When Finns immigrated to north central Massachusetts and beyond in the early 20th century, they brought with them the practice of taking a sauna followed by a cold plunge, usually a roll in the snow or a jump into a nearby pond. Are the infrared saunas and cold plunge pools seen in so many spas and gyms today that much of a departure? And what are the health benefits?

Let’s Compare: Infrared and Conventional Saunas

Infrared saunas and conventional, or Finnish, saunas may look the same. They differ in how they heat the body and the surrounding environment.

Infrared sauna heaters emit infrared light, which directly heats the body's tissues without significantly heating the surrounding air. Conventional, or Finnish, saunas heat the air in the sauna room using a stove or electric heater.

Infrared saunas operate at temperatures between 120°F to 140°F (50°C to 60°C). Conventional saunas operate at temperatures that can be considerably higher.

Evaluating the Health Benefits of Infrared Sauna

More research is needed to measure the benefits of infrared saunas. Enthusiasts cite these benefits:

  • Detoxification: Sweating induced by infrared sauna removes toxins and heavy metals from the body. Sweating cleanses the skin by flushing out impurities.
  • Relaxation, stress reduction and improved sleep: Increasing circulation, releasing endorphins, and providing a calming environment promotes these benefits.
  • Pain relief and improved circulation: Infrared sauna heat alleviates pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, and muscle soreness by improving circulation and reducing inflammation.
  • Boosted immune function: Regular sauna use enhances immune function by increasing white blood cell production and stimulating the body's natural defense mechanisms.

Certain populations, including pregnant people and those with cardiovascular conditions should consult with a healthcare professional before using any type of sauna. It is essential to stay hydrated and to avoid prolonged sauna sessions to prevent dehydration and overheating.

Cold Plunges: What are They?

A cold plunge is full immersion in cold water for 10-15 minutes after being in a hot environment, such as a sauna or a hot tub. Cold showers and ice baths are considered an equivalent. Some users alternate between hot and cold environments during the same session, arguing that the frequency of the alternating practices matters. Cold plunges differ from whole body cryotherapy, where the body is exposed to cold air via a cryo-chamber for two-three minutes.

Cold plunge water temperatures range from 50°F to 60°F (10°C to 15°C). By comparison, the average New England summer ocean water temperature is somewhere between 50°F and 70°F (12.8° to 21.1°C).

As with infrared saunas, more high-quality research is needed to fully explore the benefits of cold plunges. Enthusiasts cite these benefits:

  • Circulation: Cold immersion constricts blood vessels, which may help to moderate the impact of health conditions that cause inflammation throughout the body.
  • Muscle recovery: Cold water immersion is used by athletes to aid in muscle recovery and reduce post-exercise soreness and inflammation.
  • Boosted immune function: Cold exposure may stimulate the immune system, potentially increasing resistance to illness.
  • Mental alertness: Cold immersion can have an invigorating effect on the body and mind, promoting mental clarity and alertness.

Cold plunges can be intense and may be contraindicated for those with heart problems or circulatory issues or for pregnant people. Consulting with a healthcare professional before attempting cold immersion is beneficial.