*Disclaimer: The written article is based on a summary of existing literature on the topic of infrared saunas. The article is for educational purposes and the information provided below cannot be taken as a promise to help with acute health problems or diseases. The claims in the article are backed by 19 scientific references. All references are numbered. You can access the text of the reference by clicking on the number.
You might think: "what do infrared saunas & toenail fungus have to do with each other?!"
The answer is that there's a scientific link between the two, and that in some individuals, infrared saunas may help you prevent or reverse toenail fungus. In order to arrive at that conclusion, we'll have to explore the science with you.
But, before we dig into the science, let's explain what toenail fungus fundamentally is.
Here we go:
What Is Toenail Fungus? Toenail Fungus 101
From a scientific standpoint, toenail fungus is also called "onychomycosis". The "onycho" part of the word stems from the Greek "related to the nail", and the "mycosis" part can be translated to "fungal in origin". Simply put, "onychomycosis" is a technical and complicated sounding name to denote simple toenail fungus.
In toenail fungus, fungi have successfully infected your toenails over a longer period of time (1; 2; 3). Common symptoms are losing your pearl-white nail colour and thickening of those same nails. Often, the shape of the nail also changes - aesthetically for the worse. The problems associated with toenail fungus aren't just aesthetical though: in severe cases, the fungus prevents normal walking and standing, gives you pain, and also affects the self-esteem of the person in question.
Right now, the best scientifically-backed treatment includes oral medications, topical medicine on the toenail, and treatment through several different medical devices. And while taking medicine orally works well, they are often paired with unwanted side effects. These devices include lasers and red light therapy - a topic I'll very briefly cover at the end of this blog post.
The main risk factors for getting the condition are ageing, obesity, swimming as a sport, pre-existing conditions such as previous cancer or existing psoriasis, and onychomycosis in the family (4; 5). Other risk factors are poor circulation - leading to peripheral health issues - and immune system disruptions. I'll focus on those last two factors as we can influence them both through using an infrared sauna:
The Immune System: The First Far Infrared Sauna Nail Fungus Connection
You might not immediately understand the far infrared sauna nail fungus connection but we'll explore it in more detail below. The argument is as follows:
There's a link between toenail fungus and autoimmune issues and/or an improperly functioning immune system (6; 7; 8).
Sauna use can help people who almost certainly have an improperly functioning immune system, such as in fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and (9; 10). Sauna use also increases the number of white blood cells, which are the main cells of your immune system (11; 12).
What conclusions can we draw from these facts?
Well, first of all, with a higher white blood cell count your immune system can simply do a better job more properly. Different white blood cells like "basophils" and "lymphocytes", all potentially perform better and/or increase in quantity. The "basophils" play a role in inflammation and allergic reactions, among others, and the lymphocytes contain T-cells, among others, which partake in countering both fungal infections and play a role in autoimmunity if dysregulated.
Additionally, in the studies with participants who have an autoimmune condition, infrared sauna exposure improves their condition across the board. Pain, depression, anxiety, stiffness, mood, fatigue, all improve compared to the baseline.
You might think: "what do these results have to do with toenail fungus?"
The hypothesis is that general health plays a major role in your risk for developing toenail fungus - and many other health conditions such as autoimmune disease, cancer, heart disease, and so forth. Any treatment that reduces your overall risk for these conditions almost always also improves your general health.
Keep in mind that toenail fungus is associated with ageing, pre-existing conditions, and autoimmune conditions. You rarely see toenail fungus in young children and much more frequently in older populations.
Hence, infrared saunas supporting your overall health almost certainly lower your risk for toenail fungus.
Here are some resources that show the positive impacts that infrared saunas have on the above conditions:
And, there's a second argument why infrared saunas can help you if you've got toenail fungus:
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Blood Circulation: The Second Infrared Sauna And Fungus Connection
Secondly, the concepts of infrared sauna and fungus are scientifically related through your blood circulation.
Both autoimmune conditions, as well as health problems with a peripheral component (such as due to diabetes), are associated with toenail fungus. Toenail fungus, in turn, is associated with poor circulation as well. That association isn't weird but expected: when fungus can grow uncontrolled in and on your toenail, your immune system doesn't work as well as it could in the distal parts of your body.
One potential solution?
Use saunas to increase circulation in the distal parts of your body, such as your skin, hands, ankles, and feet! Fortunately, several studies show promising results:
In a 1988 study researching the physiological response of sauna bathing, blood flow decreases to the organs in your stomach while increases are measured to peripheral tissues (13). Heart rate increases to pump around more blood, even though blood pressure falls. The end result is more blood reaching your toes and therefore, arguably, improving the blood flow deficiency that's underlying toenail fungus.
In a 2008 study with warm water bathing - which might have similarities with sauna bathing - people with "cerebral palsy" saw the blood flow to their extremities improve (14). In fact, overall blood flow to the skin and the velocity of the blood flow also increased, signalling that the underlying circulatory problem of toenail fungus may be countered by heating the body. Infrared saunas are a far more efficient way to increase the core body temperature as well, so that intervention might show even greater benefit if studied.
A recent 2017 study investigated "Waon therapy" - Japanese far infrared sauna therapy - on blood circulation to the brain (15). While the brain is not technically a peripheral tissue, the study does show that blood flow to extremities increases.
Bottom line? With improved circulation to the extremities of your body your immune system can almost certainly do a better job in those areas. And your toenails are the epitome of an "extremity" of your body!
Below are some resources on how infrared saunas improve your blood circulation:
Also, even though it's somewhat of a side-issue, I'll cover one more way in which I can potentially help you with toenail fungus:
Is Red Light Therapy Anti Fungal?
Even though it's not my main goal of this article, there has been very promising emerging research showing a link between red light therapy treatments and reduction in toenail fungus (16; 17; 18; 19)
Specifically, non-heating light in the red and near-infrared range resulted in improvements in up to two-thirds of all cases over a 6-month period. A whopping 89% of study participants showed an increase in normally-coloured toenails as well. The caveat is the number of studies confirming these results are low, that sometimes lasers are used instead of LEDs, andmore research is needed (19). However, current results are very promising.
Adding red light therapy on top of infrared saunas almost certainly improves the potential toenail fungus dramatically!
These Unanticipated Infrared Sauna Toenail Fungus Benefits Aren't Too Far-Thought
I hope I've given you some reasons to believe that both infrared saunas and red light therapy can help you counteract toenail fungus.
Of course, medical problems can be complicated and none of what I'm saying is medical advice. Many underlying reasons can exist why you have toenail fungus, such as pre-existing medical conditions.
However, if poor circulation and a sub optimally working immune system are causing issues with your toenails, then saunas might certainly help according to the latest science. And, if you want to get even quicker results, add some red light therapy to your sauna routine and you should be doing even better!