There’s little more satisfying than a deep, rejuvenating sleep. It’s not only essential for feeling refreshed but also for maintaining your physical and mental health. Sleep should be an integral part of everyone's self-care. However, you may be one of the 35% of adults that do not get enough sleep. If you are one of those counting sheep all night long, then an infrared sauna or sauna blanket may be just what you need to get your sleep back on track. Saunas have been used for centuries to help people get a better night's sleep, but it’s only recently that modern science has been able to tell us exactly why heat is such a good sleep aid. In this post, we'll delve into the science of heat therapy and explain how infrared saunas can help us enjoy an even more blissful snooze.
Before we talk about how infrared saunas can benefit your sleep, you first need to understand the power of heat therapy. Heat therapy is any practice that uses heat to raise the temperature of the body. Some examples of this would include:
- Hot water bottles
- Heating pads
- Heating gels
- Infrared sauna
Things that only heat a part of the body, like bottles, pads, and gels, are considered ‘local’ heat therapy. Whilst these are great in specific situations, they will only deliver benefits to the part of the body you heat. If you want to maximize your heat therapy, then you’ll want to do heat therapy that heat’s the entire body at once.
When you heat the entire body at once, you raise the body’s core temperature, and it’s this increase in temperature that delivers all the benefits of heat therapy. The best way to do this is through an infrared sauna which uses infrared light to heat the body from deep within.
But how exactly does raising our core body temperature through an infrared sauna help us feel more relaxed and primed for sleep? Well, the reasons are many and complex, but let’s break them down into the current main theories.
Sauna and Sleep
Sauna and the Hypothalamus
As we discussed before, heat therapy raises the core body temperature. An increase in core body temperature activates the hypothalamus. “Think of your hypothalamus as the smart meter in your home. Its job is to monitor conditions in the body and to dial up or dial down body processes so that things stay in balance,” says Dr. Michael Njunge, MD and performance enthusiast.
“When your core temperature goes up, your hypothalamus acts as a thermostat. It tells the body that it needs to lower its internal temperature. This drop in temperature promotes relaxation and sleep as the body likes to be at a slightly lower temperature at night.” In fact, your temperature naturally drops 1 - 3°C overnight, and overheating is a common cause of poor sleep!
Sauna and Neurotransmitters
Heat and sauna are also thought to cause a change in brain neurotransmitters (1). Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that cause brain cells to fire, and they play a large role in how we act and feel.
Sauna has been shown to increase certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical that not only boosts mood but also promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation.
Sauna has also been shown to reduce other neurotransmitters, such as noradrenaline, which is an alertness chemical. Noradrenaline is involved in your sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight or flight system. By reducing this fight-or-flight chemical, a sauna can help you relax and prime your mind for sleep.
Sauna and exercise-like stimulus
Saunas are known to make your heart beat faster and pump harder. The result of this is that you burn more calories; up to 1.5-2x what you would burn at rest. That’s a great result for just lying in a comfy sauna blanket!
But this increased heart rate does not just burn calories, it also fatigues the body and makes it feel like it’s had a workout. This is what is known as an exercise-like stimulus. It’s thought that this exercise-like stimulus makes you feel fatigued and primes you for sleep.
There are a few studies to back this up:
- One study found that using a sauna increased slow-wave sleep activity by 72% in 18-year-old athletes after three 10-minute sessions. Slow-wave sleep is the deepest and most restorative phase of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and is thought to be crucial for memory and learning (2)
- Another study found that heating resulted in better quality NREM sleep in female athletes who were heated during a run. Whereas athletes who were cooled during running had no change in slow-wave sleep compared to normal (3)
Whilst these studies were done in traditional saunas, there is no reason to believe infrared saunas would not have the same effects on sleep, given they provide the same exercise-like stimulus. If anything, the deeper heating of an infrared sauna may provide an even greater exercise-like effect.
Sauna and pain
One of the most common causes of tossing and turning at night is pain. After all, how can you possibly focus on drifting off when your knee is throbbing with pain?
For a long time, people have turned to local heat treatments, such as heating pads or hot water bottles, but we now have evidence that infrared saunas are just as effective. One 2008 study found that regular sauna sessions improved pain, stiffness, and fatigue in people with a variety of chronic musculoskeletal conditions (4), such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Sleep Better Today
As you can see, there are many ways that infrared heat therapy can help you sleep deeper and better. It’s an investment worth making as better sleep translates to better life outcomes in all areas.
It's also important to understand how long and how hot your sauna session should be to maximize benefits.
If you are interested in learning more about infrared saunas, be sure to check out the available selections. Here you can find an array of sizes and styles to find one that suits your needs and budget.