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How Sauna Therapy Can Prevent & Reverse Chronic Disease, with Brian Richards


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Research shows what countless cultures already know: frequent sauna use is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Making time to sweat eliminates toxic burdens, reduces stress, and improves functioning throughout the body. Find out more about how heat and light can help alleviate chronic disease, and learn what makes near infrared saunas different from their counterparts.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The history of saunas
  • Using sauna therapy to prevent and reverse chronic disease
  • The benefits of saunas
  • How heat therapy works
  • What makes near infrared sauna therapy different
  • Why light is a nutrient
  • Tips on how to use sauna therapy effectively
  • How electromagnetic stress is damaging our health

Show notes:

Chris Kresser:  Hey, everyone, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week we’re going to be speaking with Brian Richards, who’s the founder and lead product developer at SaunaSpace. Brian fully healed his toxin-related acne, brain fog, adrenal fatigue, and more with the power of the near infrared sauna, near infrared light for mitochondrial simulation and deeply detoxifying heat therapy. His personal journey to optimal health inspired him to create SaunaSpace’s incandescent light therapy sauna product in order to help others to the pathway to natural healing through infrared detoxification and light therapy.

So I met Brian at Paleo f(x) last year and have long been a proponent of sauna therapy. I have used many different saunas myself, have had saunas in my home for several years, and have done a ton of research on the benefits of sauna for a wide variety of conditions and just optimizing our health and extending our lifespan. I recently became interested, particularly in near infrared saunas, after learning more about the differences between the far and near infrared and then getting a chance to experience Brian’s SaunaSpace sauna on the Paleo f(x) exhibition floor and then getting one for my home.

I’ve become a huge believer, and I wanted to invite Brian on to talk about the benefits of sauna use overall, the differences between the different kinds of sauna, how to use saunas effectively in terms of frequency and duration, what to do before and after, EMFs and how they relate to sauna use, and several other topics. So I think you’ll really enjoy the show if you’re interested in saunas, and maybe even if you aren’t. And let’s dive in.

Brian, such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Brian Richards:  Thank you for having me, Chris.

Chris Kresser:  All right, well, let’s start little, with a little bit about your own story and background. I’m always curious about that. Learn how people came to the work that they’re doing, and I know a little bit about your story. So I’d love for you to share, how did you end up in the world of saunas and phototherapy, photobiomodulation?

Brian Richards:  Well, I definitely stumbled into it. I do come from bit of a science background. I do have a chemistry degree. But at the point I was having some of my health problems, I was doing a remodeling of houses. So this is about six or seven years ago, and I was just having issues with nine or 10 with things that are hard to diagnose. And I didn’t ever get a diagnosis from a physician, but I was dealing with brain fog, insomnia, mind racing, and I had this really odd acne only around my torso. So if you met me in the street, I kind of looked fine, and people would say, “Well, what’s your problem, man?” But I didn’t feel good inside, and I had low energy levels too. I had what I know now is adrenal fatigue. I didn’t know it as such, but I’m a curious man and I did my research online, like people do nowadays, to discover what’s going on.

Artificial light, environmental toxins, and unmitigated stress can all wreak havoc on your health. What’s the antidote? Spending time in a sauna. Learn more about the benefits of sauna therapy and get tips on how to fit this step into your wellness routine. 

And through my research I just came across this concept or just this phenomenon, this epidemic of illness that we’re dealing with. It’s what Klinghardt calls an “avalanche of chronic illness.” So many people have so many diseases of civilization now. Autoimmune disease is one of the top five, and cancer as well, are one of the top five killers of Americans. We’re dealing with this incredible toxic burden that we carry around all day long. And so that’s what my research led me to. We all have all these weird diseases now, we all have this incredible toxic burden from all the plastics, petrochemicals and solvents we’re exposed to, as well as our modern lifestyle. It’s so high stress. Combine that with our nutrient, what we get from our diet is so nutrient depleted now, and we all eat things out of bags and plastic. It’s just, it’s a tidal wave of illness and of toxic burden and even electrosmog too, which I’m sure we’ll talk about EMF later. And so I realized that I’m just one of thousands, if not millions, of people around that are dealing with things that are hard to diagnose, and conventional medicine doesn’t have any good treatment for. They pretty much are doing pain management, prescriptions, and talk toxic pharmacological drugs, which are their own chemicals. And so it didn’t seem to be sensible to me. I wanted to address the root cause of my problems, and my research led me to sauna.

The History of Saunas

So every human culture on earth has some kind of sauna tradition, from the Korean hot baths and the sweat lodges of America to the sauna. And I love this idea, and I coincidentally at the end of my research when I was about to kind of get my own sauna, or perhaps make my own sauna, I stumbled upon this incredible concept. It’s called the electric incandescent bath. Now there’s a modern book called Sauna Therapy for Detoxification and Healing written by Dr. Lawrence Wilson that kind of modernizes this concept or brings it back into the forefront. But the incandescent sauna that I eventually made, and I eventually started making, and that is what SaunaSpace is, dates back to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Dr. Kellogg’s sanitariums. And some people are familiar with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. He’s an incredible man. Some of the things he had, he didn’t understand everything, and some of the things he was wrong about.

Chris Kresser:  Like corn flakes. Right.

Brian Richards:  Like corn flakes, yeah. It’s pretty funny they thought that male libido was a problem back in the day, so they came up with corn flakes to supposedly lower male libido. Now we have …

Chris Kresser:  It’s the opposite, yeah.

Brian Richards:  Yeah. Anyway, he invented what’s called the electric incandescent bath, 1891, just a couple years after electricity and the light bulb were invented. This Dr. Kellogg looked at it and said, “Oh, my goodness. We can take these lamps and shine them on people and make them sweat like a sauna. And we’ll heal their maladies.” And he wrote a book in 1910 called Light Therapeutics and I found this, and also Dr. Wilson’s book, and I said, “Hey, this is the sauna that I want to do.” And so that’s kind of my story. I built my own. I’m a tinkerer, I’m a builder, and it was pretty ugly, pretty bricolage, but my insomnia was cured in probably two sessions.

