As the CEO of Clearlight Infrared® Saunas, I’m often asked “can infrared sauna help with anxiety?” The answer which I’ll give in this blog post is a resounding "yes", although everyone with anxiety will be affected differently.
In this blog post, I’ll first explore what anxiety is and then explore five different ways currently published science shows anxiety can be impeded. Keep in mind that I'm talking about managing anxiety symptoms here, not treating or curing any health condition.
Understanding Anxiety: The Basics
Contrary to “anger” or “depression”, “anxiety” is much harder to define. What anxiety actually is has been discussed during a long philosophical and scientific tradition (1; 2). Even in modern psychology, anxiety is still hard to exactly define. Here are some examples that illustrate my point:
- Stress and anxiety usually overlap, but not always. Stressed persons aren’t necessarily anxious either, although anxiety could be seen as a form of stress.
- Depression and anxiety frequently overlap, but once again, not always.
- Fear and anxiety are also different from each other - fear is usually more immediate and has a precise reason while that’s not always the case for anxiety.
- Anxiety can be caused by purely biological factors, such as withdrawing from certain drugs, or by purely psychological factors, such as having to give a presentation for 50 people in a month's time.
- Anxiety sometimes pertains to the future but some people are also anxious without anything to worry about the future at all.
Nevertheless, modern science has narrowed down the concept in such a way that it can be worked with in a clinical or scientific setting (3; 4; 5; 6).
In this blog post, I’ll define anxiety here as an over-estimation of a (perceived) threat, either currently present or future-oriented, that is closely linked to fear. From an evolutionary perspective, also, anxiety is probably helpful for ultimate survival and reproduction (7; 8).
Today, as a momentary feeling, many people have anxiety at least some of the time. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with temporary anxiety. However, anxiety can become pathological if it interferes with your daily life too much. It’s also possible for an “anxiety disorder” to develop, such as a “social anxiety disorder” or an “agoraphobia” (anxiety when leaving the house), which are always problematic for the person.
In this blog post, however, I’ll focus on more low-level anxiety that hasn’t fully developed into a full-fledged health condition. In such a case, you’ll have what is called a “fight or flight” stress response (9; 10). The inclination to freeze or faint are similar stress responses that modern science subsumes under the same category.
Some brain areas, such as the emotional centre called the “amygdala” often play a role in this stress response that causes anxiety. Brain signalling substances like “serotonin” - which makes you feel all is well - also play a role. Fortunately, most of these areas can be affected by the anxiety and infrared sauna cure - although a decline in symptoms is more realistic in most cases.
So let's explore what you can do to counter anxious feelings:
Five Ways Why Using An Infrared Sauna For Anxiety Makes Sense
So, next up, I’ll cover five different physiological mechanisms by which you can use an infrared sauna for anxiety symptoms. Let’s explore these options one by one:
Activating The Parasympathetic Nervous System
You probably know that almost everything in your body is regulated automatically. You don’t need to think about digesting your food - all of these processes happen all by themselves, normally.
The autonomic nervous system regulates many of these functions your body carries out automatically. That autonomic nervous system can be subdivided into two different parts, the “rest and digest” parasympathetic part and the “fight, flight, and freeze” sympathetic part.
Obviously, as the names already suggest, the former is more predominant in recovery and the latter during stressful situations. Research also shows that the sympathetic part active in stress is frequently more active in people with anxiety (11; 12).
Higher “heart rate variability”, in turn, is associated with higher activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (13; 14; 15). Heart rate variability measures the interval between heartbeats, and more variation in that interval signifies more active rest and digest physiology.
Now here’s the kicker:
Spending time inside an infrared sauna trains your body to activate the parasympathetic part of the nervous system (16; 17; 18). Heart rate variability improves, and, as a result, anxiety should also be countered. This exact link between saunas, heart rate variability, and anxiety hasn’t been investigated yet, although all the research currently strongly hints at the existence of such a link.
