Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Saunas, health, and half-truths

One of the difficulties in identifying woo-woo claims is that they are seldom pure, unadulterated pseudoscience.

The reason for this is that most people have at least a rudimentary background in science.  A purely woo-woo claim -- for example, that a mystic can look in her crystal ball and see the future -- inevitably generates the question, "how on earth can you do that?"  Falling back on the old answer of "because I am a psychic who is in touch with the unseen world" will only convince people who already think psychic claims are valid.  You will convince more people, and therefore sell more of what you're peddling, if you can mix in some science-y words and half-truths, leaving people to have to tease apart the claim and figure out what is real and what is bogus.

All too often, it takes more scientific training than the average person has in order to do that.  Which, of course, is what the purveyor of said woo-woo claim is hoping.

I ran into an especially good example of that just yesterday, with this website advertising the "Photon Genius Energy Infrared Sauna."  Here's the pitch:
The Photon-Genius is a dynamic energy sauna that provides more direct and targeted harmonic energy infrared (including full spectrum) than any infrared sauna in the world.
This combination importantly helps the body produce more nitric oxide (NO), the "miracle molecule" which helps preserve the elasticity of all the vessels in the body, because it is a "signaling molecule" that tells the blood vessels to increase in width or dilate. This has significant implications, because optimal blood circulation is a key factor in virtually all health issues, including Heart Disease, Alzheimers, Diabetes, Cancer, Obesity, Arthritis, Anti-Aging, ect. [sic]
For many, the biggest news about the Photon-Genius is its application in the evolving science of detoxification. At home and in clinics, the Photon-Genius infrared sauna is said to yield many benefits--including relief from different kinds of pain; stimulation of immune response; improvement in skin tone and conditions such as burns, eczema and acne; and the accelerated burning calories. But the detox application is health news that can benefit everyone. 
The Photon-Genius promotes energetic balance and coherence. Fully functional coherence of the biofield is the new and most comprehensive definition of anti-aging therapy, born out of quantum physics. When quantum coherence is restored to the biofield, the healing power of the body is now known to be literally limitless, dwarfing the benefits of any mere biochemical manipulation.
Which seems like a good place to start.

First of all, all saunas are "infrared saunas."  Infrared radiation is given off by any hot object, and when absorbed, is converted into heat.  So adding the word "infrared" is kind of like calling a light bulb an "electromagnetic-radiation-producing incandescent light bulb."  It's true, but redundant.

In the trade, though, there is a distinction.  What differs between an "infrared sauna" and an ordinary one is that infrared saunas use some sort of infrared emitter, and an ordinary one uses heated stones to warm the air -- but the result is the same.  You get hot, and sweat a lot.

So, what about the claims that saunas are beneficial to health?

According to an article by Dr. Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic, the answer is yes, maybe:
Several studies have looked at using infrared saunas in the treatment of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and rheumatoid arthritis, and found some evidence of benefit. However, larger and more-rigorous studies are needed to confirm these results.
On the other hand, no adverse effects have been reported with infrared saunas.
So that sounds good.

How about the whole nitric oxide thing?  The answer here appears to be that it's a half-truth:
In mammals including humans, NO is an important cellular signaling molecule involved in many physiological and pathological processes. It is a powerful vasodilator with a short half-life of a few seconds in the blood. Long-known pharmaceuticals such as nitroglycerine and amyl nitrite were discovered, more than a century after their first use in medicine, to be active through the mechanism of being precursors to nitric oxide.

Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting organs such as the liver from ischemic damage.
So nitric oxide is a critical intercellular signal, and is an intermediary in a great many biological reaction mechanisms.  One interesting one is that being a vasodilator, if you get a boost of nitric oxide in the right place at the right time, it can trigger an erection -- this, in fact, is how Viagra works.

Whether that qualifies it as a "miracle molecule" is, I suppose, a matter of perspective.

As far as the connection between saunas, nitric oxide, and health, the answer (once again) is... maybe.  A study at Kagoshima University in Japan looked at the vasodilation effects of saunas in hamsters with cardiomyopathy, and found some positive effects.  Here's their conclusion:
Repeated sauna therapy increases eNOS [endothelial nitric oxide synthase] expression and NO production in cardiomyopathic hamsters with heart failure.
So if you have heart failure, a sauna might be helpful, especially if you're a hamster.  Virtually all of the other sources I found linking saunas, health, and nitric oxide were websites that were trying to sell saunas.

What about the claims that saunas aid in "detoxification?"  You hear that word a lot, especially on alt-med websites.  Particular herbs, foods, exercises, colon cleansing, or other practices help to "rid your body of toxins," as if your liver and kidneys aren't perfectly capable of dealing with whatever toxic metabolic byproducts your body creates.  Here's what the Skeptic's Dictionary has to say about detoxification:
Outside of being treated for poisoning or certain kinds of addiction, the word 'detox' has no meaning, according to a pamphlet published by a group of thirty-six people calling itself Sense About Science (SAS). (A summary of the group's findings may be found on their website.) There are thousands of products that use the claim of detoxification as their main selling point. SAS investigated 15 representative products and found that none of the products identified a single toxic substance as one their product removed, none of the manufacturers of the products could provide compelling scientific evidence that the product removes toxic substances, none of the sellers had a clue what the products actually do, and nobody involved in making or selling these detox products could provide a comprehensive definition of 'detox.'
So that one, predictably, is a bust.