So I did 40 minutes before bed, had what’s called parasympathetic relaxation, got my body out of stress state, had wonderful sleep, and then subsequently, so two sessions and that was gone, and then over probably six months all of my other stuff that is collectively adrenal fatigue all went away, and I also looked back and noticed, “Hey, there’s some things that got fixed here that I didn’t even know were a problem.” I have improved cognitive functioning, which causes more clarity, more energy, more ability and patience to deal with things. And I work long days running the business here, and I just take everything with gusto. So it was really just, changed my life and it set me on this path. I said, “Well, why is this not available?” And so that put me on the journey to make the world’s most perfect sauna.

Using Sauna Therapy to Prevent and Reverse Chronic Disease

Chris Kresser:  Awesome. It’s really interesting hearing that story, and I mean, there are a lot of parts of it I can relate to from my own history. And now as a clinician, I completely agree with your assessment of where we are in terms of chronic disease and also just the multiple challenges we face. In a way, that can be, that’s a pretty depressing conversation. And one way to look at it is that it’s amazing anybody’s healthy. With the number of challenges we face from nutrient-depleted diet to toxic burden to reduction in physical activity to primarily living in isolating, alienating social arrangements rather than in the tribal way that we lived for so many generations, the modern lifestyle is antithetical to health in so many different ways. Which for me leads me to what are some of the simple, relatively simple changes that we can make that will have effects across all of those different domains, or at least many of them. Because as a Functional Medicine practitioner, this stuff can get really complex.

It can be really difficult to find the root cause or causes in a situation where someone is dealing with multiple different conditions, multiple exposures, they’ve got infections, they’ve got toxins, they’ve got autoimmunity, they’ve got injuries, brain injury in the past. Like it’s not always easy or even possible to find a single root cause or several root causes that you can address and then the patient will just get better. And so the more things we can find, interventions like healthy diet or appropriate physical activity, sleep, and I would include sauna, phototherapy, photobiomodulation in this group, that it’s so powerful because it has so many different impacts and you don’t need to know what’s going on in order to benefit from it. And I think that’s one of the most useful aspects of it. Your story really illustrates that because you never really found out per se what the triggers were, even the mechanisms. But you had still managed to address all of them.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, I didn’t want to take Accutane and other drugs, but you’re right. I didn’t know what it was. But if we look back, we are, we’re all exposed to, we all get a lot of mercury, aluminum, toxicity.

Chris Kresser:  Thallium and lead now and arsenic are even more prevalent.

Brian Richards:  All these things, and we’re also so far gone from our ancestral lifestyle. The modern lifestyle is so far from that. The ancestral human was naked under the sun on the equator getting the appropriate ratio of blue to red, to near infrared light in the morning, the evening, resting in the day, completely in parasympathetic, in a rest-and-heal state when they went to bed. So they had perfect sleep.

And of course, not to mention their diet was also just much more nutrified, much more natural and again, none of the toxic exposure we have. So yeah, it’s no coincidence why everybody is so sick. But like you said, what do we do to address that? There’s so many, there’s so much gadgetry out there now and there’s a focus on one thing. What’s the one thing that I can fix? People love a diagnosis, and they love having all these blood tests. And I’m sure you’ve experienced that in your practice. But then information becomes the enemy almost. Like it’s too much data and diagnostics.

Chris Kresser:  Overwhelmed.

Brian Richards:  And they’re overwhelmed and yet there’s not a simple solution. So the question is, what are simple multifactorial solutions that hit many, we get many birds with one stone?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Brian Richards:  And to do so in something that’s enjoyable and that’s kind of, what I think I’ve stumbled on here is it’s really, it’s enjoyable to sweat under near infrared light in a quiet space that’s protected from the sensory overload that we’re just inundated with in blue light and flickering light and just the stress. Nobody’s carved out that space in their life anymore for a parasympathetic experience for meditation, for healing. It’s just something that we want to do, that with everything else. We want something that we can do while we’re working, while we’re doing other things. And it just, the human body doesn’t work that way.

The Benefits of Saunas

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about briefly about the, some of the benefits of sauna use in terms of the research and the mechanisms. This has been covered quite a bit on other shows and I’ve written about this myself, so we’ll provide links in the show notes. And I want to spend more time with you talking about different sauna types and EMF and some considerations for sauna therapy, like frequency and duration, etc. But for those who are listening who aren’t really that familiar with the very well-documented benefits of saunas in terms of cardiovascular, lifespan expansion, blood pressure, etc., let’s maybe go through a few of these.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, for those who are not familiar, you can sum it up really simply. Doing sauna frequently reduces your probability of dying from all causes. It reduces all-cause mortality. There’s no other moderate healing practice that impacts every cell of the body in this way, and so if you want to give a few examples, we see so many Finnish population studies now where frequent sauna use results in reduced risk of stroke, of heart attack, of Parkinson’s, of Alzheimer’s, of all these things. Essentially, if you use sauna frequently, you will live longer with less chronic disease and be happier and healthier.

Chris Kresser:  And these are big reductions too. We’re not talking about like 2, 3 percent. Some of the studies I’ve seen, we’re talking, 20, 30, 40 percent on a relative basis.

Brian Richards:  Yeah. And some of the studies, like the Laukkanen study was a 20-year study on a large Finnish male population, so these are very large population, very impressive studies. It’s just been studied so much. So that’s kind of in a nutshell, and the more the study of particular disease types, we see improvement in those as they’re studied. It also has some other benefits, like when you heat up the body, you heat up the body routinely and you keep coming back and doing that day after day and week after week, you improve cognitive functioning.

So your brain works better, your nervous system works better. Sure, some stuff going on at the cell level, it’s called BDNF production, is improved in the nerve cells. But there’s also a study I saw where they improved overall nervous system, motor system functioning in spinal cord injury victims just with heat therapy, just with the sauna therapy.

Chris Kresser:  Amazing.

Brian Richards:  So really a wide array of studies that if there ever was a modern healing practice you could do to heal from everything and take care of, do a preventative practice, a healing maintenance practice for all things in all cells, it’s definitely sauna.

