There are a magnitude of reasons that saunas have stood the test of time and have managed to stay relevant (and are increasingly popular) in modern society.
Much like the case with anything health related, there are some risks to consider when using a sauna, but to us, the benefits heavily outweigh the risks.
Although some of these risks and benefits are debated among scientists and medical professionals, we will be going over the 4 main health benefits of sauna, and how to use one as safely as possible.
But first, a brief history lesson and recap on how saunas work.
A Brief History Lesson on Saunas
Although the timeframe and exact location is somewhat vague, the leading theory is that saunas originated in the Scandinavian regions of northern Europe around 2,000 BC.
Many are convinced that they originated in Finland as they are actually considered part of their heritage. In fact, 1 in 3 Finns still use saunas as part of their daily or weekly lifestyle.
Others claim that the Mayans had used what we now call “sweat houses” that – as the name might indicate – perform a similar function as Finnish saunas, and these sweat houses date back not quite as far, to about 1,000 BC.
Evidently the case hasn’t been closed on this one, but whether it was Finland 2,000 BC or the Mayans 1,000 BC, it is obvious that there must be a reason for this tradition to stick around for so long.
More on sauna history here.
How Do Saunas Work?
There really isn’t a whole lot to them.
Saunas are basically just a wooden room (or enclosed space) that are heated to a temperature usually between 150°-200°F (65°-95°C) to elicit excessive sweating in the body.
In this type of heat, your skin temperature rises to ~ 100°F (40°C) in just a matter of minutes.
These heat ranges also depend on the humidity in the sauna. Traditional Finnish saunas have the lowest level of humidity out of all the types of sauna and can permit a temperature of 200°F or even more.
However, saunas with higher levels of humidity, like steam rooms (also known as a Turkish Sauna), feature humidity levels between 80-90%. At this level of humidity, it is only safe to keep the temperature between 90°-120°F (32°-50°C).
Different Types of Saunas
This is your more traditional, Finnish style sauna that has a higher temperature and lower humidity. The two most common types of heaters for this category are electric and wood burning.
As you might guess, a wood burning stove requires an actual wood stove that heats up sauna rocks in a compartment on top of it, then consequently heats the surrounding air.
Wood burning is how traditional saunas operated (as you can imagine, there wasn’t any electricity 2,000 BC) and remains the favoured method by many sauna users today.
However, as you can imagine, it does take a little bit more effort to stoke the fire and requires you to keep a constant supply of wood.
Because of this inconvenience, many newer saunas feature electric heaters.
Electric heaters function in the same way in that an electrical element heats up sauna rocks which in-turn heat up the room.
Wet saunas refer to the steam room style sauna, in which steam is used to heat the room, resulting in a much higher humidity.
Typically this occurs via water being poured onto a heating element which produces the steam.
Some newer heaters come as wet-dry heaters which permit the user to pour water onto the sauna rocks, creating a mixture of wet and dry heat.
Infrared saunas function much differently than wet or dry saunas. Infrared saunas utilize special lamps that emit infrared light which heat the person’s body opposed to the ambient air.
Because of this, infrared saunas operate at a lower temperature, around 140°F (60°C).
They are further classified into near infrared saunas, far infrared sauna (most common) and full spectrum infrared saunas. You can read more about that here.
4 Health Benefits of Sauna
It is important to note here that the following benefits of sauna can be extracted regardless of which type of sauna you use; the type of sauna/heat is totally preference.
1) Relaxation, Stress Reduction & Improved Cardiovascular Health
A mouthful of a benefit, but we decided to keep them combined as one because they are very intertwined.
In a world that is becoming more and more fast pace, it is becoming increasingly more important for people to set aside the time in a day/week to just relax and be with their thoughts.
Much like the recent adoption of meditative practices, saunas provide you with an outlet to decompress and just relax.
Other than the everyday, in-the-moment feel-good feeling, this can have a very noticeable impact on your health long term.
The resulting reduction in stress leads to increased cardiovascular health which has a noticeable impact on your probability of sudden cardiac death, and other heart-related or longevity impacting diseases.
Multiple studies have tracked people who are frequent or semi-frequent sauna users and noticed a linkage between a less likelihood of cardiovascular disease and/or death. As a note, these studies are still in their infancy and need to be explored more.
2) Reduced Blood Pressure
Ah blood pressure, the first thing the doctor checks when you go to visit.
Building off the last benefit, this sudden increase in temperature causes a spike in heart rate and blood flow throughout your body as your blood vessels relax and dilate.
This relaxation of the blood vessels leads to better blood circulation which has a number of benefits:
- Better Muscle Recovery as increased blood flow delivers oxygen/nutrients at an increased capacity, resulting in reduced muscle soreness and faster muscle recovery
- Better Athletic Performance as the increased delivery of plasma and red blood cells to the heart results in a higher level of oxygen output to the muscles.
- Pain Relief as increased blood flow can reduce point tension and thus improve joint movement
As no surprise, it has been observed that regular sauna use is linked to low blood pressure and increased heart function.
