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Article: The Ultimate Guide to the Benefits of Sauna Bathing

The Ultimate Guide to the Benefits of Sauna Bathing

The Ultimate Guide to the Benefits of Sauna Bathing

Written by Chris Lang

When it comes to full-body thermotherapy, it doesn’t get better than a sauna. By sauna bathing (exposing your body to a high temperature for a short period), you can experience a range of health benefits.

So, it’s no wonder this practice started thousands of years ago but is still as popular as ever. Though the Western concept of saunas originates in Finland (the word “sauna” itself is an ancient Finnish word), there is evidence that similar structures were used by the Mayans and even before. No matter where saunas come from, one thing’s for sure – using sweating as therapy works. That’s why this practice has stood the test of time and continues to be a cherished wellness tradition worldwide.

But what does a sauna do for your body? That’s what you’ll discover in this guide. We’ll break down the many (science-backed) benefits of sauna but also debunk some potentially harmful myths about sauna bathing. To help you experience only the positive sauna effects, we’ll also explain how to use it safely and what sauna type is the best for you. Let’s get started.

The Science Behind Sauna Benefits

Before diving into the health benefits of a sauna, let’s see what makes them possible. You see, the sauna itself doesn’t provide these benefits directly. It’s how your body reacts to the extreme heat within a sauna that triggers a cascade of positive effects. This is what sauna bathing does to your body in more detail.

Body Temperature and Sauna

Sauna bathing involves exposing yourself to extreme heat for a short period. It goes without saying that the intense heat affects your body temperature, which slowly rises. Though each person is different, using a sauna generally raises your body temperature to about 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Naturally, this isn’t a “normal” temperature for your body. So, your body will respond to this heat by increasing your heart rate (typically 120 to 150 beats per minute), widening blood vessels, and, in turn, increasing blood circulation. In an effort to cool down, it’ll also initiate its natural cooling mechanism – sweating. You can lose as much as one pint of fluid this way.

This entire experience is what brings about the health benefits of a sauna.

If the effect of sauna on your body reminds you of exercising, you’re onto something. You see, sauna bathing and low to moderate exercise affect your body in a similar way. The only difference is that during sauna bathing, there’s no active skeletal muscle work.

Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing

Now that you know the science behind sauna health benefits, let’s get to the main point of this guide: what are the benefits of a sauna? Since sauna bathing primarily affects your cardiovascular system (increased heart rate and widened blood vessels), it shouldn’t be surprising that your heart has the most to gain from it. So, let’s first explore why use a sauna for your heart health.

Heart Health

When it comes to heart health, there’s one basic principle to keep in mind – the more you work this muscle, the better. Since this is precisely what the sauna does for your body—it makes your heart work harder in a controlled environment—sauna sweating can contribute to your overall cardiovascular well-being in several ways.

Improving Circulation

As your body temperature rises, so does your heart rate, which, in turn, increases your blood circulation as your body works to dissipate heat. This means that sauna bathing offers similar heart benefits as light to moderate cardio exercises (e.g., walking on a treadmill at a regular pace).

Of course, regular exercising still offers numerous other health benefits. In other words, sauna bathing shouldn’t be considered a replacement for exercising, just a complementary practice for cardiovascular health.

But why does improving your blood circulation matter?

Improving blood circulation improves oxygen delivery to vital organs, nutrient transport to body cells, and waste removal. It also leads to additional heart health benefits, some of which will be discussed below.

Lowering Blood Pressure

People often ask – does sauna lower blood pressure?

A research published in the JAMA Internal Medicine medical journal found that using a sauna regularly does lead to lower blood pressure. In a sense, sauna bathing acts like exercising here too. In the beginning, your blood pressure is likely to increase. But in the long run, you’ll be able to manage it better and keep it at healthier levels.

But be careful; this doesn’t automatically apply to people with uncontrolled high blood pressure. If you fall under this category, it’s better to consult your healthcare provider before using the sauna.

Lowering the Risk of Cardiovascular Issues

The same research mentioned above found an intriguing link between regular sauna bathing and a lower risk of cardiovascular issues. This study (and multiple others) suggests that those who use a sauna regularly have a substantially lower risk of suffering from serious heart-related medical emergencies, like a heart attack.

This mainly results from the improved cardiovascular function that stems from the long-term use of a sauna.

Again, it all goes back to increased blood circulation and putting stress on the heart in a beneficial way – by exposing it to short bouts of intense heat.

Another important fact to mention here is that sauna bathing leads to lower stress levels.

Of course, this is a benefit in and of itself (and will be discussed as such later). However, reducing stress levels can also decrease your risk of experiencing cardiovascular issues.

Lowering the Risk of Death From Heart-Related Conditions

According to research, the benefits from sauna bathing span beyond lowering the risk of heart-related conditions. They also reduce the risk of dying from such a condition.

The study conducted in Finland followed the life of over 2,000 sauna bathers (ages 42 to 60) for 20 years. At the end of this period, researchers concluded that the participants who used a sauna more often (four to seven times a week) had lower death rates from heart-related conditions. To be precise, they were 50% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 63% less likely to experience sudden cardiac death.