Chris Kresser:  Imagine if there was a drug that had cardiovascular benefits, blood pressure, lipid profiles, fitness, detoxification, I’ve seen studies with sauna reducing pain in fibromyalgia patients, fatigue and anxiety and chronic fatigue, lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, lower risk of depression, improved insulin sensitivity, respiratory symptoms. Can you imagine if there was a drug that did all this? Like how much airplay that would get. How it would be, like, hailed as a sort of miracle treatment. And yet, this is actually what sauna does, and certainly the word is getting out there. I think more people are becoming aware of it.

But still on, it kind of, and in other areas of the world, like in Finland, as you pointed out, everybody knows that. And most houses have saunas in them. But in our culture, I think saunas are still largely seen as something you might go in when you go to the gym to work out for a couple minutes after your workout or something, just for relaxation, and the health benefits are not widely known.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, that’s true. It’s unfortunate, but people are, we are changing minds every day here at SaunaSpace. I’ve got about 7,000 customers now. They use a near infrared sauna, so we’ll talk about that in a minute. But it’s growing, and the more, and I think it’s also an increased awareness that toxicity and toxic burden is one of the core disease factors that we have here in modern life, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. You can’t just exercise and eat your way out of disease. There is a need to reduce the toxic burden somehow and sauna’s clearly the most effective way to detoxify the cells and the body as well. And that’s what I wanted to talk about, actually, before we go into different sauna types.

How Heat Therapy Works

Some people are unclear as to the difference between sauna and hot tub or sauna and a hot pad, or heat pack, or maybe a far infrared heating mat, different ways you can heat the body up. People see them as different things, and in a way they’re kind of the same in how they heat the body up. So just briefly, the mechanism of heat therapy, of detox therapy, of the heat benefiting the body and the cells is very simple. You just heat up the cells by three degrees for a period of minutes and you get a detoxification response in the cell. You get these, heat shock proteins are produced, and you probably covered that in your, some of your articles and your other podcasts and stuff.

But basically you get the cell detox going on in the cell, more blood supply, more tissue oxygenation, and then the toxins come out of the cells into the bloodstream. And if we’re sweating, which is what we do in a sauna as opposed to a heat pad, or just a heat therapy where we’re not sweating, the sweat eliminates the toxins in the most effective, least energetic fashion possible.

So that’s the big difference and that’s why you need to sweat. That’s why just a light therapy device or just a heat pad is not doing this deep, effective, least stressful way to do full-body toxin elimination, as is passive sweating. And that’s also a big difference between passive sweating, which is parasympathetic, healing sweating, and exercise sweating. And then it has to do with being in a stress state, your autonomic nervous system when you’re in a parasympathetic state, your sweat has a very high concentration percentage versus when you’re on the treadmill running. You’re in what’s called fight-or-flight, you’re in sympathetic dominance, you’re responding to the stress of the environment. All of your cellular energy is going towards locomotion and responding to the environment. Your cells are saying, “I don’t have any energy left over to heal and to eliminate and to repair. I need to survive here.”

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Brian Richards:  And so we see that in the studies too. There’s a cool study, or a very interesting study, on the 9/11 rescue workers where they got all this toxic petrochemical exposure from the 9/11 rescue efforts, and they did the Hubbard sauna protocol twice a day, wet sauna with a high-dose niacin, and their toluene, like their petrochemical concentrations in their blood, were reduced incredibly. Like in some cases up to 90 percent over a couple months of sauna use. And that’s very different from if you measure the sweat concentration of someone running on the treadmill, there’s just not much toxin concentration in the sweat. So very different sweating in the sauna is definitely detoxing you. Running on the treadmill is not, even though you’re sweating.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Totally different set of benefits for different reasons, which I think you explained well. So I’m going to put a link to an article I wrote about health benefits of sauna, which links to the studies we’ve been talking about and many others. And those who want more information about how incredibly diverse and powerful sauna use can be, you can check that out.

We’re going to move on now to talk a little bit more about the different types of saunas and some of the other questions that, I see a lot of confusion about from people in the space, and I get a lot of questions about from my patients. So let’s start, Brian, with the different types of sauna and then why you ended up choosing near infrared for SaunaSpace.

What Makes Near Infrared Sauna Therapy Different

Brian Richards:  Yeah. All saunas deliver heat therapy and all saunas, or almost all saunas, you sweat in. So in that sense, they have similarities. But then there are many differences. The classic sauna is the Finnish sauna, the wood-fired is the original sauna, and then they came up with the electric hot rock sauna. So you pour water on the electrical coil-heated hot rocks, but it’s still a wood cabinet.

And then in the 60s or the 70s, I think 50 or 60 years ago, they came out with a far infrared emitter. So it’s a long, skinny ceramic emitter that emits far infrared wavelengths, those are the low-energy infrared wavelengths, 3,000 nanometers and greater. And that was an advancement because it was much lower energy consumption and it was dry. So it was much more tolerable to do 150-degree far infrared sauna than a 200-degree wet sauna and also more energy efficient. And it also fit into, it’s a thin element, so it fits into the wall of the sauna and it allowed them to keep the same wood box sauna aesthetic that the market understood, “this is a sauna.” It’s this big wood cabinet or this big, this wood hut.

But interestingly enough, like I said in the beginning, the first electrically powered sauna was actually the incandescent lamp sauna. So that’s what we do here. We use an incandescent-based near infrared sauna. So it’s a different light technology. It’s 200 … we use four 250-watt red-filtered incandescent lamps to heat the body up, and this is definitely quite a bit different from any other sauna. Number one because it’s a light therapy sauna. And that’s kind of where the confusion comes in. People think that all infrared is the same. It’s not. The near infrared wavelengths exclusively stimulate the light therapy systems in our cells, what’s called photobiomodulation, or mitochondrial, stimulation. And I’ll mention that in a second. Or I can explain that a little more here in a minute. But before that, first of all, near infrared, why near infrared for detox or heating the body? Near infrared wavelengths penetrate up to 9 inches into the body.

