Last January I had the idea to open Inner Light, and a day before we started construction on our space I found out that I was pregnant. Two weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with twins. Being pregnant while launching Inner Light, and giving birth to twins in our first year open, is not the normal path. It was odd, to say the least, to be running a business based on a healing modality that at the moment I could not use. Yes, I had used infrared therapy in the past, but here I was with three beautiful, brand new saunas that I was not able to experience. Since then, I have read evidence that supports that saunas and heat are safe for pregnancy, but I chose to air on the side of caution and avoid all but a tepid bath. Each time I cleaned and prepped our saunas for our next guests, I would smell the warm, woody smell and linger for a moment, anticipating the next opportunity I would have to soak up that light.
Little did I know at the time how healing infrared sauna therapy can be for new moms, breastfeeding or otherwise. I discussed the benefits of infrared therapy for new mothers with my naturopathic doctor, my lactation consultant, and researched it at length. Infrared light increases circulation and decreases inflammation and has been clinically proven to combat many of the symptoms that are associated with the post-partum period including pain relief (muscles, joints, and chronic pain), fatigue, anxiety, and overall inflammation created by pregnancy. I have shared this information with other new mamas who have inquired, but I thought I would expand upon it here, with the caveat that I am not a doctor. Any new mother should follow her doctor, and her intuition, not necessarily in that order, in deciding what works best for her body.
Infrared light is a gentle radiant heat that penetrates up to 1.5" below the skin's surface and raises body temperature by nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The primary reaction that creates many of the benefits of infrared therapy is the significant increase in circulation that occurs during a sauna session. The hormone changes and the body’s focus on growing your baby create poor circulation in the body during pregnancy. This is what leads to the swelling in feet and hands – areas with less circulation. Infrared therapy can help the body by boosting circulation, which can counteract the poor circulation experienced throughout pregnancy. Further, increased circulation in the body can help heal wounds caused from childbirth trauma including Cesarean surgery.
This cardiovascular boost created by infrared light is intense enough to equate to a brisk walk or a light jog. With the trauma of childbirth, the intense fatigue of early motherhood, and everything else that comes along with that, it can be difficult for new mothers to access other forms of cardio – i.e. exercise. It has personally taken me a long time to get back into being able to exercise and I am still only able to do low-impact workouts. Infrared is an extremely gentle way to increase your cardio output, break a heavy sweat, and reap all the associated benefits.
For breastfeeding mothers, the circulation of infrared can help combat clogged ducts and mastitis. Almost every nursing mama will encounter at least one clogged duct, and even when it doesn’t turn into an infection (mastitis) it is extremely painful. The best way to treat these is heat and infrared is a gentle way to prevent and treat clogged ducts. However, if you already have a bad clogged duct, I recommend wet heat. A hot washcloth in the shower or soaking your breast(s) in a hot bowl of water followed by massage (and aspirin) and then pumping or nursing is your best bet.
All pregnancies create mild systemic inflammation in the body – it is part of what happens to a woman when growing a baby, it is completely normal. It’s different than the inflammation related to an illness, but too much inflammation during pregnancy can be caused by more serious complications like pre-eclampsia, which I suffered from. Many of us are already dealing with inflammatory issues like gut-health problems, immune disorders and hormone imbalances, and pregnancy can exacerbate these by adding to the inflammation in our bodies. Infrared light, specifically far- and mid-infrared, penetrates the body’s soft tissue to where inflammation occurs. It significantly increases the circulation in the body, expanding blood vessels, carrying oxygen throughout the body, helping bring down inflammation to healthy levels.
Fatigue and Pain
All new parents, mothers and fathers alike, suffer from fatigue post-partum. It’s inevitable, even with the sleepiest, easiest of babies. Most new mothers will experience pain throughout the body related to… hmm… I don’t know maybe the incredible feat of growing, carrying and giving birth to a human. Your body has been pushed to its limits physically and even if there is relatively little birth trauma, every new mother is going to experience some pain. Infrared therapy has been proven as a treatment for both pain relief and chronic fatigue. The main cause of this is due to the deep penetration of infrared light into joints, muscles and tissues to increase circulation, carry oxygen throughout the body, and bring down inflammation, to boost our healing responses in general. A recent study in Japan showed that chronic pain patients experienced up to 70% reduction in pain levels after just one session of infrared therapy.