The latter figure is especially important as sudden cardiac death makes up to 18% of all deaths in the U.S. Though more research is needed on this topic, it’s clear that the benefits of regular sauna use in reducing heart-related mortality can’t be ignored.

Improving Cholesterol Levels

High blood cholesterol is a considerable risk factor for heart disease, as the fatty deposits can block the blood flow through the blood vessels. In addition, these deposits can form a blood clot that can cause a heart attack or a stroke. It goes without saying that lowering your total blood cholesterol decreases the risk of this unfortunate scenario.

There are a few ways to do this – maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and take prescribed medication. But another item can be added to this list – use a sauna regularly. Why? Well, when you do so, you sweat. And when you sweat, you potentially raise your “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels, thus lowering your overall cholesterol levels. Combine sauna bathing with exercising (sit in a sauna after a workout), and you’ll maximize the benefits sauna has on your cholesterol levels.

Potential Health Benefits Beyond the Heart

The incredible advantages of sauna bathing for heart health deserve special recognition. But this doesn’t make other benefits of heat sauna bathing any less notable. So, what does a sauna do for you beyond helping keep your heart in optimal condition? Let’s find out.

Easing Pain

The improved blood circulation resulting from regular sauna bathing doesn’t only positively affect the cardiovascular system. It can also do wonders for the musculoskeletal system.

Past studies found that regular sauna sessions eased the pain and reduced stiffness and fatigue in patients suffering from chronic musculoskeletal diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, a more recent study (2019) proved that sauna bathing is also beneficial for patients with lower back pain, while a study explores its positive effects on people suffering from headache disorders.

While waiting for more research to come out on this topic, you can always gauge whether sauna bathing helps ease your particular pain. Undergo a few trial sessions in the sauna, and you’ll quickly see whether they help improve your symptoms. If so, incorporate sauna bathing into your treatment routine. 

Reducing Soreness

Though this benefit of a sauna is related to easing pain, it warrants its own section, as soreness isn’t necessarily linked to chronic musculoskeletal conditions.

Sure, sauna bathing can cause significant improvements in people with chronic pain from conditions like arthritis and inflammatory diseases. But it can do the same for individuals recovering from a workout. Using the sauna after a workout will improve blood flow to the muscles and joints, thus loosening them up. This, in turn, alleviates overall soreness. Use sauna for recovery, and you should stop feeling heavy and sore post-exercise.

Promoting Relaxation

Not all sauna use benefits have to do with a health condition directly. After all, sauna bathing first became a thing primarily for enjoyment. So, the benefits of doing sauna bathing solely for relaxation shouldn’t be overlooked, especially when this relaxation effect is the only immediate effect of using a sauna.

Go into a sauna, and the heat will relax your muscles (including the often tense face and neck), activate your sympathetic nervous system (leading to the release of endorphins or the “happiness hormones”), and decrease your stress and anxiety levels.

The last effect is especially important, as reducing stress can have numerous benefits on your overall well-being, including enhanced mood, improved sleep quality, and better cognitive function.

Soothe your body physically by sauna bathing, and your mind will follow suit.

Boosting Skin Health

There are two positive effects of a sauna on your skin health.

On the one hand, sauna bathing can help make your skin feel soft and look glowy and plump. This results from the heat opening up your pores, allowing them to expel harmful toxins and blemishes. It also has to do with increased blood circulation, as this makes skin more robust and elastic, which contributes to the desirable aesthetic effect of plump skin.

On the other hand, some researchers suggest that the dry heat from a sauna can help improve specific skin conditions. For instance, it’s suggested it can alleviate symptoms of psoriasis, as it facilitates the removal of scaly patches of skin.

But this doesn’t apply to all skin conditions. For example, people with atopic dermatitis will likely have a different experience in a sauna. So, to be safe, consult your healthcare provider before using a sauna if you suffer from any skin condition. This way, you’ll avoid any side effects and only experience sauna benefits for your skin.

Lowering the Risk of Neurocognitive Disease

Numerous factors can contribute to developing neurocognitive disease, including impaired cardiovascular function, oxidative stress, and inflammation. Since sauna bathing has been linked to each of these factors, researchers have posed a simple question – can sauna help reduce the risk of neurocognitive disease?

For now, the answer seems to be affirmative. For instance, a study found that men who use sauna regularly are 65% less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and 66% less likely to get dementia. Though the protective effects of sauna bathing on neurocognitive disease need to be researched further, the initial findings are beyond promising.

Lowering the Risk of Pulmonary Disease

So far, we’ve discussed how using a sauna can protect your cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and nervous systems. There’s one more system that can experience the incredible benefits of sauna bathing: the respiratory system.

Namely, a 2018 review suggests that sauna bathing can improve the lung’s vital capacity, forced expiratory volume, and ventilation, thus boosting the overall lung function. Regularly using sauna has also been linked to the reduced risk of respiratory diseases (e.g., asthma and pneumonia).