It Provides a Deeper Detox

So when you sit in a SaunaSpace sauna, in a near infrared sauna, and your shirt’s off,

of course because your clothing blocks the light, the core cells of your body are being heated up immediately. So it’s a more effective, deeper detox and deeper heating effect, and it occurs at a lower ambient air temperature. In a near infrared sauna, it’s only, like, 110 degrees inside because we are using these deep-penetrating, radiant heating methodology. That’s in contrast to a far infrared sauna. Due to water absorption, far infrared wavelengths are 100 percent absorbed by water. And you can see this concept more in detail on my science page on SaunaSpace.com. So you can see the graphs and the spectrum and the water absorption. But basically our bodies are all water, and there’s a lot of water in the atmosphere, and if you look at sunlight, 40 percent of sunlight that reaches the earth is near infrared. Because near infrared is not well absorbed by water. In compare and contrast, only 5 percent of far infrared reaches the earth. Almost all of it is absorbed by the water in the atmosphere, and it’s the same thing in our body. And since our body is, there’s so much water in our body, far infrared wavelengths are stopped once they hit water. Whereas near infrared can get in really deep.

This is why I think it’s no coincidence that the light receptor cells in our body, the mitochondrial ones, are uniquely activated by near infrared. We don’t have any light receptors for far infrared. So that’s a big difference between near and far infrared. The near infrared sauna is a deeper, safer, more effective detox that also brings these light therapy benefits. Whereas a far infrared sauna, or a wet, a Finnish sauna is just a heat therapy. And that’s good, but it’s only like a piece, that’s a part of the pie here. There’s another part of, there’s a bigger pie here that SaunaSpace is dealing with the infrared, and that’s this light therapy stuff.

Chris Kresser:  Let me just interject before we go there. Because it’s a really, it’s a noticeable difference. I had a far infrared sauna for, as you know, Brian, for a few years and enjoyed using it. And then I tried the SaunaSpace when I was at Paleo f(x) on the exhibition floor, and that’s where I met Brian. I talked to Brian and did some of my own research and learned a little bit more. But the real practical proof of it was just my first session in the near infrared sauna. So with the far infrared sauna, I used to have to heat it up for two hours.

That was one of the biggest bummers on a practical level. Because if I wanted to use the sauna and I had forgotten to turn it on and heat it up, I couldn’t do it. So it would take a couple hours for me to get it up to, like, 145, which is where it needed to be for me in order to get a good sweat. And it would take me quite a bit longer to start sweating in the far infrared unit. And then when I tried the near infrared at SaunaSpace, first of all, I turn it on five minutes ahead of time instead of two hours, which is a huge benefit for me just from a practical perspective. And then I started to sweat within five to seven minutes rather than maybe 20 minutes in the infrared sauna, which meant I was sweating for much longer throughout the course of being there. And I felt that deep penetration. I could just sense that it was penetrating much more deeply. And that’s why perhaps I was sweating so much more easily. So it’s a really, it was a palpable difference, for me at least.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, and it typically is for folks like yourself who have already, who know sauna, have had a far infrared sauna. The near infrared sauna, like you say, it just heats you up so much better, so you sweat faster and you do it at a lower ambient air temperature. Which means it’s not just quicker to preheat, which is more convenient for you, it’s also safer. And that’s a big, for me, that’s a huge advantage of near infrared. This is safer, it’s more effective and deeper heating, but it’s also safer.

It’s Safer for People with Heat Sensitivities

So for folks with heat sensitivities, with chronic illness, with neuropathies, of many thousands of customers that we have, a huge portion of them are dealing with severe chronic illness. So they have neuropathies, heat sensitivity, tachycardia-like symptoms where they just can’t handle anything intense. They can’t use a regular sauna at all at 200 degrees. They can’t even handle far infrared, many of them, at 150 degrees. Not to mention the electromagnetically sensitive crowd. They also have issues with some of these other saunas. This is a sauna that even the most neuropathic, heat-sensitive, weak folks can use. And we’ve also put some design elements in there, like the ability to reduce the number of lamps used and the ability to keep the curtain open so that people can do a reduced protocol, and it just really widens access to sauna.

Here’s a sauna for the first time that folks with, we were just at the Wahls Protocol conference, an MS-focused conference, and it was just so exciting to see people there who were, they don’t have access to sauna otherwise. But they do with SaunaSpace because it’s a more gentle thing to do it with the infrared. It’s just, and everybody needs this, but they need to detox, but unfortunately, in other saunas they can’t handle it.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Brian Richards:  I think that’s a huge benefit.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I met an MS patient when I was skiing in Park City last year and he moved to Park City and spends the winter there because he is so heat sensitive that he just feels better. He kind of goes or moves around to cold places basically and is super heat intolerant. And I’ve seen that in a lot of MS patients as well.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, I even have another quick story I can tell. Her name is V Capaldi, she’s an MS warrior, she’s an MS advocate, she’s been dealing with progressive MS for many years, I think seven or eight years at least, maybe more. She travels around the country promoting MS awareness. It’s called the BAM Van. She’s also called Paleo Boss Lady on social media. Anyway, I met her last year and she travels around in a van, and she can’t fit our whole pocket sauna in her van, of course, so she actually uses our targeted therapy product, called our single light.

And one of her major symptoms of MS is that she has body temperature regulation problems. It’ll get too hot and too cold, kind of like the example you mentioned where if they just can’t handle heat, they can’t handle cold, and then their body heats up and they can’t cool down and vice versa. So just using the targeted therapy of the single lamp on her feet, on her gut, on her head, a couple times throughout the day every day, she’s had a major reduction in her body temperature regulation symptoms. And when she stops using it, they come back. So she’s had kind of a full-body response to even a targeted therapy, which I think is really, it just speaks to how our bodies really crave this light and this heat, this particular form of it. This natural form with lots of near infrared that you don’t get from other light sources other than sunlight.

