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Saunas are good for more than just the occasional spa day. Studies touting a wide range of benefits of saunas have boosted the popularity of this ancient tradition.
Here’s what you need to know about saunas, along with ten research-backed health benefits of regular sauna use.
What are saunas?
Saunas are small, heated rooms that can reach temperatures of up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. A typical sauna session usually lasts five to 20 minutes (Hussain, 2018).
The high temps are reached due to low humidity levels—10% to 20%—in the air. Sometimes, saunas have rocks inside of them that absorb and give off heat. When splashed with water, they create steam and cause humidity levels in the room to increase (Hussain, 2018).
Types of Saunas
If you’ve ever sat in a sauna at your local gym, you were likely using a dry sauna. Finnish dry saunas are the most researched types of saunas and are what one would probably think of if one were to think about a sauna. But, other types of saunas exist as well (Hussain, 2018).
In fact, there has been a long history of using heat for therapeutic, religious, and social purposes. Aside from Finnish dry heat saunas, the Turkish-style Hammam, the Russian Banya, and the infrared saunas—saunas that rely on infrared lights to heat the body—offering Waon therapy in Japan are all types of passive heat therapy known as whole-body thermotherapy (Hussain, 2018).
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Sauna safety tips
There are a few things to consider and rules to follow before stepping into a sauna:
- Plan to drink a lot of water before, during, and after a sauna. You will sweat and can lose water and electrolytes like salts, which can lead to an imbalance (Podstawski, 2019).
- Do not drink alcohol before or during a sauna; this can be extremely dangerous, making it harder to control blood pressure and may lead to death (Kenttämies, 2008).
- If you have a medical condition, especially one that could be worsened by exercise or involves uncontrolled blood pressure or heart disease, discuss any risk factors and the effects of sauna use with your healthcare provider (Brunt, 2021).
- If you take medication, check with your healthcare provider to ensure it won’t make you vulnerable to heat (Podstawski, 2019).
- Pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant are advised to avoid saunas because it raises core body temperature. Extreme heat can pose a risk to unborn babies (Brunt, 2021; Duong, 2011).
- Men trying to conceive with a partner should think of saunas like hot tubs. Studies show that heat, in either case, can temporarily limit sperm count and mobility. The condition reverses after about six months (Garolla, 2013).
- Start with limited amounts of time and work up. Experts suggest limiting sauna exposure to about 20 minutes (Laukkanen, 2018-a).
- Going from extreme heat to cold can stress the heart, so it’s best to check with your healthcare provider about cooling off (Laukkanen, 2018-a).
What are the benefits of saunas?
If heat makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point of sauna therapy. The body is not comfortable with the heat, and then it adapts. The changes are similar to how the body responds to a stressor like exercise (Brunt, 2021).
Research suggests the body’s response to the extreme sauna heat leads to the following health benefits of saunas:
1. Increased longevity
A study led by Finnish cardiologist Jari Laukkanen caught the world’s attention in 2015.
He and his team had followed 2,315 middle-aged Finnish men over 20 years and found that those who used a hot, dry sauna four to seven times a week reduced all-cause mortality by 48% compared to men who used a sauna once a week. They controlled for a variety of factors. A reduction in fatal cardiovascular events was a primary finding (Laukkanen, 2015).
Researchers believe other factors may also be linked to longevity, such as the activation of heat shock proteins (HSPs) during sauna use. HSPs repair other cells and have been linked to extended lifespans in previous studies (Hussain, 2018; Singh, 2010; Murshid, 2013).
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2. Reduced risk of heart attack
The 2015 Finnish study that showed an overall reduction in mortality found that those men who used a sauna four to seven times a week had reduced risk of sudden cardiac death and cardiovascular disease mortality. The research was later expanded to include women. That finding showed that middle-aged to older men and women who used the sauna the most were less likely to suffer fatal cardiovascular events (Laukkanen, 2015; Laukkanen, T., 2018).
The heat causes blood vessels to dilate, blood flow to increase, and the heart to beat faster. Researchers believe the heat-triggered process makes the walls of blood vessels and arteries more flexible and ultimately lowers blood pressure (Laukkanen, 2018-b; Brunt, 2016).
