Could sitting in an infrared sauna be the easy answer to weight loss and wellness? Silke Weil finds out.

Silke says not only did her skin look and feel better after one session, she felt serene too. Photo / Getty Image
Silke says not only did her skin look and feel better after one session, she felt serene too. Photo / Getty Image

The promise

In an episode of Oprah, the TV queen sits inside an infrared sauna listening to Dr Oz rave about the benefits of the sweat-inducing treatment. As Oz purports, infrared saunas promise to lower blood pressure, increase circulation and release toxins, assist with weight loss and leave you with surprisingly soft skin. It's also claimed you'll feel amazing afterwards. Recommended when you're injured or unable to exercise, they're said to generate similar results to moderate exercise: increased heart rate, sweating and weight loss, but without any energy output – so far, very appealing.

The history

Positive health effects from heat treatments were believed in as far back as ancient Greek times when they induced fevers to fight diseases. Records also suggest Finnish people built predecessors of modern infrared saunas more than 2000 years ago in the form of wood-burning "smoke saunas". These were holes dug in the ground where a fire could be lit. In 1965, the first infrared sauna was invented in Japan. Now saunas are used to clear the mind, refresh the spirit, and rejuvenate the body. Beloved in many cultures, variations can be found in the form of Turkish steam baths, Native American spiritual sweat lodges and in the Jewish shvitzes of Eastern Europe.

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a 30-minute infrared sauna session can burn around 600 calories. Photo / Getty Image
According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a 30-minute infrared sauna session can burn around 600 calories. Photo / Getty Image

The science

The infrared component refers to wavelengths of light and energy emitted from light bulbs inside the sauna. They heat your body from the inside out, without warming the air around you. As your core temperature rises, your heart rate increases and encourages your body to burn calories. According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a 30-minute infrared sauna session can burn around 600 calories. And a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health found while, ordinarily, sweat is comprised of water and a bit of salt, 15 to 20 per cent of infrared sauna-induced sweat is composed of cholesterol, fat-soluble toxins, heavy metals, sulphuric acid, and ammonia. In other words, an infrared sauna allows your body to expel environmental toxins through sweat.

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The reality

I arrived at Massage Me Day Spa in downtown Auckland and was given a towel, water to stay hydrated and a robe. I undressed and hopped in the sauna, knowing I had full control over the heat. Twenty to 30 minutes is the recommended timeframe, followed by a shower and massage treatment. As I enjoyed some rare alone time, I worked up one hell of a sweat. Initially apprehensive, I'd been warned these sessions can be a lot to handle. Nevertheless, I began with the temperature set at 60 degrees. To my surprise I kept turning it up until it reached the maximum of 75. Even though I sat there sweating bullets, I wasn't struggling to breathe or battling to stay in. By the end of my 30-minute session, while I was in a pool of sweat, I was actually reluctant to have to get out. It was lovely to just sit, be warm and not look at my phone, which I'd feared the heat might break.

Before I showered, I noticed my complexion appeared brighter. Afterwards I had the option of a skin scrub to excrete impurities and toxins, or a massage to release soreness and promote circulation. Opting for the latter, boy did it get the blood flowing. I felt an endorphin rush similar to what you get after you've smashed a workout, but minus the aches and the pains so I also felt relaxed.

The verdict:

Would I go back? Definitely. Not only did my skin look and feel better after one session, I felt serene too. It was a great way of loosening up the mind as well as my tense muscles. I thought thatwith the constant clutter that whizzes around my brain, I'd never find a way to relax. But the infrared sauna did it for me. As for weight loss, it could be helpful if you're unable to exercise. But for those who can, I don't see how it'd be any more beneficial than just getting out there and moving.