It’s a Pleasurable Experience

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, it’s a really … Yeah, I mean, I think that like we were saying before, that thinking about therapies like this that have worked via multiple mechanisms but are also well tolerated by a wide number of people and are, I think you mentioned something that’s very important, are pleasurable. So many health practices involve restriction or taking something out, people going on specialized diets. I enjoy exercise and many people do, but not everyone does. And so having to exercise regularly can be a drag for some people. And even things like sleep is very pleasurable when you’re sleeping well, but a lot of people feel like they don’t have enough time to do other things that they want to do in the evening. And so it can be sometimes a drag to go to sleep. But it’s pretty cool when we stumble on something that’s actually really pleasurable and enjoyable, and also is really good for you.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, that’s what people reported. Certainly I feel that too. It’s that same kind of feeling you get in sunlight were the sun heats you from within. It feels groovy. Also, if you’re in front of a fireplace or in front of a campfire, these are also incandescent light sources. So you get that same kind of “ah, this just feels good.” The indescribable feel-good feeling. And that really is what we call mitochondrial stimulation. That’s what this light therapy stuff is. So that’s what’s also so exciting about near infrared saunas. We’re doing all the things we just described. Deeper, better, more effective detox. We’re also doing light therapy.

Why Light Is a Nutrient

Light therapy is a fascinating concept. I mentioned it before a little bit with Dr. Kellogg’s Light Therapeutics book. There’s so much that’s going on here that it’s hard to address all of it in just a few minutes, but certainly we have a lot in our research archive if you want to dive into a lot of the low-level light therapy studies. We have a nice sampling of them in our research archive on SaunaSpace.com. There’s over 8,000 light therapy studies now or more in the literature. So this is very well documented. But basically it’s, light is a nutrient. Natural light is a nutrient and there are definitely benefits of UV light with vitamin D production and blue light in terms of regulating our circadian rhythm and telling us when to be awake, when it’s time to go to bed. But if we look at sunlight and humans’ experience with sunlight, 40 percent of it, so a plurality of the sunlight that we get is near infrared. And it’s only near infrared, also a little bit of red light, that stimulates our mitochondrial healing systems, what’s called photobiomodulation of the light receptor protein in the mitochondria.

And so we have all these amazing healing benefits, just an array of healing pathways that are activated when the light, just by a function of the near infrared light hitting the mitochondria. And so for those of you who aren’t familiar, the mitochondria are a little battery, little batteries in the cells of our body. We have them in every cell of the body except red blood cells. So it’s everywhere and they all are activated by infrared light. And when we shine infrared light on them, we get some amazing effects. First of all, cell metabolism is boosted, vasodilation occurs through nitric oxide release, and the reactive oxygen species is formed. And for those of you who are familiar with that, unlike with blue light, in this case the reactive oxygen species is a good thing. These three entities—the ATP being produced, the NO, the nitric oxide, and the ROS—interact together and promote all these different effects called the mitochondrial functions:

  • Inflammatory mediation
  • Cell regeneration
  • Epigenetic repair
  • Genetic, or a gene expression, repair

So we’re antiaging the cell and the DNA itself, we’re also fixing how the cell works, we’re also promoting beneficial healing effects outside of the cells, and it’s something we can do in every cell of the body. So there’s a cellular effect, if we look at the tissue studies and the organism studies, animals and humans, we see some incredible stuff. We see, just to give you a few examples, Chris, we see:

  • Amelioration from neuropathies
  • Improved recovery from TBI, from heart attack, from stroke
  • Reduced inflammation in the tissues

And then if you look at some of the other studies, I mean, you name the study and you look at it on the PubMed, whether it’s psoriasis or like I said, TBI, or even MS studies now, and others, this light has a healing effect on the whole body, on the whole organism. And it’s also a nutrient. So it’s, it actually satisfies a caloric requirement in part. It’s literally energizing the cell without sugar and at the same time doing all these healing benefits. And so imagine you do all of these healing benefits while you’re doing the sauna. So it’s making the detox less stressful, more effective, just more cellular energy means the cell has more energy to detox with.

So again, a safer way to do detox, a more accessible way, and then all these benefits that are conveyed by the light therapy itself are tremendous. And they were a core part of our ancestral experience that we got every day and that we don’t get now anymore with what we have. Not just being indoors and being closed, but we now use LED and fluorescent light to light our homes, and that’s all blue light, which is, it’s just high-energy damaging light. It damages our cells and it stresses us out and makes us unhappy.

Chris Kresser:  So I think the mitochondrial benefit is really interesting to me and I think can go a long way toward explaining how a single therapy like this could affect so many different conditions. Because as you explained, mitochondria are the fundamental battery of the cells. And if the mitochondria are not functioning well, then nothing’s gonna work right. Conversely, if the mitochondria are functioning optimally, then everything else is going to get better. And I think that together with the reduction of inflammation and the release of stored toxins, toxic burden and the improvement of circulation, since blood carries everything that we need to heal, nutrients, oxygen, anti-inflammatory substances, etc., when you understand the various mechanisms, it becomes a lot more clear how it could have an impact on such a diverse range of conditions.

Tips on How to Use Sauna Therapy Effectively

Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about some considerations for sauna therapy. Okay, saunas are great, near infrared sauna has some unique benefits. But I rarely hear much discussion about how do you use it.

  • How often should you use it?
  • How long should you stay in?
  • What should you do before and after to optimize the experience?
  • Are there any special considerations, contraindications, cautions, etc.?

I’d love to chat about that for a little bit. Maybe just starting with kind of, we can look at it kind of temporally. What are the best things to do before you go in the sauna? Let’s start there.

Drink Plenty of Water Beforehand and Pay Attention to Your Diet

Brian Richards:  Yeah, it’s definitely a few things to consider. You definitely want to drink clean water, either spring water or clean water before and after the sauna. You do lose a lot of water. Other lifestyle considerations definitely include having a nutritious natural food diet, whatever is good for your body. And because you’re detoxing all these chemicals and toxins and heavy metals out of your body, the heavy metals, the body’s using heavy metals because you didn’t have enough good metals in the first place. And so you need to replace all those protein sites and cofactor sites, and just areas in the body with good nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. And of course a few other considerations too. You don’t want to go into a sauna after you ate a heavy meal because your body’s energy is going towards digesting that meal. But otherwise you can.

Chris Kresser:  What about exercise prior to sauna?

