A sauna is typically a room heated to between 70° to 100° Celsius or 158° to 212° Fahrenheit.
Traditional Finnish saunas usually use dry heat, with a relative humidity that is often between 10 and 20 per cent. In other sauna types, the moisture is higher. Turkish-style saunas, for example, involve a greater level of humidity.
Sauna use can raise the skin temperature to roughly 40° Celsius or 104° Fahrenheit.
As the skin temperature rises, heavy sweating also occurs. The heart rate increases as the body attempts to keep cool. It is not uncommon to lose about a pint of sweat while spending a short time in a sauna.
There’s nothing more relaxing than hitting up the closest spa and letting all your worries melt away in the sauna. The health benefits of saunas, the heated, wood-lined room common in Scandinavian cultures, have been touted for thousands of years. You stay in an extremely hot place for a brief period, sweat your heart out, exit feeling refreshed, and only a little bit toasted. However, for a long time, it’s been unclear precisely why saunas may make you feel better — though there’s been quite a lot of evidence that they do.
You may have heard that stepping into a hot sauna after a session at the gym can be relaxing and detoxifying for your body.
For hundreds of years, Scandinavians have been using saunas for their alleged benefits of cleansing, relaxation, and weight loss. In Finland, for example, there are roughly 2 million saunas for the country’s 5.2 million people. Sauna use in Scandinavian countries starts in early childhood.
Current research about the benefits of saunas is mixed. If you’re considering adding the sauna to your health and wellness routine, make sure to evaluate your specific health needs first.
“Extensive studies support the many life-changing benefits of sauna use,” sauna researcher Leigh Ann, author and creator of Countries and Cultures, tells Bustle. New evidence in 2018 has made it clear that saunas use a particular mechanism in the body to help us feel healthy. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with “sweating out impurities” (the body’s internal waste disposal system deals with most so-called “toxins”); it actually has to do with blood flow. Exposure to dry heat in the controlled environment of a sauna for a limited period of time (not, say, on a baking street without access to water) appears to help our hearts function properly and exercises our blood vessels. And that, the scientists believe, is one of the big reasons behind a sauna’s health benefits. Bring on the sizzling coals and pine-scented towels.
Much has been made of the health benefits of sauna bathing, with good reason. Physically, nothing is more reinvigorating than a deep, healthy sweat every day. Tension fades. Muscles unwind. Mentally, we emerge relaxed, revived and ready for whatever the day may bring.
A few minutes a day is all it takes to look and feel better. The body’s response to gentle, persistent heat is well-documented and proven day in and out by people all over the world, which is why more and more doctors are recommending its purifying benefits.
People have enjoyed sauna therapy for years – primarily for relaxation within a stress-free environment.
Having originated in Finland, they’ve now used the world over in both spas and homes. If you enjoy using saunas, did you know that they have a whole array of surprising health benefits? Here are the benefits you can enjoy if you use a sauna today.
What is a sauna?
Sauna bathing is a form of whole-body thermotherapy that has been used in various forms (radiant heat, sweat lodges, etc.) for thousands of years in many parts of the world for hygiene, health, social, and spiritual purposes. Modern-day sauna use includes traditional Finnish-style sauna, along with Turkish-style Hammam, Russian Banya, and other cultural variations, which can be distinguished by the style of construction, source of heating, and level of humidity. Traditional Finnish saunas are the most studied to date and generally involve short exposures (5−20 minutes) at temperatures of 80°C–100°C with dry air (relative humidity of 10% to 20%) interspersed with periods of increased humidity created by the throwing of water over heated rocks. In the past decade, infrared sauna cabins have become increasingly popular. These saunas use infrared emitters at different wavelengths without water or additional humidity and generally run at lower temperatures (45–60°C) than Finnish saunas with similar exposure times. Both traditional Finnish and infrared sauna bathing can involve rituals of cooling-off periods and rehydration with oral fluids before, during, and/or after sauna bathing.
