Scandinavians have long appreciated the health benefits of regular sauna use. However, only recently have saunas, particularly infrared saunas, gained global recognition as performance, detox, and wellbeing enhancers. This post will explore the main benefits of sauna and reveal the tips for using it safely and effectively.
Potential Health Benefits of Sauna
1) Enhances Detox
The skin is super-important for detoxification, with sweating as a chief mechanism .
Arsenic levels in the sweat of those exposed to high levels of the metal were seven times higher than those not exposed [2, 3].
Similarly, sweating is one of the mechanisms for mercury detoxification .
In one study, policemen exposed to methamphetamine had fewer symptoms after regular sauna use .
People who go to the sauna regularly improve their sweat-detox pathways and can produce up to 2L/hour of sweat .
2-3) Supports Longevity and Heart Health
A study of 2,315 Finnish men aged 42-60 found that regular sauna use was associated with considerably decreased rates of heart disease and a lower chance of dying from all causes .
Those who enjoyed a sauna 4-7 times per week had a 48% lower risk of fatal heart disease or heart attack over those that used the sauna once per week .
A review of clinical trials suggested that sauna may benefit heart health by improving heart muscle contractions, reducing arterial stiffness and blood lipids, and lowering blood pressure .
Worms exposed to heat stress for no more than 2 hours showed increased longevity. The heat stress appeared to protect the worms against age-related frailty .
Heat shock proteins produced during heat stress are important for basic cellular maintenance e.g. preventing harmful accumulations of unhealthy proteins. Flies repeatedly exposed to heat stress had a significant increase in lifespan, correlating with higher levels of heat shock proteins (Hsp70) .
Yeast exposed to mild heat stressors lived longer (possibly due to RAS genes) .
Heat stress acts as a hormetic response that reduces protein damage and boosts antioxidant activity, as well as repair and degradation processes (autophagy) .
4) Helps Recovery
Sauna use can increase IGF-1, a vital hormone for growth and recovery. One study found a 142% increase in IGF-1 during sauna use. Another study found a five-fold increase in the growth hormone with two 15 minute sessions at 212 degrees F .
Saunas may improve blood flow, thereby delivering more nutrients to areas that need them for recovery .
In 28 subjects, sauna use prior to wrist extensions improved muscular function in the wrist .
Far infrared saunas were shown to benefit the neuromuscular system and recovery of athletes after maximal endurance performance [14, 15].
Studies have shown that sauna use at 41C or more can lower the risk of muscle wasting. It may also minimize the oxidative stress that occurs when returning to exercise after a period of recovery [16, 17, 18].
5) Improves Mood and Relieves Stress
Sauna use may increase beta-endorphins in blood and lead to the feeling of euphoria [19, 20, 21].
In fact, whole-body heat therapy has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression in cancer patients through this mechanism .
A long sauna session can induce so-called hormetic or adaptive stress. As a result, we release an opioid called dynorphin, which creates a feeling of dysphoria. To compensate, the brain then increases the production of euphoric hormones like beta-endorphin. These changes are semi-permanent and last beyond the sauna sessions .
Sauna use increases the hormone BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Studies have shown that low BDNF levels play a role in anxiety and depression .
Regular sauna use may be a useful anti-stress strategy by lowering cortisol and ACTH levels, but more research is needed [25, 26].
6) May Improve Physical Performance
Increased body temperature from endurance exercise can cause strain and, ultimately, decrease performance. Regular sauna use can acclimate the body to function optimally during increased temperatures, while also improving its cooling mechanisms. This technique is called hyperthermic conditioning and can be very useful for events held in hot climates e.g. iron man Hawaii .
Heat therapy increases the ability of the heart to pump blood. This means that the same amount of work can be done with fewer heartbeats and, therefore, less energy [27, 28].
According to preliminary research, sauna use improves the blood flow to muscles. More blood flow equals more glucose and oxygen. This results in less glycogen depletion during workouts. In fact, a small study of 8 participants found that sauna use decreased glycogen depletion by 40-50% [29, 30].
Regular sauna use can increase red blood cell count – meaning more oxygen can be transported around the body during exercise .
Individuals who used the sauna twice a week for half an hour post-workout were able to run for an average of 32% longer until exhaustion than before the sauna therapy .
