Can a Far-Infrared Sauna liquify your fat cells?

Not the actual sauna in question (Image by Video4Net)

We don’t do many product reviews here on Obesity Panacea anymore, but sometimes you come across health claims that are so amazing that you can’t help but review them.  Such is the case with uTan – the University of Ottawa tanning salon.

uTan is based in the University of Ottawa Sports Complex.  You may, as I do, find it disconcerting that there is a tanning salon in a university-owned building, given the substantial links between tanning and cancer risk.  While it is certainly worth discussing, it’s not the purpose of this post.  Instead, I would like to focus on information that uTan uses to promote its Far-Infrared Sauna, which includes some of the most extreme health claims that I have ever seen.

From the uTan website:

BENEFITS OF FAR-INFRARED SAUNA:

  • Strengthens the cardiovascular system with deep Far Infrared penetration (up to 1.5″).
  • Far Infrared sauna detoxifies heavy metals, hydrocarbon residues, alcohol, nicotine, sodium and cholesterol.
  • Helps liquefy fat cells, burns calories and controls weight. Improves and clears cellulite. Most effective way of burning calories. Burns up to 500 calories in one full session.
  • Effective for treating sprains, muscle spasms and joint stiffness; relieves aches and pains.
  • Improves your immune system by sweating at a lower more comfortable temperature than a conventional hot sauna.
  • Increases overall health and resistance to disease.
  • Sharpens senses and relieves stress, leaving you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
  • Improves skin within a few minutes. Helps scars and burns. Acne, psoriasis and eczema conditions will also improve.
  • This sauna stimulates endorphins of the brain and kills organisms like bacteria and parasites.
  • The Far Infrared sauna’s energy penetrates deeply into the body producing a warming, relaxing and detoxifying effect.

I am skeptical of pretty much all of the above, save for the idea that the sauna could produce a “warming, relaxing” effect (although that does seem to contradict the claim that it also “sharpens senses”).  I cannot come up with any mechanism through which it could improve the cardiovascular system or “detoxify” the body of cholesterol (what does that even mean???).  But as you might guess, I am most concerned with their claims that the sauna can “liquify fat cells”, “controls weight” and that it is the “Most effective way of burning calories. Burns up to 500 calories in one full session”.

First off, let’s deal with those melting fat cells.

Now I don’t personally believe that this product liquifies your fat cells. Primarily because if it melted your fat cells, I see no particular reason to think that it wouldn’t also liquify the cells in your skin, heart, eyes, and testicles.  Further, there is absolutely no biological reason to think that a Far-Infrared Sauna could melt your fat cells, at least none that I have seen offered (the uTan website is unsurprisingly casual about referencing it’s numerous health claims).  Since I haven’t heard any reports of people’s skin melting in the Far-Infrared Sauna, and lacking a biologically plausible mechanism, I remain thoroughly skeptical.

But if I am wrong and the Far-Infrared Sauna actually does liquify fat cells, then that would be a far greater concern.  As regular readers of Obesity Panacea will know, fat cells are actually extremely important from a health perspective, and the loss of fat cells causes extreme metabolic dysfunctionHere’s what Peter has said about fat cells in the past:

Individuals who suffer from a condition called lipodystrophy, have little to no fat tissue (they look extremely athletic, with defined musculature) but display many of the metabolic symptoms thought to be exclusive to obese individuals. Lipodystrophy encompasses a heterogeneous group of disorders associated with whole body or partial lack of adipose tissue, which can be inherited (genetic-origin) or acquired. Not only are patients with lipodystrophy at increased metabolic risk, but the severity of metabolic complications observed is closely related to the extent of their fat loss.

The CBC recently produced a documentary on Joe Average, a Vancouver artist who suffers from severe lipoatrophy (a form of lipodystrophy) as a result of HIV treatment.  Here’s how they describe it on the CBC website:

He has ‘lipoatrophy’ – a particularly ghoulish and debilitating side-effect of anti-retro viral drugs….a condition that eats away body fat. At five-feet-eight-inches tall – Joe now weighs just over 100 pounds.

For anyone who doubts the importance of fat cells, his story is worth a listen.

Melting fat cells aside, could this be an effective way of burning calories or controlling body weight?