Brian Richards:  Great question. So some people will say don’t do sauna immediately after exercise because you’re too sympathetic dominant. But if you’re a person who exercises in the evening after work, then in some ways sauna is, the best time to do sauna is after you exercise because your body is so stressed out. Let’s get it back into a parasympathetic healing state. Not just for the healing benefits and the detox of the sauna, but also to prepare you for sleep. So we have a big portion of our customers who are big exercise folks and they do their workout after work. And they get in their SaunaSpace when they get home, or they do their sauna right before bed, and that’s fine. So it’s fine right after the exercise, and I also recommend that in some ways for the lactic acid detoxification is accelerated, there’s associations of near infrared light therapy with accelerated wound and muscle healing. So the tearing of the muscle fibers and just recovery overall after the workout.

Chris Kresser:  One thing I’ve noticed is if I exercise at some point, let’s say I exercise in the afternoon and then I go in the sauna a couple hours later before dinner or something, I will  sweat a little more quickly than I will if I go in the sauna first thing in the morning, like right after I wake up and I haven’t really moved my body at all. So I don’t know that that really matters much, but if I wanted to sweat more quickly and more throughout the sauna use, that’s something I’ve noticed on a personal level.

Choose a Time That’s Convenient for You

Brian Richards:  And that’s echoed by others as well. I think it’s, what’s going on there is your body is already a little bit heated up. So it just takes less time to get to that point and you will sweat a little more. It just depends on the flow of your day and what’s most convenient. I’m all about convenience being king, and that’s one of the primary focus points of SaunaSpace design and my company, everything I do. Do it when you can do it and when it’s convenient for you. If it’s the morning or the evening or right before bed or after your workout, do it where you can increase your frequency as much as possible. So if we’re talking about frequency and duration and how do we use this thing, all the studies show that the more frequency per week leads to increased benefits, proportionally better benefits, it’s better.

So at least once a day, at least three times a week. But ideally five times a week. I personally use it before work on the work day. So that’s about five days a week, and I don’t actually use it as long as I used to. When I was doing my serious healing recovery, I would do 45 minutes religiously right before bed. Now I am so well acclimated, and I sweat so quickly, and in general I’m just more or less in general good health and feeling great, so I do 20 minutes, 20, 25 minutes before work. But the maximum use is a one-hour session up to twice a day. So there are cancer protocols out there like the McDougall cancer protocol and others where they’re doing an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.

Chris Kresser:  Right, it’s kind of like a form of hyperthermia.

Wait Until You’re Sweating Vigorously

Brian Richards:  Yeah, this is absolutely hyperthermia therapy. And again, a very safe way to do so. But for those of you who, again I don’t, we don’t want this to be a burden for you. We don’t want it to be just another thing you have to do that is its own stress to have to get to and do to it. So every time you want to get in the sauna, you want to sweat through your torso, strong sweating for five or 10 minutes. And that’s at least 10 minutes.

Chris Kresser:  And it depends how long it takes you to start sweating. I mean, that’s what you just mentioned in terms of, like, if you’ve done it a little bit more, you might start sweating a little sooner or maybe your sessions can be a bit shorter. I’ve noticed, as I mentioned, that when I exercise at some point, maybe a couple hours prior, I sweat more quickly and therefore my sessions can be a little bit shorter. So it seems to depend on a few different circumstances. But it sounds like you want to be sweating, you want to be in there for at least what, 10, 15 minutes after you start sweating?

Brian Richards:  Yeah, 10 minutes, at least 10 minutes. So when you get in there, it takes between five and 20 minutes to start sweating vigorously. Very much is dependent on your toxic profile, where you’re coming from, and so forth. But when you start sweating vigorously, that’s when you’ve relaxed the nervous system into that parasympathetic heal state, and you’re getting the maximum detox and the maximum kind of light therapy benefits. And it really behooves you to just stay in a little bit longer. So you want to sweat, beading up sweat on your torso at least, for about 10 minutes. And that’s good enough definitely to start out. That would be the minimum. Each time you get in, you get that sweat going on. But it’s important to understand that you don’t need to get that the first time.

And folks who are heat sensitive have low resting body temperature. And I’ve met many of these, many new customers have been dealing with this, you might not sweat at all the first time or the first couple times. And that doesn’t mean it’s not working. That means that you’re in a toxic homeostasis and you need to shift your body’s profile over to healing. And it’s kind of counter, it’s fighting against that a little bit. But eventually you stay in, you keep trying it, you keep sitting and doing the session, and you will eventually provoke a sweat. And then eventually you’ll provoke a sweat more quickly and you’ll sweat more easily as your body acclimates to the therapy. And it’s the same for folks who are very neuropathic and very heat sensitive. They may only start out with five minutes. They may only use only two lamps, but eventually the mitochondria get reactivated, the body shifts, it starts to detox, and it’s an intelligent way of detoxing, unlike chelation, which is nonselective and kind of takes everything out. This, you’re stimulating the body to do detox and healing in the way it wants to, in the order it wants to.

So all the, everybody who’s ever tried it eventually comes around. Even I’ve had customers who it took them three months to be able to sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, and the whole time they had to keep the curtain open or were using less lamps. Some people are very, start out very sensitive. But everybody comes around, and then you get to a regular standard sort of use of at least 20 minutes or so. And just the more the merrier in terms of frequency. But also if you take a break for a month or two, no big deal. It’s no reason to be blameful of yourself or anything like that. You just come back to it and put it back into your life.

Shower after You’re Done

Chris Kresser:  Cool. So how about after. So you finished sauna, you sweat, some of that sweat has toxins, so what do you suggest in terms of cleaning after a sauna use?

