Twice-monthly health columns are written by a practicing cardiologist, clinical professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine and founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity in Bingham Farms. He's an author and has appeared on national TV, including "Dr. Oz" and "The Doctors Show.
By Dr. Joel Kahn
Can one of the hottest treatments to heal the heart be heat itself?
Over two decades, I've treated patients with advanced heart disease and I've seen many innovations in medications, surgeries and devices. But there is still an enormous toll on patients' quality and quantity of life.
Heart disease is a great model to test other approaches to healing, as even studies with small groups of patients may show benefits of therapy quickly.
One treatment which has been a relative secret that needs to be outed now is sauna therapy for heart health.
Doctors in Japan have tested the benefits of infrared dry sauna therapy in some of the sickest heart and vascular patients over two decades. Nearly 20 research articles show it's a major breakthrough.
They've used a technique called waon therapy, from the Japanese words "wa" for soothing and "on" for warmth, or so called soothing warmth therapy.
Here's the approach: Patients sit in an infrared sauna set at 60° C (140° F) for 15 minutes, followed by resting outside the sauna for 30 minutes, wrapped in towels. People are encouraged to drink water to compensate for the perspiration.
Results show improved function of cells that line the arteries and the blood flow they carry.
Here in the U.S., a 2005 clinical study by the University of Missouri at Kansas City showed that far-infrared saunas could lower blood pressure through a series of 30-minute sessions three times per week. The study concluded that sauna dilated blood vessels and reduced the volume of their inner lining, thus increasing circulation to promote healthy blood pressure.
Far-infrared (FIR) therapy also enhances detoxification.
We live in a sea of toxins. Luckily there are steps we can take to more effectively remove these toxins, and the use of FIR saunas is one powerful method for doing so. The Environmental Protection Agency has shown that sauna therapy increases excretion of heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium) and fat-soluble chemicals like PCBs, PBBs and HCBs.
And here's more: Far infrared therapy can help you lose weight.
When it comes to burning calories with infrared heat, Sunlighten brand saunas are clinically shown to dramatically aid in weight loss. A 2009 study indicated that saunas are beneficial for lowering weight and waist circumference in just three months. And for those who are sedentary due to medical conditions such as osteoarthritis, cardiovascular or respiratory problems, results were even more profound.
In addition, mid-infrared heat improves exercise ability and flexibility by penetrating joints, muscles and tissues. This increases circulation and speeds oxygen flow.
By reducing soreness on nerve endings, infrared heat reduces muscle spasms and helps the body heal itself naturally. A 2013 study at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., compared stretching in a infrared sauna versus a typical training room environment. Participants completed a series of hamstring stretches in random order, with 48 hours separating the sessions.
Results showed that acute flexibility increased up to three times in the sauna than without. Benefits to the increased range of motion include joint mobility, less friction in the joints, enabling of joint function to diminish stiffness and joint relaxation.
Near- infrared produced from LED lights can help restore skin to a youthful appearance. A study in The Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy showed significant improvements in skin appearance after just 12 weeks of sauna skin therapy using near-infrared technology. Participants experienced a reduction in wrinkles and crow’s feet, as well as improved overall skin tone, including softness, smoothness, elasticity, clarity and firmness.
If infrared therapy is so beneficial in heart patients, why haven’t you heard of it? And why isn’t it used more?
In my opinion, it's partly due to the fact that many doctors aren't familiar with the strong data supporting it, and partly due to the fact that low-tech treatments such as this one get buried by expensive and glitzy therapies that may not prove to be beneficial.
Patients have used workplace health accounts to cover the cost of sessions or even to buy their own units.