HEALTH BENEFITS Doctors remain skeptical of infrared sauna
A warm bath would produce the same results, one physician says.
By HARRY JACKSON JR.
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
A new product called the infrared sauna may be the next health craze, especially because manufacturers say that using it can burn 600 calories in 30 minutes, relieve any number of ailments, improve mood and even reverse aging.
But doctors say consumers should proceed with caution, or just take a hot bath.
"Dry" saunas use infrared heat instead of steam. Marketers and manufacturers say they provide numerous health benefits, and can even bring relief from serious illnesses.
Physicians and researchers say reports that infrared saunas produce more benefits than a conventional sauna, hot tub or heat lamp are at best suspicious, and maybe even false.
"This is just a plain lie," said Dr. James Shoemaker, director of the Metabolic Screening Laboratory at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "Infrared is just heat. Heat is heat. Heat penetrates, but it's nothing exotic.
"A warm bath would do everything that they are claiming this does. A warm bath makes people feel comfortable, doctors recommend it, it's good for muscle strains and sprains, people use warm baths in rehab. ... They're just selling it in a new and different way."
Dr. Richard Moore, who owns the Lifestyle Fitness Center, a holistic practice in Clayton, reflected the responses of other physicians in the area. He's skeptical that any sauna could relieve so many illnesses.
"It doesn't seem to make sense," Moore said. "I'd like to see some science behind it."
However, the physicians said that, in general, the only danger from infrared saunas -- as with any heat-based therapy -- is dehydration. Otherwise, medical professionals don't fear infrared heat; in fact, hospitals still use it for infant care in nurseries.
How it works
The infrared radiation penetrates the skin and produces chemical reactions that make the fat cells expel poisons -- toxins -- that cause or aggravate illnesses over a lifetime, proponents say. Sweat then carries the poisons from the body.
This detoxification process helps rid the body of heavy metals and other environmental toxins they say are stored in fat cells -- mercury, lead, cadmium, tobacco, pesticides and other nasties. The increased sweat extracted by the infrared heat includes 15 percent to 20 percent more toxins than conventional sweat, proponents say.
Meanwhile, the infrared sauna increases metabolism so the cells burn more calories -- more so than a vigorous workout -- over 30 minutes, they say.
Doctors see it differently.
Infrared radiation heats surfaces, including skin, just like any other heating tool.
"There's only one way to break down fat cells with heat," said Shoemaker. "Set the person on fire. Heating people up does not remove any [toxins] from their bodies."