Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Well-being July 2017: Sweat the small stuff with infrared saunas

By Elias Markou   

Features Health and Wellness Wellness annex Canada firefighter health wellness

As a naturopathic doctor, I have been helping firefighters detox their bodies for 15 years. At my practice, I have introduced the use of far infrared sauna therapy to the detoxification program. In the last few months, I have been called upon by a number of fire departments to report on the medical evidence that supports the use of far infrared sauna therapy.

Far infrared saunas differ fron traditional steam saunas. The traditional sauna is a small, often confining room, with a heat source that raises the immediate air temperature. The skin is heated and stimulated to open pores and release sweat.  Instead of external heat, far infrared saunas use an infrared light; the light penetrates the skin and reaches the internal muscle tissue. Body temperature is raised while the sauna remains at room temperature, just like the sun’s rays can warm the skin on a winter day while the air stays cold. Unlike traditional saunas, patients with cardiovascular conditions can easily tolerate far infrared sauna therapy.

Infrared light waves are used to penetrate deep into tissue and create internal heat and relax muscles; this triggers sweating, which releases water, minerals and toxins from the body.  

A 2012 study in the medical journal Photonics and Lasers in Medicine explores the biological and medical applications of far infrared sauna therapy. The authors explain that a narrow band of light radiation causes heat, which influences a tremendous portion of the body, including DNA, proteins, glycoproteins, water, fats, cell membranes and organs, which can result in biological changes.

According to the study, within a few minutes of far infrared exposure, participants reported a sudden increase in sweating and heart rate. When the body sweats and the heart rate increases, the body releases endorphins and relaxes.


I have personally completed more than 50 detoxification programs, and I have medically monitored thousands of firefighters throughout their wellness journeys. I have conducted hundreds of clinical cases using far infrared sauna therapy on patients, and more specifically, on firefighters.

In one case, a firefighter came to me with complaints of electrical sensations in his legs, and high blood pressure. I suggested he change his diet to remove all mercury-containing foods – this meant no fish or shellfish, such as tuna or shrimp. I then prescribed him 20 infrared sauna sessions over 20 weeks; the results were amazing. The firefighter’s blood pressure lowered and the electrical sensations stopped.

There are many benefits of infrared sauna therapy for firefighter health and well-being. In fact, studies have shown that far infrared sauna therapy can provide benefits in four key areas: musculoskeletal pain reduction; cardiovascular benefits, such as normalizing blood pressure and lowering cholesterol; stress reduction; and detoxification.

Finnish researcher Antti Mero found that high-level athletes who used far infrared sauna therapy reported greater muscle and pain recovery from endurance and strength training exercises than those who were not exposed to the therapy. Althletes also reported greater performance after therapy. Firefighters are athletes, and far infrared sauna therapy can help with muscle recovery after hours of exertion at practice or on the fire ground.

In 2009, the medical journal Canadian Family Physician published studies that support the treatment of congestive heart failure with far infrared sauna devices. The researchers also found that far infrared treatments can normalize blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A 2005 study published in Psychotherapy Psychosomatic, found far infrared treatments helped to improve participants’ moods and well-being. The studies showed that sauna treatments in combination with cognitive behavioural therapy resulted in decreased pain, depression and anger.

The Journal of Environmental and Public Health reviewed research looking at mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium in sweat after far infrared therapy in a 2012 study. According to the research, there was an increased level of heavy metal in sweat and urine after a far-infrared treatment. Firefighters may be exposed to dangerous toxins during certain calls, and far infrared therapy is a proven way to detox the body after returning from an incident.

Fire departments are always looking for new tools to keep firefighters healthy. Infrared saunas have an amazing safety track record; I have not found any studies that indicate a health risk to users and  in my experiences using far infrared saunas, there have been no negative side affects. I have recommended the treatment to hundreds of firefighters and there have been no adverse reactions. The average cost of one device is about $3,000, which is minimal considering the numerousbenefits for firefighters who are experiencing health issues.  I hope to see a day when firefighter use far infrared therapy as one of the many tools to treat chronic conditions such as muscle pain, heart disease, respiratory issues, stress and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Elias Markou is a naturopathic doctor based in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Markou was a firefighter for six years; he is a firefighter health expert and blogger.

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