3. Reduced risk of stroke and blood clots
Regular sauna users may also reduce the risk of stroke and blood clots, according to two studies. One showed a 62% reduced risk of stroke in men and women who regularly used the sauna. Another, following just men, showed regular sauna use decreased the risk of a blood clot in the veins (Kunutsor, 2018; Kunutsor, 2019).
4. Sauna effects mimic exercise
One study demonstrated a drop in blood pressure after sauna use, mimicking the conditioning effect of exercise (Ketelhut, 2019).
Unlike exercise, saunas won’t help you boost aerobic fitness, build bone density, tone muscles, or lose weight, aside from water weight. So don’t plan to ditch workouts. A study did suggest that those who combine exercise and saunas see the most benefits (Kunutsor, 2018).
Like exercise, saunas lead to sweat. While some toxins can exit the body in any type of sweat, the amounts are minimal. Finnish researchers point out that detoxification of the body is primarily done in the kidneys and liver, so they don’t count detoxification as a benefit of saunas. Actual weight loss, meaning the breakdown of fat, can help release toxins trapped in fat. The weight lost in saunas is primarily water loss, which can be dangerous if not monitored (Laukkanen, 2019; Podstawski, 2019).
5. Improved athletic performance
A goal for athletes is to increase blood plasma and the amount of blood that gets to the heart. There is some evidence that athletes who acclimate to heat using saunas can improve performance. One small study showed a 32% increase in endurance for male runners who sat in a sauna post-workout twice a week. The sauna time was linked to a 7.1% increase in plasma and a 3.7% increase in their red blood cell count. The endurance may have increased due to this increase in blood volume (Scoon, 2006).
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6. Cognitive protections
What’s good for the heart is often good for the brain. The Finnish research team that followed the 2,315 men who had four to seven saunas sessions a week found a 66% and 65% reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, respectively, compared to those who visited a sauna once a week (Laukkanen, 2017).
A separate Finnish study, published in 2020 following nearly 14,000 men and women, also suggests that more frequent sauna use led to a lower risk of dementia. The author notes that further large-scale, controlled trials are needed to clarify the link (Kinekt, 2020).
7. Improved lung function
Frequent sauna use appears to have positive effects on lung function. Various studies showed that the incidences of obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and the common cold were lower in those who used saunas regularly. The studies were small, and additional research is needed (Laukkanen, 2018-a).
Sauna use is not advised in those with an active infection. Those with existing lung conditions like asthma should check with their healthcare provider before using a sauna.
8. Pain relief
Heat exposure and increased blood circulation may benefit the human body in several ways, including helping to manage chronic pain. Small studies have shown that sauna use improves the pains and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and lower back pain (Laukkanen, 2018-a; Cho, 2019).
Further, a small randomized control trial of people with chronic tension-type headaches found that headache intensity improved after eight weeks of regular sauna use (Kanji, 2015). Researchers suggest the heat combined with cooling-off periods activates endorphins that may result in an analgesic effect (Laukkanen, 2018-a).
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Relaxation and stress reduction were cited as the main reasons to go to a sauna in an online global health survey released in 2019. The survey of those who frequently used a sauna also noted that 83.5% of respondents cited improvements in sleep lasting one to two nights after sauna bathing (Hussain, 2019).
10. Improved mood
In following the Finnish sauna-goers, researchers looked at well-being and mental health. They found that of the 2,315 men, those who went to a sauna four to seven days a week had a 78% reduced risk of developing psychosis compared to those who went one day a week (T. Laukkanen, 2019).
In a separate group of more than 500 octogenarians in Finland, those having regularly used a sauna reported better physical function, vitality, social functioning, and general health (Strandberg, 2018).
In the global survey, regular sauna go-ers had higher self-reported mental well-being scores (Hussain, 2019).
Future research on benefits of saunas
Research into the use of saunas to boost wellness is rapidly expanding. The Finnish dry sauna studies are observational and based on studying a population that uses saunas regularly, starting in childhood.
Additional research, including more extensive randomized trials, is needed to clarify the benefits of saunas in a more diverse group. Overall, saunas are viewed as a generally safe way to relax and improve health with the proper precautions.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.