Sauna bathing is inexpensive and widely accessible with Finnish-style saunas more often used in family, group, and public settings and infrared saunas more commonly built and marketed for individual use. Public sauna facilities can be located within exercise facilities and the relationship between saunas and exercise, which may include synergistic hormetic responses, is an area of active research. The use of private saunas, especially involving infrared saunas, is also increasing and saunas are used for physical therapy in massage clinics, health spas, beauty salons, and domestic homes. This trend is capitalising on the call for additional lifestyle interventions to enhance health and wellness particularly in populations that have difficulty exercising (e.g., obesity, chronic heart failure, chronic renal failure, and chronic liver disease). Facilities offering sauna bathing often claim health benefits that include detoxification, increased metabolism, weight loss, increased blood circulation, pain reduction, antiaging, skin rejuvenation, improved cardiovascular function, improved immune function, improved sleep, stress management, and relaxation. However, rigorous medical evidence to support these claims is scant and incomplete, as emphasised in a recent multidisciplinary review of sauna studies.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that sauna bathing can induce profound physiological effects. Intense short-term heat exposure elevates skin temperature and core body temperature. It activates thermoregulatory pathways via the hypothalamus and CNS (central nervous system) leading to activation of the autonomic nervous system. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal hormonal axis, and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system leads to well-documented cardiovascular effects with increased heart rate, skin blood flow, cardiac output, and sweating. The resultant sweat evaporates from the skin surface and produces cooling that facilitates temperature homeostasis. In essence, sauna therapy capitalises on the thermoregulatory trait of homeothermy, the physiological capability of mammals and birds to maintain a relatively constant core body temperature with minimal deviation from a set point. It is currently unclear whether steam saunas invoke the same degree of physiological responses as dry saunas, as the higher humidity results in water condensation on the skin and reduced evaporation of sweat.
What does a sauna do?
The modern sauna is a simple unpainted room with wooden walls and benches. A rock-filled electric heater keeps the temperature at about 90° at floor level and boosts it to about 185° at the top. Unlike Turkish baths, Finnish saunas are very dry. Humidity levels are just 10% to 20%. Water drains through the floor to keep things dry. In a good sauna, an efficient ventilation system exchanges the air 3 to 8 times an hour.
Sauna health benefits
The dry heat has profound effects on the body. Sweating begins almost immediately. The average person will lose a pint of sweat during a brief sauna. However, it evaporates so quickly in the dry air that a person may not realise how much he is sweating. Skin temperature soars to about 104° within minutes, but internal body temperature rises more slowly. It usually stays below 100°.
Changes in body temperature are easy to understand, but the heart’s responses to heat are even more important. The pulse rate jumps by 30% or more. As a result, the heart nearly doubles the amount of blood it pumps each minute.
Most of the extra blood flow is directed to the skin; in fact, the circulation actually directs blood away from the internal organs. Blood pressure may rise or fall. All of these changes resolve quickly after a person cools down.
Cleanses the skin
Heat bathing is one of the oldest beauty and/or health strategies in terms of cleansing one’s skin. When the body begins to produce sweat via deep sweating, the skin is then cleansed, and dead skin cells are replaced – keeping your skin in good working condition. Sweating rinses bacteria out of the epidermal layer and sweat ducts. Cleansing of the pores has been shown to improve the capillary circulation while giving the skin a softer-looking quality.
Both saunas and saunas will make a person sweat due to the heat. The sweating opens up the pores and helps cleanse the outer skin.
Warm condensation will help rinse away dirt and dead skin and has been used in the treatment of acne.
Flush toxins from your body
It’s fair to say that most people don’t actively sweat on a daily basis. As many jobs are sedentary, you don’t get the chance to get out there and move as much as you’d like to. That means that you don’t get to sweat as much as you need to.
Yes, you really do need to sweat. You especially need to do so in today’s environment. Just by stepping outside your door, you’re exposed to all kinds of harmful elements that you’re absorbing right into your skin. What’s the solution?