Brian Richards:  So I highly recommend you have a natural bristle or a boar bristle brush, a shower brush, and you get in the shower, either hot or cold water, whatever you prefer, and you scrub every single inch of your body. Your scalp, all of your skin, even your nether regions. And what that does is it exfoliates and makes your skin look amazing, but it also pulls the dead skin cells off your body that the toxins are kind of clinging to. And it’s an important step to just kind of end the whole session. Get in, rinse off the sweat that has all these toxins in it and scrub. So it’s not so important to use soap as it is to just scrub your body. And so either a loofah or a bristle brush, it feels amazing, even though it’s kind of rough the first time. Maybe you do it and it really, that’s a really key step. And that also gives you a chance to ease out of your sauna. So you rinse off in the shower, do your scrubbing, and you take another 15 or 20 minutes before you jump back into the stress of modern life and back into all the sympathetic activity.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s helpful. I have the brush myself and do that. I really love it. It’s its own therapy as you pointed out, like the exfoliation and just how that kind of seems to wake up the skin and open the pores. It feels really good. It’s a great way to end the therapy.

Use a Light Panel for Localized Relief

We’ve only got a few minutes left. I want to talk a little bit about EMF just in general, but more specifically in relation to infrared sauna therapy before we finish up. And I also, before we even go there, I wanted to mention you have a pretty unique product that can be used to extend the benefits of sauna use and give yourself exposure to near infrared light even when you’re not in the sauna, which is your single light panel.

And I know from talking to you and also reading some of the reviews that people are using it in really interesting ways. Some people are using it to deal with neuropathic foot pain or lack of circulation in the lower parts of their legs, and they’re applying just the single light maybe when they’re seated at their desk or something like that. It has in some cases regrown capillaries and nerves in those lower parts of the legs for EMF patients or diabetics with neuropathy. And people are using it, shining it on their gut if they have GI issues, or on their face if they have acne. And tell us a little more about that because I think it’s pretty interesting as a complement or way to extend the benefits of sauna therapy, or maybe for someone who doesn’t have the space for the full unit or can’t afford it yet.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, that’s SaunaSpace’s single light panel. I mentioned that story about V Capaldi earlier. You kind of hit all of the major points of what people are using this for. It does not replace the sauna. The sauna, you’re also sweating. It’s a full-body experience. You’re having deep detox with sweating, which makes the detox the least stressful and most effective way to do it. But nonetheless, you can use the single light for localized relief. So it’s a targeted therapy product. People are using it for relief of localized, or at the local tissue level. So you just shine it on the exposed body part one to two feet away for 10 minutes or more, and maybe even up to an hour, depending on the body part, except the head, and you can do that many times a day up to 10 times a day.

Chris Kresser:  That’s what I was going to ask you. So just to clarify, up to an hour but you can do it multiple times a day.

Brian Richards:  Yeah. Up to an hour, up to even 10 times a day. So maybe once an hour. If you’re doing it on the head or the throat, the protocol is to limit to 10 minutes. But you could still do that many times a day. So people are using it for, if they have TBI or fog issue, the brain fog issues, or me personally, it makes me feel better and happier if I don’t get enough sleep or if I’m traveling, I always bring my single light. Because travel is stressful. And there are other things too, though. You mentioned gut, for gut health, for neuropathies in the extremities, for cramping, for headaches. A few other, it’s basically, it’s helping heal and it’s bringing light and heat therapy to that local body part. And so whatever your problem is, it may very well help what’s going on there just shining this light on it.

And our products are EMF shielded so there’s no electric or magnetic field stress to the user when we use it. So you can use this very close to the body, one to two feet away. And another application is what I personally use, you can see that on our Facebook or also on our website on SaunaSpace.com. I use it at the office. So I have it mounted to a computer monitor arm on QuickConnect, and I shine it on my body and on my head throughout the day periodically to counteract the blue light stress from the computer screen and also from, unfortunately, we have fluorescent lighting in the office still, and so it’s really interesting. Infrared light is the antidote to blue. So blue is damaging, and infrared counteracts that, and it also counteracts the flicker stress of LED and of fluorescent light, so from our monitor screens and also from the lighting above us. It’s a great way to get this healing light into your life, especially if you’re like me, many hours at the computer running my business. It’s a key thing that I can’t even work at a computer without it honestly. So it’s really cool the way to use it.

But you can also use it at the home, on the couch, when you’re reading a book, when you’re watching TV. It’s so small and portable you can bring it anywhere. And it’s just an adjunct to the full-body therapy of the full sauna. But it definitely, people are getting some amazing relief with it.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I’m really looking forward to trying that because I’m someone who’s pretty sensitive to blue light and also work a lot at a computer, and I use some software applications to kind of change the light that’s emitted. That helps a little bit and I have pretty good light in my office. But still, I just feel totally zonked after many hours in front of the computer and I’m trying to reduce that in other ways. But I’m looking forward to having the benefit of the near infrared. Because I certainly know how I feel when I get out of the sauna.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, and so it’s very helpful. But there’s another aspect, and you’ll really love it once you try it out, Chris. But there’s another aspect that is really stressing us out in the office and also in our lives. It’s what you asked me to mention here.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

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How Electromagnetic Stress Is Damaging Our Health

Brian Richards:  It’s EMF issues. We are surrounded by what’s called this electrosmog. Electromagnetic stress is definitely damaging to our health. And for those of you who are not familiar with this, you can look up Dr. Pall’s work, the voltage-gated calcium channel effect, where basically we have these little voltage-gated calcium channels in every cell of the body, and most densely in the nervous system and in the brain. And those are seven million times more sensitive to electromagnetism than a water molecule is.

So the telecom industry says, “Well, here’s water, and here’s what a microwave signal from a cell phone tower does to water. It doesn’t do a whole lot. And so EMFs are not bad for us. So they’re okay. They’re safe.” But the fact of the matter is, the voltage-gated calcium channels in all the cells are way more sensitive to this. And when we actually understand that and look at this and study this, we see that, and Dr. Pall has, again, done some of the best work in this, we see so many problems that these cause. And we’re talking about non-ionizing, non-thermal radiation. So even the microwave thing on the cell phone towers, even the electricity, the dirty electricity leaking out of our walls, increases our body voltage. We absorb it and it causes all these different bad health effects in the cells. And some of the basic ones are like anxiety and depression and nervous system issues. But also, it’s been associated with other things like cancerous issues, there’s also heart issues because the heart is controlled by electricity, the beating of the heart.