Note that the sauna should not be a replacement for physical exercise, but rather an addition to your health and lifestyle regime.
3) Emotional and Mental Boost
This benefit doesn’t necessarily have a stack of scientific backing behind it, however is very, very common amongst frequent sauna users (and slightly the opposite of the last benefit…).
In the same way that runners really value that last mile or bodybuilders love the last set, users find the last couple minutes in sauna to be their “mental workout”.
Not because it is easy on your body or mind, but rather the opposite, and the ability to push through releases endorphins in your brain that contribute to accomplishment and confidence.
Joe Rogan, an influential American podcaster, comedian, commentator and T.V. show host, is very vocal about how much he enjoys the mental benefits of pushing through those last couple minutes in the sauna.
In a recent Instagram post, Rogan says:
“Sauna thoughts. The last 10 minutes of these sauna sessions get pretty rough, and in that state of extreme physical vulnerability when I do some of my best and most honest thinking.”
It’s evident that saunas can provide just as much mental and emotional benefit as physical.
4) Increase in Growth Hormones
It is widely accepted amongst professionals in biochemistry and related fields that deliberate hyperthermia (not to be confused with hypothermia, quite the contrary) can stimulate a staggering increase in your body’s growth hormones.
Although not completely pinpointed, most scientists and doctors – including Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. who is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D. in biomedical science – contribute the release of heat-induced growth hormone to the increased activity of neurons in the hypothalamus that stimulate growth hormone release from the pituitary gland. (We don’t really know what that means either but it makes us sound smart)
A study referenced by Dr. Rhonda Patrick showed that “two 20-minute sauna sessions at 80°C (176°F) separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline”.
Further, “two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone”
Crazy, but it doesn’t stop there.
Even further, “two one-hour sauna sessions a day at 80°C (176°F) dry heat for 7 days was shown to increase growth hormone by 16-fold on the third day.”. This is referred to as intermittent hyperthermia, or hyperthermic conditioning.
Again, with these extended sessions (or for sauna use in general), please see health guidelines.
For the full, comprehensive breakdown on the effects of sauna on hormone release (and other benefits), check out Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s article featured on Tim Ferriss’ blog.
Some other benefits of sauna that have been reported by frequent users (however not scientifically tested):
1) Improved Skin Conditions
(specifically psoriasis) As the dry heat dries out the skin. Although some people with dermatitis may actually see it worsen.
2) Chronic Pain & Arthritis Relief
As a result of the increased blood flow has been reported with some users.
3) Asthma Relief
Has been reported as saunas can help open up airways and loosen phlegm.
This comes in at the bottom of the list because the jury is still very much out with this one.
Scientists and doctors are divided about whether or not toxins and other harmful materials are excreted through your sweat in the sauna (and in general).
On the one hand, there are individuals like Lawrence Wilson, M.D., who is the author of Sauna Therapy for Detoxification and Healing, who believe that by raising body temperature, saunas may act much like a fever and help cleanse the body of invasive bacteria, viruses and toxins.
On the other hand, Peggy Pletcher, M.S., R.D., L.D., CDE claim that there isn’t enough (or hardly any) evidence suggesting that toxins are released via sweating in a sauna and that the ONLY purpose of perspiration is body temperature regulation.
We will have to see which further scientific studies come out on this topic but there do seem to be more people on the pro-detoxification side of the debate…
Potential Risks – What to be Conscious of
Much with anything, saunas can be harmful if not informed or used properly. Here are some things to be aware of while enjoying your sauna experience.
Seems like an obvious one but is nonetheless very important.
It isn’t uncommon for an individual to lose a pint of water via sweat throughout their sauna session.
Therefore it is highly important that your body remains hydrated, being sure to hydrate lots before your sauna session and lots after – a good habit to implement regardless if you use a sauna or not!
An important but often misunderstood distinction here is weight loss. Many people think that because you’re sweating so much, that you must be losing weight.
Which is try, however it is all water weight and therefore saunas should not be used as a method of weight loss.
This also implies that alcohol should be avoided while using a sauna as alcohol can increase your risk of dehydration and even arrhythmia or hypotension.
2) Blood Pressure Risks
Although it is common that sauna use daily or multiple times per week can have a positive impact on your blood pressure, saunas do effect individuals differently; some experience higher blood pressure and some experience lower blood pressure.
It’s important to understand your own health and blood pressure before implementing saunas into your regime. Consulting your doctor is always a good practice.
3) Temperature & Duration
Because the effects on the body from sauna use are fairly intense, how long you stay in there and at what temperature should also be considered. The longer you stay in, the more liquid you lose and the more you increase your chance of dehydration and you also want to be sure the heat doesn’t exceed 215°F.
Overheating the body and brain can have serious health implications – in severe cases even death.
Like I mentioned, it affects everyone differently but a common rule of thumb with regards to duration is 15-20 minutes.
It’s clear that the potential benefits of sauna are enough to test it out in your wellness routine/lifestyle.
Of course, remember to be safe, remember the precautions and enjoy!