People have been enjoying bathing in heat for centuries. The Russians, Native Americans, and the Finnish, among many others, have been reaping the benefits of banya, sweat lodges, and saunas. But what are the health benefits to sauna use, and who should be using them?
Sauna bathing is sitting in a hot room (in your bathing suit or birthday suit) for 15-20 minutes, where the temperature is anywhere between 160°-200°F. Yes, it gets hot!
Benefits of using a sauna
At those extreme temperatures, why you should sit in a hot room, uncomfortably, for about 20 minutes while you pour sweat, if you don’t have to?
Here are some scientifically proven benefits of sauna bathing:
Heart health and cardiovascular benefits
Brain heath (lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease)
Sore muscle recovery
Improvements in pain and range of motion in people with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis
Decreased chronic pain for people with conditions like fibromyalgia and low back pain
Detoxification (excretion of toxins and heavy metals via sweat)
Increased metabolism and weight loss
Less muscle and joint pain
Skin health and anti-aging benefits
Possible mild improvements in breathing for people with asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Reduced inflammation and decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels
Improves your immune system
Mind recovery (reduced stress, improved sleep)
In order to see and feel some of the health benefits, experts suggest using a sauna 3-7 times a week, for about 10-20 minutes (you can start with five minutes and work up to 20).
As your skin temperature increases, sauna-goers undergo a ‘fight or flight’ response, resulting in a raised sense of alertness, decreased pain perception and an elevated mood.
When sauna bathing is used in conjunction with cold exposure, which has it’s own benefits, stresses on the cardiovascular system (2) and increases in adrenaline (4) are greater.
For a more detailed description of these benefits, please visit the sources below. Dr. Rhonda Patrick is a longevity medicine specialist and has an exhaustive list of health benefits associated with sauna bathing on her blog. Additionally, Dr. Peter Attia weighs in on why he’s changed his mind about the sauna in this interview with Tim Ferriss.
Types of saunas
There are dry and wet saunas, also known as steam rooms, and infrared saunas.
In the past the heat was generated by burning wood. Today we use electric heaters that heat up the room and air first, and then the body.
The difference between regular saunas and infrared saunas lies in the heating mechanism. Infrared heaters emit thermal radiation, which heats the body directly while also warming the surrounding air (6). Therefore the temperature in the infrared saunas is generally lower than in a regular sauna, sitting at 113°-140°F.
A steam room, or wet sauna, is less hot than a dry sauna (110°-120°F), with humidity greater than 50%. The high humidity will prevent sweat from evaporating, and therefore can be more challenging on the cardiovascular system (2).
When sauna use is contraindicated
Even though sauna bathing offers a long list of benefits, none of those will behoove you if it is dangerous for your health. So please check with your doctor if using a sauna is safe for you.
Some reasons to avoid using a sauna:
If you’re not feeling well or are sick
If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, or another serious condition, check with your doctor
If you’re pregnant
If you’re dehydrated. With high temperatures, it’s extremely easy to become dehydrated, especially if you have any kidney issues.
For men: the elevated temperatures can temporarily reduce sperm count. Keep this in mind if you and your partner are trying to conceive.
Children should be supervised while using a sauna, and not stay longer than 15 minutes
I hope this introduction to the sauna world gave you valuable information on why you should or should not add sauna bathing to your lifestyle. I personally love taking a dry sauna and have been doing so since childhood.
I fondly remember going to our friends’ fancy, beautifully built, wooden sauna. Trying to find zen as the sweat drips down your back and your face was a challenge for 8 year old me. Finally after 5-10 minutes in the heat chamber, we’d rush out into the snow and roll around in it. You could hear our squeals and laughter in the night sky. What a blast! Better than any video game I know.
Kristina Lucka is a certified personal trainer of 10 years, and Pilates certified since 2016. The combination of weight training and Pilates allows her to design effective programs for strength training, endurance, weight management, pre/postpartum, or some combination of all of them. Learn more about Kristina, or get in touch with us by emailing Go@HyattTraining.com.