Anxiety and Depression
Infrared has been proven to release endorphins and other positive neurotransmitters in our brains, which helps combat depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder. Scientists don’t yet understand what the mechanism behind infrared light, near infrared in particular, does to support the dramatic decreases in anxiety and depression being seen in recent studies. One study in particular found that of ten patients suffering from depression that were treated with two weeks of near-infrared therapy (panels applied directly to the skull), 6 out of 10 had complete remission according to one scale (HAM-A) and 7 out of 10 compared to another rating scale (HAM-D). Given the rise in post-partum anxiety and post-partum depression, infrared therapy could be beneficial for all new mothers as a preventative measure.
The simple act of taking out time for self-care, such as an infrared sauna session, is deeply healing. Being a new mother is the most overwhelming thing that has ever happened to me. I struggle with taking time for myself, even though I run a business that’s based on the concept of self-care. Especially during breastfeeding, we are completely beholden to our babies and it can be incredibly difficult to find time to do anything that’s just for us, including simple things like eating and bathing. I also suffer from baby fomo – I hate missing out on any moment with them, because I know this time is so fleeting and will be gone so fast, that even though the fussy times are so trying and exhausting, I prioritize time with my babies above everything else. But whenever I do take a couple hours to do something for myself, it is so rejuvenating. I am finding more and more that creating space for self-care helps me to be the most centered, loving version of myself.
One clinical study found that ceramic infrared panels applied directly to the breasts did increase overall lactation. However, after talking at length with my lactation consultant and doula, I do not think that at this point it can be stated that infrared boosts milk supply. From everything I have learned, milk supply is extremely personal to each mother and baby. For example, herbs had a significant effect on my milk supply, whether that’s been using sage tea to bring my oversupply down at some points or using mother’s milk to boost my supply, within a few days I see a big difference. For other women, nothing helps them increase their supply. I have learned that it is incredibly personal and differs from mother to mother, and even changes with the phase of nursing you are in. For example, around four months post-partum milk supply can regulate and be interpreted as a decrease when it is not – it’s just your body learning to make exactly what baby needs and nothing more. Anecdotally, we have had a few nursing mothers come in and feel engorged immediately after the infrared sauna session. For this reason we always recommend planning to go right home to baby or have a pump ready for after you sauna.
In the Negative
There are no known negative effects of infrared therapy on post-partum or nursing mothers in terms of scientific study. From what I know, here is what I can theorize. I have heard that for some mothers, they see a huge difference in their milk supply depending on how much water they drink. So if you did an infrared sauna session or exercised and sweated out a lot of water, but didn’t compensate by drinking enough to replenish yourself, a mother sensitive to hydration could experience a dip in supply. If you use infrared, you must make sure to drink enough water. The only other issue I can think of would be mothers with heavy metals issues. Naturopathic and alternative doctors recommend infrared therapy as a method of detoxification for clients suffering from heavy metals issues and chronic illnesses like Lyme disease. The theory is that the heat kills off bacteria and viruses and releases toxins from fat cells or other places they are stored in the body. The body then has to eliminate them through its natural elimination pathways – urine, excretion, and sweat being the main ones. From what I have learned about breastmilk, if there are any toxins in your body they can be passed into your milk, and theoretically infrared could release higher levels of toxins if you are very toxic and these could be passed into the milk as well. My naturopathic doctor tested all my levels of heavy metals and said that I had very low levels. You can have your metals tested or research the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity if this is a concern of yours.
Based on my personal experience and what I have read, I am confident in recommending infrared therapy as a healing tool for all new mamas and most breastfeeding mamas. I am not a doctor. Unfortunately, most doctors have very little to zero knowledge on infrared saunas, and there are few scientific studies done on infrared therapy and alternative medicine in general. I would not recommend it to any mother who thinks they may suffer from heavy metal toxicity or suffers from very low milk supply. I would highly recommend consulting with your lactation consultant or naturopathic doctor – mine are Annie Brown FNP, IBCLC, and Dr. Penelope McDonnell, respectively. I want to empower you to listen to your body, to your intuition, and to make time for yourself in this new phase of your life. Whether infrared is a part of that or not, Inner Light is here to be a place where you can also just pick up a book or a candle, or come to talk. Ever since my boys were born in December 2017, I felt the calling to help other mamas navigate pregnancy and new motherhood. It's one of the main things that inspired me to start sharing on my Journal, and I feel deeply inspired to help mamas through coaching. Click here to learn more.
The Post Natal Depletion Cure, Dr. Oscar Serrallach