Then, at the end, the claim rushes headlong into pure woo-woo nonsense.  "Restoring quantum coherence to the biofield," my ass.  I would like to sit down with whoever wrote this and ask if (s)he can define the term "quantum coherence" in a rigorous way, and to have him/her provide me with some evidence of the existence of a "biofield."

I'm guessing it would be a really short conversation.

Anyway, you get the idea.  In order to pull apart the strands of the sales pitch here would take hours of research -- it took me over an hour just to do the digging for the admittedly shallow analysis I've done here.   Some truth; some half-truth; some misleading facts; some complete, unadulterated bullshit.  Most people, frankly, don't have the time, energy, or training to evaluate critically a claim such as this one -- and when you couple that with a promise that the product is going to alleviate all manner of chronic health problems (this site claims that the "Photon Genius Energy Infrared Sauna" can help with everything from Alzheimer's to HIV), you have a recipe for people spending a lot of money for something with benefits that are, at best, unproven.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I like saunas, and find them relaxing.  A nice sit in a sauna after a hard workout is one of the most pleasant things I can think of, especially if it's the middle of winter.  And the positive health effects of relaxation are pretty clear.  (Although I draw the line at the behavior of a friend of mine, who likes to alternate baking in the sauna with rolling around naked in the snow.  "Let's make anatomically correct snow angels!", I remember him suggesting one time.  To which I responded: there are parts of my body I would rather not freeze off, thank you very much.)

But using bogus claims and half-truths to sell a product is unethical at best -- especially when it's framed in such a way as to make the layperson unable to tell if what they're reading is scientifically sound or not.


  1. Bravo! It's nice to see someone else being critical about the claims being made by the purveyors of these so-called "infra-red" saunas.

    However, I feel that this article should have done a better job identifying the distinction between the traditional Scandinavian style saunas, and these phony boxes coming from China.

    The latter should not even be permitted to use the term "sauna"! With their cheap materials and wild claims, they give real saunas a very bad name. You won't find anyone selling a genuine sauna making ridiculous claims like the Chinese and their cohorts.

    It's sad that if you tell people just what they want to hear, you can sell them almost anything, and it's equally sad that few people have the critical thinking necessary to pick through the B.S., so I salute this blog for doing that.

    Yes, anything that gives off heat emits infra-red energy, and ironically, in a genuine sauna with temperatures of 190 F, you have a lot more infra-red energy than you do in one of these saunas that uses the term. You won't find anyone selling genuine saunas using the term infra-red, though. It's irrelevant.

    We've long said that if you'd like the experience of an "infra-red sauna", simply purchase a cheap space heater from Wal-Mart and go sit in your closet with it! No kidding. That's exactly what the "infra-red sauna" is.

    You're lucky to be able to get it much hotter than about 120 F in such a sauna, and perhaps most important, they are dry use only.

    The hallmark of a genuine Scandinavian style sauna are the stones which fill its compartment. Aside from the capability of reaching much higher temperatures, the genuine sauna also allows for use in either wet or dry mode, since the stones are made to be sprinkled with water.

    Some of the claims made by the sellers of these cheap Chinese boxes are downright irresponsible and even dangerous. You'll see them make claims about weight loss which are both patently false and can lead to unhealthy dehydration.

    There have been numerous recalls of these Oriental saunas, as many have been imported with serious underwiring. There have been house fires! They use a cheap knotty wood and a somewhat toxic shellac to coat it.

    The author here mentions personally enjoying a sauna, and the real ones do indeed offer some genuine benefit. In fact, if you can expect any benefit from an "infra-red sauna", you'll get that same benefit many times over in a genuine Scandinavian sauna, and I'd bet that's the type of sauna this author alludes to enjoying.

    By the way, if you'll permit the shameless promotion, and in an effort to qualify my remarks, I do feel obliged to mention that Almost Heaven Group has been in the sauna business for over 30 years. We will never get involved with these faux saunas, and numerous times we've witnessed the serious regrets of any of our colleagues that have.

    Thanks again for your efforts to cut through the B.S. Please keep up the good work!

  2. Oh wow, what a scientific take on saunas we have here! Well, understanding how saunas can be beneficial to health is as good, so I don't see anything bad with trying to pull strands apart, dissect the matter, and understand the science behind it. It's good to see that you'd put this much effort in it. Well after all, you yourself found saunas relaxing.
    Lucy @ iHealth Saunas

  3. I closed my eyes after reading this blog. What amazing feeling. I wish to experience even 1 time. Thanks for your sharing. recommended you read