sFor many people, February is the low point of the winter doldrums, blahs and blues. Dark mornings, cold days and gray skies just confirm the feeling that spring is a long way off. So what better time of the year to be extra good to yourself? One of the easiest and most pleasurable ways to indulge yourself is by hitting the sauna. Cultures have used heat immersion for healing for centuries, but today, we know the science of why it works, heat shock proteins are released. Heat shock proteins are a type of stress protein — molecules that regulate the body in response to external stressors like extreme temperatures. There are multiple health benefits when these heat shock proteins are released and that’s why I am such a big fan of saunas, specifically, infrared saunas, a mind-and-body health habit that we should all be adopting this winter and beyond to aid our body’s restorative processes. Here are a few thoughts on why (and how) to do it on the regular:
Break a sweat from the inside out.
Traditional sauna styles — hot and steamy or dry and super-heated – deliver a host of health benefits, very similar to those experienced with light to moderate exercise. They boost heart rate and cause blood vessels to dilate, which in turn will make you break a sweat, similar to the way your body does when it responds to exercise. But instead of super-heating or steaming the air in the room into the 145 – 190 degree range, or even higher, infrared saunas run at roughly 120 -140 degrees, heating with infrared light and warming the body from the inside, not just on the surface. You’ll still sweat like a prize fighter but with less heat-related discomfort than you’d experience in a traditional sauna. Especially for those with certain types of health conditions – and get your doctor’s OK first – time spent in an infrared sauna can be a safer and more comfortable way to gently work up a good sweat.
Bake away aches and pains.
Why sauna? For starters, infrared sauna sessions can quickly help you recover from the aches, stiffness and sore muscles that take the spring out of your step. Endurance and professional athletes have used infrared sauna sessions as their secret weapon for years. The radiant heat of infrared stimulates blood flow which aids faster healing, assists with muscle and joint repair and helps tame pain. But even if you’re not playing for the New York Giants, you can take advantage of what the pros know – hitting the infrared sauna and getting yourself back out on the field without going down the slippery slope of pain meds and anti-inflammatories.
Another feather in infrared’s cap is its immune-boosting power. For example, if you feel a cold coming on, a sweat-inducing infrared session can help rally your body’s natural immune defenses. Sauna time will raise the body’s core temperature by 2 or 3 degrees and rev up white blood cell production. With more white blood cells on the march to fight for you, your body will be a considerably less appealing place for viral invaders to set up shop. How much time do you need to take advantage? Once or twice a week is helpful, about 15 -20 minutes a session, should do the trick, but if you are new to infrared, be sure to take breaks every few minutes and drink plenty of water throughout.
Do your blood pressure, your weight, and even your face a favor.
So what else can infrared do for you? When you stimulate better flood flow with regular sessions, you’ll look younger. OK, not like a teenager, but the boosted blood flow will help increase collagen production for a skin-rejuvenating anti-aging effect. Below the surface, you also help reduce blood pressure, and interestingly, stimulate the body’s calorie-burning machinery (although how that works isn’t clear). Granted, you won’t drop 20 overnight, but infrared will provide a light metabolic boost, helping you burn off a few extra calories with almost no effort. For those with chronic health issues like arthritis, infrared heat can reduce the need for pain meds, loosen up stiff joints and tame inflammation. It’s also interesting to note that there’s evidence suggesting that infrared can offer therapeutic benefits for those with a range of cardiac issues (but get your doc’s OK).
Get your dose.
While a lot of gyms have a standard-issue wet or dry sauna in the shower or locker room, the more specialized infrared sauna is typically found at higher-end gyms and clubs. But, let’s say you’re not a member, where can you get your dose? Check out offerings online at a local infrared sauna studio, wellness center, yoga studio, day spa or physical therapy center. Sessions start at about $30 for a 30-minute session, or less when you purchase a package of sessions. Got space? And some extra cash? Then you might consider installing an in-home infrared sauna and enjoy the benefits on your own time.
Do it right.
You’ll get the most out of the infrared sauna if you put hydration top of mind. You’re going to be sweating – quite a bit, no matter how long your session is – so drink up before, during and after, just like you would if you were doing a spin or hot yoga class. Another tip? Leave your electronics outside. Not only will this enable you to unplug for a few minutes of meditation or simple unwinding, it will prevent your devices from being damaged by the heat. Also, think twice about booking a session following an alcohol-soaked evening. You may want to ‘sweat out’ your hangover but chances are you’re already dehydrated, and an infrared sauna session can deplete you further. Better to give it a day, rehydrate and then book the session.