And really, if you look at it and you step back and say, “Well, what’s going on here?” Every single system in the body is electromagnetic much more than biological. We are, we’re a quantum mechanical electromagnetic organism. Everything is all about voltage gates, and the blood–brain barrier is a voltage gate. And the mitochondria we talked about is an electric, it’s an electrical potential drop that the electrons are passing through. So all of these systems are disrupted by EMF stress. It’s man-made EMF stress. So it’s a bad nervous system stressor, it’s in all of our lives, and it’s a subtle thing. So it’s slowly wearing us down. And it’s worse in the office, in places with a lot of electronics and a lot of Wi-Fi and cell phone signals, those are the most damaging spaces. And so we need protection from this. And that is one of the core things that SaunaSpace has addressed. Our product doesn’t, our product is the only sauna on earth and the only light therapy device on earth that delivers zero electric and magnetic field stress on the user. So that’s pretty cool. It’s pretty unique. I’ve worked a long time to get that to be that way.

And then what we’ve done in our journey now in product development is we’ve taken it to the next level. We have an electric field-shielding liner system we’ve developed for our pocket sauna for our sauna. And so it’s an optional upgrade that prevents all Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and dirty electricity, all of these electric fields from getting inside the sauna. So now for the first time ever, it’s not just a light therapy sauna and a better detox, it’s now a therapy that’s protected from all this EMF stress that’s around us 24 hours a day. So we don’t have any research, of course, on the degree to which this is better, but certainly one could speculate that the parasympathetic relaxation, the mitochondrial stimulation, the detox, all of the cellular systems we’re trying to activate and trigger in this multifactorial near infrared sauna therapy, they’re all better. They’re all working more optimally.

Chris Kresser:  Right, and that’s going to be, as you argued, arguably important for everybody. But there are some people who have really severe electrical hypersensitivity, and probably many listeners to this show. And the ability to have a space where they can not only be exposed to more because the lamps themselves are protected, but also kind of have a respite from additional exposure from the ambient environment is a pretty amazing thing to offer.

So, Brian, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a really fascinating conversation. I know folks are going to get a lot out of this. And so they can learn more about SaunaSpace at SaunaSpace.com. You’ve got a lot of articles there too and videos, I think, which are really helpful. Tell us a little more about what’s there, what they can find.

Brian Richards:  So in our science section on SaunaSpace.com you can find some of my in-depth articles where I review the literature. And for those who like the citations and like the research, we also have a research archive as well, where we house not everything, but a lot of these PubMed articles are linked to there. But we do have a lot, some growing number of videos to kind of explain some of these things. It is complicated. So for those of you who want dive into the science of light therapy, of heat therapy, of EMF protection we have a lot on SaunaSpace.com. And I’d like to just say one more thing before we go.

We talked so much about how we want to heal and the therapy and what’s going on scientifically. I think it’s important to understand too, doing this, what we do here at SaunaSpace is not just the healing therapies. It’s about the escape, as you mentioned, the respite from the sensory overload. We’re inundated with all of this over-stimulus and stress all day long, and we don’t have a space that we can do healing in, a core rejuvenative practice to make us more successful in life and feel better and happier. And that’s what we’ve designed here is it’s a very clean space from a sensory perspective. The beauty is in the simplicity of it. And so it doesn’t have glass doors and Bluetooth-enabled stereo speakers. It’s just, it’s quiet. It’s quiet to the senses and you can just sit there and do all this healing, do all these amazing things and just be. And not to mention, it’s pretty cool.

The design is very convenient and portable, not like your cabinet sauna that you used to have, Chris. It’s a pop-up, it’s very, it’s modern, it’s lightweight, it’s more portable. I think it has a convenience to the design that helps people maintain the discipline and how to be fun and pleasurable. So they can get all these benefits and have it not be just another gadget, another burden in their life that it’s another thing they have to do. It’s something that they will want to do.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. I definitely appreciate the design. It’s elegant all the way down to the stool and the wood and the finishing. It’s a pleasure to see and use. The fact that it’s relatively portable, it’s not something you’re going to take on a plane when you go on a weekend trip, but if you move, you can easily bring it with you, which is absolutely not the case for my big cabinet cell sauna. In fact, when we sold it, we had to completely take it apart in order for the people to take it away. It was kind of a hassle. But this is, I actually, one of our staff members, Jon, who you met, Brian, I think because he has more limited space, he actually collapses the sauna after use. He takes out the front bar and just collapses it and tucks it away in a corner. So if you do have limited space, I like that about it too. I’m lucky to have a space for it where I just keep it set up, but even then, it doesn’t take a lot of space, which is great.

Brian Richards:  Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely, it’s just a better approach to it. It’s a more thoughtful design. It’s more private, too, for people. If you’re going to get better, it’s got to be in your home. It’s got to be convenient. It’s got to be fun to use. And so that’s what we’ve really emphasized for about six years now. SaunaSpace is all that.

Chris Kresser:  Great. Well again, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been a wealth of knowledge, and I’m just grateful for what you guys are doing, the product you’re putting out there. It’s something I recommend to my patients and anyone who asks me about what sauna that I suggest and prefer. And this has come out of my own experience, having used lots of different kinds of saunas over the years. I’ve been a big proponent of saunas for many years and then ultimately ending up with this near infrared unit that I’m very happy with. And I feel like I’ve finally found my, the one that makes the most sense for me, both from a research, evidence-based perspective and also just from an experiential perspective. So thanks for making this and continuing to do the work that you do.

Brian Richards:  Thanks, Chris. Yeah, we’re just getting started here at SaunaSpace, but we definitely have something completely different here. It’s like no sauna anyone has ever seen before.

Chris Kresser:  Awesome. All right, thanks everyone for listening. Continue to send in your questions, ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll talk to you next time.

Brian Richards:  Thanks, Chris.

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  1. This is fantastic information!

    We recently bought a pocket sauna from sauna space and loving it. I had an old root canal infection that was causing a lot of issues and I’m still in a big healing phase, so I’m so grateful to have this.

    I have a question: should I be doing some cold water therapy after the sauna? Like finishing my shower with a cold rinse? Not sure if it’s recommended or not. I believe in cold water therapy but not sure if it’s good after the sauna.

    Thank you!