Now, secondly, there’s another mechanism through which anxiety and infrared sauna cure may exist:
Reducing Excessive Inflammation
If you’ve got anxiety, there’s a good chance you’re also affected by higher levels of chronic inflammation (19; 20). Some inflammation is good for the body, but if levels remain excessively high, it’s a sign of health problems.
Research shows that spending time in a far infrared sauna lowers your overall inflammation levels (21; 22; 23). Lower excess inflammation, in turn, decreases anxiety.
Some of these results consist of animal studies though, although they are very promising.
Then, studies wherein human participants use Finnish saunas, moreover, also show that a higher frequency of weekly sauna sessions lowers chronic inflammation levels the most (24; 25). The relationship is linear here, meaning that if you use saunas more frequently throughout your week, overall inflammation levels will go down more. So, five sauna sessions per week, assuming you recover well, lower inflammation far more than one session per week.
Next up, another big benefit for countering anxiety:
Lowers Levels Of The Stress Hormone "Cortisol"
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article I wrote on the relationship between saunas and anxiety, spending time in a sauna lowers stress hormones such as cortisol.
Infrared saunas help you feel deeply relax and massively improve blood flow. Also, after spending more and more time in saunas, your overall stress hormone levels such as “cortisol” goes down, making you feel more relaxed in daily life.
Enhancing Serotonin Production
Fourthly, spending time inside a sauna helps produce a brain signalling compound (“neurotransmitter”) called “serotonin” (26). Serotonin makes you feel that “all is well”, although the compound is extremely complicated in nature (27).
The functioning of your serotonin system in the brain is also closely linked to any anxiety you might experience (28; 29; 30). For that reason, prescription medication that targets the serotonin system is routinely used for people with both depression and anxiety.
That class of prescription drugs is called “SSRIs”, or “Specific Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors”. Those SSRIs ensure that more serotonin is available to your brain cells. The good news is thus that saunas can have a similar serotonin-boosting effect all on their own - although I do recommend checking with your physician about making any choices about medications.
Next up, there’s one more benefit:
Bonus: Near Infrared Sauna Anxiety Reduction
So far I’ve exclusively talked about the benefits of far infrared saunas. However, you can upgrade the benefits you’re getting from the sauna experience by adding “near-infrared” to that far-infrared spectrum.
In essence, you’ll be using different parts of the infrared light spectrum simultaneously. At Clearlight Infrared® Saunas, we offer two ways to incorporate near-infrared light into your sauna experience: 1) True Wave™ II heaters; 2) Clearlight® Light Therapy Tower. Both options are used inside your sauna, and the True Wave heaters are used to create what is called a "full-spectrum sauna".
A combination of studies on both animals and humans demonstrates that near-infrared light also counters anxiety independently (31; 32; 33). After exposing near-infrared light to the brain, human participants had significant reductions in anxiety as measured with a scientifically validated anxiety questionnaire - the “Hamilton Anxiety Scale”.
In animal studies, the near-infrared light counters inflammation of the nervous system and protects brain cells. Both anxious and depressive behaviours were inhibited.
During extreme stress, the near-infrared light exposure lowered the increase in stress hormone levels.
Several different physiological mechanisms, therefore, exist to keep anxiety and stress hormone levels under control with near-infrared light.
And, with that being said, let's take the 30,000-foot view and conclude:
Conclusion: So Does An Infrared Sauna Help With Anxiety?
When I’m asked, Johannes, does “infrared sauna help anxiety disorder symptoms”, I’ll have to tell you to visit your physician for a treatment plan. As a health condition, anxiety can be complex and I never want to claim or imply that saunas are a universal solution for countering the health condition.
If you ask, however “can infrared sauna help with anxiety?”, my answer will be that it almost certainly helps. As laid out in this blog post, at least five different mechanisms exist whereby infrared saunas counter anxiety.
All of these physiological mechanisms are mutually supportive and reinforcing. And, person experience also shows that these scientifically validated mechanisms help people with anxiety tremendously.