Using a sauna is one of the best ways of flushing these toxins from your body. This is because elements such as lead, arsenic and cadmium are all deep in your skin. By spending time in a sauna, you can sweat those elements out. It’s a safe and easy way to counteract the effects of these elements in your body.
Help fight illness
German sauna medical research shows that saunas were able to reduce the incidences of colds and influenza amongst participants significantly. As the body is exposed to the heat of a sauna and steam (in the case of traditional saunas), it produces white blood cells more rapidly, which in turn helps to fight illnesses and helps to kill viruses. In addition, saunas can relieve the uncomfortable symptoms of sinus congestion from colds or allergies – especially when used with steam (tip: add eucalyptus to the water for added benefit and overall enjoyment). The steam vapour action helps to clear up unwanted congestion and is a wonderful aspect of the Finnish sauna experience.
Help with weight loss
There are all kinds of ways in which you can try and lose weight these days, but have you thought about how a sauna can help? It’s been found that it can actually help you lose weight by using one. Your heart rate increases while you’re in a sauna, thanks to the dry heat. It’s been suggested that spending 20 minutes in a sauna can help you lose up to 500 calories.
This happens because your body’s metabolism speeds up in a similar way as it does when you exercise. Again, this isn’t going to replace exercise in your lifestyle, but it’s a fantastic way to help you keep your weight under control.
When a person is inside a sauna, their heart rate increases; if they use a sauna after exercise, then their elevated heart rate can be prolonged.
Experts have found that when used alongside a healthy exercise program, the heat generated by the sauna and the sweating it causes can stimulate the body and increase wellness.
It is worth noting that there is no scientific evidence to support the belief that using sauna aids weight loss.
This is because the weight lost after using a sauna is merely water weight and must be replaced by drinking water afterwards to avoid dehydration.
However, alongside a healthy diet and exercise plan, the use of a sauna can help burn calories.
Improving cardiovascular health
The reduction in stress levels when using a sauna may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.
One study, conducted in Finland, followed 2,315 men ages 42 to 60 over the course of 20 years. Findings suggested that people who use a sauna may have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Of the participants in the study, a total of 878 died from cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, or sudden cardiac death. Participants were categorised by how often they used a sauna, including once a week, two to three times a week, and four to seven times a week.
After adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors, increased sauna use was linked with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular-related diseases.
Participants who used the sauna two to three times a week were 22 per cent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those who only used it once a week. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 63 per cent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death and 50 per cent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who only used a sauna once a week.
More research is needed to find out if there is a definite link between sauna use and a decrease in deaths from heart disease.
Sauna use may also be associated with lower blood pressure and enhanced heart function.
While studies may be promising, sauna use should not replace an exercise program to keep the heart healthy. There is more evidence to support the benefits of regular exercise.
Everyone who steps foot in a sauna will experience an increase in their circulation. This happens because the heat causes your heart to beat faster, and your blood vessels to widen. This helps blood make its way around your body much more freely.
Why is this such a benefit? Because it can help and improve certain health issues. For example, better circulation can help with muscle soreness, which athletes and others keep fit enthusiasts could benefit from. As well as this, it can improve joint movement, therefore increasing your mobility if you have issues with your joints. Finally, improved circulation can help with arthritis, decreasing pain and increasing mobility. It’s surprising how much improving your circulation can do.
Induce a deeper sleep.
Research has shown that a deeper, more relaxed sleep can result from sauna use. In addition to the release of endorphins, body temperatures, that become elevated in the late evening, fall at bedtime. This slow, relaxing decline in endorphins is key in facilitating sleep. Numerous sauna bathers worldwide recall the deep sleep experiences that they feel after bathing in the calming heat of a sauna.
It relieves stress
Many sauna users have known for years that using saunas is a great way to relieve stress. There are several reasons why:
You’re choosing to relax: When you step into a sauna, you’re cutting yourself off from the world outside. That means no computers, phones, or anything else that can try and get your attention. All you have to do is sit back and relax.