7) Helps Relieve Pain
Sauna use may relieve pain by increasing the release of anti-inflammatory hormones like noradrenaline, adrenaline, cortisol, and IGF-1.
In one study, sauna use, when stacked with other therapies, supported the treatment for rheumatoid arthritis .
Saunas can cause the release of endorphins, opioid-like chemicals which act as natural painkillers [19, 20, 21].
In 44 women, sauna therapy was effective at lessening the pain from fibromyalgia. Many of the benefits were immediate and probably due to tissues made of collagen, like tendons and fascia, become more flexible when exposed to increased temperatures. However, many of the benefits actually persisted months after the treatment .
Regular sauna use was an effective tool for managing chronic headaches in a study of 37 people .
8) Benefits Skin Health
A study showed that regular Finnish sauna use had a positive effect on skin health, especially surface pH and its hydration .
In the same study, sauna use resulted in less oil on the forehead of participants. Therefore, a sauna might be good for oily, acne-prone skin .
As mentioned, sauna greatly stimulates sweating, a major route of skin detoxification [5, 1].
9) May Help With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
A study of 10 CFS sufferers found reduced fatigue after the treatment and no adverse effects from repeated infrared sauna therapy (60 degrees C/140 degrees F) .
According to clinical experience from two cases, daily infrared sauna sessions (60 degrees C, 140 F, for 15-25 days) significantly improved the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, and low-grade fever) .
More research is needed to investigate the safety and efficacy of sauna for chronic fatigue syndrome.
10) May Improve Mental Performance
Studies have found that sauna use substantially increases norepinephrine levels, a hormone that increases focus and attention span [26, 39]
Heat stress also increases BDNF, which encourages neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) and supports learning and long-term memory .
Still, no studies have evaluated the effects of sauna on mental performance.
11) May Balance the Immune System
A group of Japanese authors reported “remarkable efficacy of thermal therapy for Sjögren syndrome”, an autoimmune condition that causes dry mouth and eyes. However, the paper doesn’t reveal any study details, which prevents us from drawing conclusions .
In one experiment, scientists observed that rats subjected to whole-body heat therapy were significantly less affected by autoimmune heart inflammation .
12) Promotes Social Interaction
Sociologists have established a link between social relationships and health outcomes. Evidence shows that social relationships affect mental health, physical health, healthy habits, and mortality risk .
In a busy, work-driven world it is hard to find enough time to socialize. Saunas provide a space where people can interact and socialize, while also achieving all the other positive effects listed in this post.
Effects on Body Weight
Facilities offering sauna will often suggest it as a good way to lose weight.
Even though sauna bathing can help burn more calories, the observed reduction in weight mostly stems from water loss due to sweating [44, 45].
Increased heat shock proteins, which occur after sauna sessions, can reduce fat mass in animals .
More research is needed to determine the long-term effects of sauna on weight control.
Traditional vs Infrared Saunas
Traditional saunas use hot rocks or heating elements to warm the air to between 150 and 185º F, which then warms the sauna user. On the other hand, Infrared saunas use non-visible light to directly heat the user without heating the air to such high temperatures.
IR saunas are touted as being better for detoxing than normal saunas because of their deeper penetration (generally 2-6 inches), which causes more sweating.
Sauna Safety Tips and Precautions
Although moderate sauna bathing is safe and beneficial for the general population, there are some important things to consider [47, 48].
Prolonged sweating can lead to dehydration, so it’s essential to drink enough water during sauna sessions. This is particularly important for overweight people who seem to be more prone to dehydration from sauna .
Public spas and saunas with inadequate hygiene may be sources of microbial contamination. Make sure to consult with your doctor before using a sauna if your immunity is compromised. Using home saunas shouldn’t come with this risk .
A review of clinical trials has proclaimed moderate sauna bathing safe and beneficial for patients with mild and stable forms of heart disease. On the other hand, those with severe and uncontrolled forms should avoid it. If you have heart disease, check with your doctor if sauna is an option .
By all means, avoid drinking alcohol before and after sauna bathing. This combination can have serious adverse effects and even lead to heart failure .
While you may practice cold showers after sauna sessions, avoid sudden immersion into cold water. This may lead to dangerous changes in the heart and breath rates in sensitive individuals .