Probably not.  Traditional saunas (which the site goes to great length to distance itself from) have a short-term impact on blood hormone levels, which could theoretically alter energy expenditure by a very small amount.  But the claim that a Far-Infrared Sauna could burn up to 500 calories in a single session seems extremely unlikely, as does the claim that it can have any impact on body weight.  As with the melting fat cells, there is no biologically plausible mechanism that I know of that could explain these claims, and I have been unable to find any supporting information in PubMed.

What’s the take-home message?

In general, anytime that a product claims it can melt and/or liquify your fat tissue, you should be very concerned.  Not because it will work, but because it is almost certainly will not.  As a result, you should evaluate any related health claims (for example, that tanning is a healthy thing to do) with that in mind.

And if, like me, you are concerned about the claims being made by uTan, then I suggest you send a polite letter to uOttawa Sports Services at gee-gees@uottawa.ca.

Have a good weekend,

Travis

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14 Responses to Can a Far-Infrared Sauna liquify your fat cells?

  1. I’ve been curious about infrared saunas since Mark Hyman praised them in UltraMind (or one of his books). There are presumably health benefits from sauna in general, and the supposed plus of the infrared ones are that your body heats up without having to sit in a hot room (he or someone demo’d it on Oprah as I recall).

    But fat melting? I only wish ;).

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  2. Ruth says:

    Those are some eye-popping claims.

    As for fat cells, I’ve come to appreciate every single fat cell on my body in the last year (I’m neither over- nor under- weight so I don’t have particular reasons to love/hate them). I had to watch my mother starve to death over 6 months as her cancer made her virtually unable to eat or to take alternative forms of nourishment. It was that which killed her in the end, not “cancer.” Her body used up every single fat cell until she looked like a concentration camp survivor before she died and then like a concentration camp victim afterward. Getting rid of some fat cells may be a good thing if you’re trying to lose weight, but they’re inherently good.

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  3. Janis says:

    Okay, so even if it is Star-Trek magic technology and it does liquefy fat cells … where would the liquid GO? Or would it just stay under your skin sloshing around?

    BTW, I can guarantee you it wouldn’t liquefy a single cell in my testicles. :-)

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  4. Drew says:

    Attacking bad science with more bad science is lazy.

    Being skeptical is not a bad thing, but it has obviously blinded you from doing good investigation.

    Miyamoto, H. et al. Safety and efficacy in repeated sauna bathing in patients with chronic systolic heart failure: a preliminary report. Journal of Cardiac Failure. 2005; 11(6): 432-6.

    These claims also supported by Michalsen A, et al. Thermal hydrotherapy improves quality of life and hemodynamic function in patients with chronic heart failure. American Heart Journal. 2003; 146(4): 728-33

    Kihara, Takashi, et al. Effects of repeated saune treatment on ventricular arrhythmias in patients with chronic heart failure. Circulation Journal. 2004, 68: 1146-1151.

    Imamura, M, et al. Repeated thermal therapy improves impaired vascular endothelial function in patients with coronary risk factors. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2001, 38 (4): 1983-88.

    Masuda A, et al. Repeated thermal therapy diminishes appetite loss and subjective complaints in mildly depressed patients. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2005 67 (4): 643-47.

    Masuda, A, et al. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 2005; 74 (5): 288-94.

    I agree with the melting fat claim because that simply does not happen but using an argument that you can’t find an article on pubmed to justify your statement is a poor argument. All you can truly say is, I do not know of a mechanism that would support this claim nor any peer reviewed double blind studies that have tested this proposed hypothesis.

    “In a sauna, a moderately conditioned person can easily sweat off 500 g consuming nearly 300 kcal — the equivalent of running 2-3 miles. A heat-conditioned person can easily sweat off 600 to 800 kcal with no adverse effects.”* (As reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), August 7, 1981.)

    Perhaps doing an n=1 one experiment on yourself wearing a heart rate monitor might help convince you that although some of the claims of this specific case may be invalid or overblown throwing all the claims out based on your own opinion is equally flawed.

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  6. Pingback: The Value of Infrared Saunas | Electrical Body Natural Health Facts

  7. jojo says:

    travis, you are right in that it won’t liquify fat cells, or any other cell in the body – that is ridiculous. no cell, including fat cells can be liquified. when you “burn fat” to lose weight, only the fat gets burned, the cell itself remains. once you have fat cells, they don’t ever disappear, ever, but they can fill up with or lose the fat that is in them. fat does begin to liquify at a temperature of 115. this would include the fat inside your cells.

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