Release endorphins: Thanks to the increased heart rate you’ll get after sitting in a sauna, you’ll get more endorphins around your body. These ‘feel good’ chemicals help you relax and feel happier in yourself.
Social time: If you choose to spend time in a sauna with friends, then it’s a great way to socialise. No one is spending time on their phone or getting distracted, and you’re all getting the same health benefits. As well as this, socialising, in general, is a great way to unwind. Why not combine it with the health benefits of the sauna?
Loosens stiff joints
A sauna can also be used before a workout, as it helps to loosen up the joints and increase flexibility, just as a pre-workout warm-up does.
A 2013 study showed that the application of heat to a joint could decrease the force needed to move the joint by up to 25 per cent compared to cold application.
Saunas can also help reduce joint pain.
Lower risk of Alzheimer’s
In 2016, researchers from Finland published findings of a 20-year study that linked sauna use with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The study involved 2,315 healthy men aged 42 to 60 years.
Those who used a sauna 2 to 3 times per week were 22 per cent less likely to get dementia and 20 per cent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than those who did not use a sauna. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 66 per cent less likely to get dementia and 65 per cent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than those who used a sauna once a week.
However, the results do not prove that a sauna causes a reduction in risk. It may be that people with dementia do not use a sauna. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
Opens up sinuses
The heat from a sauna opens up the mucous membranes around the body. This will make someone breathe more deeply and easily.
Saunas will break up the congestion in the sinuses and lungs and therefore can be used to help treat colds, unblock sinuses, and aid breathing.
Using a dry sauna can leave people feeling invigorated. Since the blood vessels relax and dilate in a sauna, blood flow increases, and the experience can help reduce tension in the joints and relieve sore muscles.
Saunas might also help those with chronic pain and arthritis. A study in people with chronic musculoskeletal diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis discovered that sauna sessions improved pain, stiffness, and fatigue over the course of four weeks.
While all patients reported some benefit, the improvements were not found to be statistically significant. The authors recommend that patients with these conditions undergo a couple of trial sessions to see whether sauna use improves their symptoms before incorporating it as part of their treatment routine.
Protect Your Lungs
Having a sauna when you’ve got a cold or are in the middle of the cold season might seem counterintuitive, but the research suggests it’s a good idea. Studies have shown that saunas can improve your lung function, even if you have asthma or chronic breathing problems, and reduce your risk of contracting a cold or pneumonia if you have them regularly in winter. This may not counteract somebody in the sauna sneezing on you, but when you’re feeling shivery in your apartment when it dips below freezing, it may be a good idea to get thee to a sauna.
If you’re just beginning to enjoy saunas, Leigh Ann urges caution. “Ease into your sauna sessions,” she says. “Most doctors recommend starting with five to 10 minutes, two to three days a week. If you maintain consistency, you will notice that your tolerance will begin to rise, and you will be able to stay in longer. Aim for 20 to 40 minutes, three to five days a week for optimal health benefits.” You can’t rely on a sauna to give you every health advantage you need to live a healthy life; balanced nutrition and exercise matter, too. But the evidence suggests that you should consider adding them into your routine when things get a little colder.
Saunas have been traditionally used to produce a feeling of relaxation. As your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels dilate, there is an increase in blood flow to the skin. Saunas may also improve blood circulation.
Your sympathetic nervous system becomes more active in order to maintain a temperature balance in your body. Your endocrine glands begin to get involved in this response. Your body’s reaction to the heat can make you less conscious of pain, more alert, and give you a feeling of elation. The heat relaxes your muscles, including those in your face and neck. These muscles are often tense after a long day.
This relaxation effect is one of the biggest benefits of using a sauna. To add to the relaxation effect, practice meditation while in the room. When you soothe your body physically, often the mind and the emotions follow suit. The effect is long-lasting and may even help you get a better night’s sleep.
