrared light used by red light therapy don’t have this issue.
As a result, red light therapy allows you to provide your body and brain with a therapeutic dose of these types of light without running into the issues I’ve discussed before.
Red light therapy has many different benefits, such as improving your energy levels, helping you sleep deeper, improving skin tone, enhancing cognition, aiding recovery and athletic performance, and much more.
Our Clearlight® Red Light Therapy Tower is the only product on the market right now that can be placed inside a sauna. That way, you can combine the therapeutic benefits of an infrared sauna with those of red light therapy without ever running into the overheating problem.
The benefits of infrared saunas and red light therapy arise from different biological mechanisms. Hence, you’re combining two very effective therapies that have tons of science backing them together, doubling the health benefits you get.
In a way, by using red light therapy you’re getting the “near infrared sauna brain benefits” in a different way - except by not using a sauna.
So, lastly, what do all these things mean? Let’s find out in the conclusion:
So, in conclusion, a sauna for your brain isn’t your best bet. However, by picking the right sauna and by adding red light therapy to the mix, you can really maximise the health benefits you’re receiving.
There are some unanswered very specific questions though, in this blog. For instance, you may ask, “does a far infrared sauna and brain cancer link exist?” Theoretically, infrared saunas might be beneficial for cancer, because they help you relax and allow you to speed up some detoxification processes.
But, the full answer lies beyond the scope of the argument I’m trying to make in this blog post. Many different contexts exist wherein treatment parameters are slightly different.
For that reason, I merely wanted to give a general overview of how heating affects the brain in relationship to infrared saunas in this blog post. In 90% of cases, heating up your brain reduces the health benefits you’ll get, so, as general advice, you’ll know what to do now…
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