Often, after a workout, a person’s muscles will feel sore. This pain is known as delayed onset muscle soreness, and it is important to relax the muscles to promote a quick and healthy recovery.
A 2013 study showed that the immediate application of moist heat after a workout helped reduce pain and preserve muscle strength. The heat soothes nerve endings and relaxes the muscles.
What are the benefits of a home sauna?
A home sauna can give you all these benefits, and more.
If all these benefits sound good to you, then perhaps it’s worth having a sauna installed in your own home. There are all kinds of benefits you can enjoy for yourself, and it’s much more cost-effective than you’d think.
A private sauna: Your sauna will be yours and yours alone to enjoy. You can shut the door behind you and shut the rest of the world out. There’s nothing better than having the whole sauna to yourself.
Convenience: You no longer have to travel to your nearest spa or gym to use a sauna, you can simply step into the next room, and you’re there.
Health benefits: you can take advantage of the health benefits of saunas whenever you want.
Practice sauna safely
A few simple precautions to have sauna safety are important for healthy people and heart patients alike.
- Avoid alcohol before or after your sauna.
- Don’t overdo it; 15 to 20 minutes of a sauna is a reasonable time limit for most folks.
- Cooldown gradually afterwards. Although some cultures advocate a plunge into cold water, it produces considerable circulatory stress and should be avoided.
- Drink 2 to 4 glasses of cool water after each sauna. Above all, listen to your body.
- Don’t take a sauna when you are ill, and if you feel unwell during your sauna, head for the door. A cool head is the best way to keep your hot sauna safe and enjoyable.
It is considered safe to enjoy a few sessions of an infrared sauna weekly, but you may not want to exceed 20 minutes in a single session. Be sure to drink plenty of water before and after using any type of sauna.
Are saunas healthy?
A visit to the sauna is more than just relaxing; it seems to have real heart and cardiovascular benefits, as well. A group of researchers from the University of Eastern Finland—who previously found that people who regularly used saunas had lower rates of hypertension, cardiac death and dementia compared to infrequent users—now find in a new study that sauna bathing can have a direct effect on blood pressure, heart rate and vascular health.
The team’s earlier studies on the health benefits of saunas, published in 2015 through 2017, were observational—meaning they could only find associations, and not cause-and-effect relationships, between sauna use and health outcomes. This time, however, the Finnish researchers recruited 102 people and monitored them immediately before and after a 30-minute sauna session to see what happened.
Are saunas good for you?
Much of the information about sauna safety comes from Finland. A 16-month study of 1,631 heart attacks in Helsinki found that just 1.8% developed within 3 hours of taking a sauna. In another investigation of all 6,175 sudden deaths that occurred in one year, only 1.7% occurred within 24 hours of taking a sauna — and many of those were related to alcohol.
In Finland, taking saunas is a national pastime. So, do these results apply to people in other parts of the world who sometimes use saunas?
Canadian researchers investigated sauna safety in 16 patients with well-documented heart disease. They compared the effects of a 15-minute sauna with a standard treadmill stress test. None of the patients developed chest pain, abnormal heart rhythms or ECG changes with either type of stress. Heart scans did show impaired blood flow to the heart muscles of most patients, but the sauna-induced changes were milder than the exercise-induced abnormalities.
Saunas appear safe for patients with stable coronary artery disease. A small study from Japan suggested that two weeks of daily saunas may even improve vascular function in patients with mildly damaged hearts that cannot pump blood normally (stable heart failure).
Still, heart patients should check with their doctors before using saunas. People who can perform moderate exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes or climbing 3 or 4 flights of stairs without stopping, will likely get an okay. But patients with poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, unstable angina and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease will be advised to stay cool.
If you live with health conditions that can be helped by a sauna, then getting a home sauna is a smart move. Look after your health in the comfort of your own home.
Now you know just how much a sauna can benefit you. Give it a try and see how a sauna can improve your health. You’ll be amazed by how much better you feel.