Though these are the most extreme cases (and most in need of help), sauna bathing can do wonders even for common colds. Past studies showed people using saunas regularly are 50% less likely to experience a cold. So, it’s safe to add “using sauna for cold prevention” to the ever-growing list of sauna benefits.

Improving Your Overall Well-Being

A 2017 study conducted on people in their 80s showed that regular uses of a sauna leads to a better quality of life altogether. Study participants who were also sauna users displayed significantly better physical functions, vitality, social functions, and general health than non-users.

Types of Saunas: Traditional vs. Infrared

There’s more than one type of sauna. These types primarily differ based on how the sauna enclosure is heated. The most popular among these are the infrared and the traditional saunas, which you can purchase from most reputable vendors.

The former is heated using special lamps that emit light waves directly into the sauna user’s body. In other words, they don’t heat the entire room. This is why temperatures in infrared saunas are typically lower (up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit) than in their traditional counterparts (up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit).

As their name suggests, traditional saunas are heated in a more traditional way – through wood burning or electrical heaters. Regardless of the heat source, these saunas are high in temperature and low in humidity. These saunas are the most similar to the original Finnish saunas, which are also referred to as “dry saunas.”

The Benefits of Infrared Saunas

Generally speaking, there are numerous benefits of infrared light therapy, including enhanced circulation and reduced inflammation. That’s why it doesn’t come as a surprise that the infrared sauna benefits also include these things. Other infrared benefits include improved skin health and potential pain relief.

Since infrared saunas have proven useful in battling specific types of inflammation, they can do wonders for sinus infections. Use an infrared sauna for sinus infection, and your symptoms should subside.

However, the biggest advantage of infrared saunas over traditional saunas has to do with their lower temperature. This makes them tolerable for people who can’t stand the extreme temperatures of dry saunas.

The Benefits of Dry Saunas

The extreme heat of the dry sauna is what allows it to shake up your entire body. Here are some of the most notable health benefits of a dry sauna:

  • Removing dead skin cells and improving your skin quality

  • Reducing congestion and improving your breathing

  • Relaxing your muscles (especially post-workout)

  • Preventing fluid retention

  • Reducing stress and promoting relaxation

How to Use a Sauna Safely

There’s no doubt about it – the benefits of sauna bathing are multifaceted and can positively impact various aspects of your physical and mental well-being. However, this doesn’t mean you can use the sauna however you’d like (and however long you’d like). There are some safety precautions to keep in mind to avoid any side effects of sauna bathing and only experience its advantages. Dive into the sauna do’s and don’ts below, and you’ll do precisely that.

Sauna Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t Drink Alcohol Before the Sauna

Drinking alcohol before sauna bathing is an all-around bad idea. Besides increasing the risk of dehydration, alcohol consumption can also lead to hypotension (low blood pressure), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), and even sudden death.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time in a Sauna

When it comes to spending time in a sauna, remember that there can be too much of a good thing. Though you can go sauna bathing daily, you must limit the time you spend in a sauna.

In the beginning, limit your sauna use to five to 10 minutes. As your body adjusts to this extreme heat, you can slowly increase the duration of your sauna sessions. Ideally, each session shouldn’t last longer than 20 minutes. Some users might be able to work their way up to 30 minutes at a time, depending on their current health condition. Anything over 30 minutes is a big no-no.

Don’t Use the Sauna if You Feel Ill

If you feel ill, avoid using the sauna until you recover. Otherwise, you might increase the strain on your body, thus worsening your existing condition.

Don’t Use the Sauna Without Consulting a Healthcare Provider

This advice mainly applies to people with specific health or medical conditions. Below, you’ll find a list of some of these conditions. If you have any of them, be sure to consult your healthcare provider before using a sauna.

  • Pregnancy

  • Low blood pressure

  • Uncontrolled hypertension

  • Severe heart disease

  • Recent cardiovascular events (e.g., heart attack, heart failure, and heart surgery)

  • Diabetes

  • Kidney disease

  • Specific skin conditions (e.g., atopic dermatitis)

  • Autonomic dysfunctions

  • Seizure disorders

  • Chronic respiratory disease

People with some of these conditions will still be able to use a sauna, only under specific conditions. However, others shouldn’t even think about entering such an environment. That’s why it’s crucial to consult a medical professional and not experiment on your own.

Don’t Use the Sauna if You Take Specific Medications

If you use medications that make you drowsy or interfere with your body’s ability to regulate temperature, using a sauna isn’t a good idea.

Do Drink Plenty of Water

Using a sauna means you’ll sweat excessively. And when you sweat, you lose fluids. If you don’t replace the fluids you lose, you risk becoming dehydrated. You’ll know this is happening if you start feeling dizzy, develop a sudden headache, or get extremely thirsty.

If you feel any of these symptoms, leave the sauna immediately. Failing to do so can lead to extreme dehydration, which can, in turn, cause several complications, including a heat stroke, seizure, and even kidney failure.

To prevent these worst-case scenarios (or any signs of dehydration, really), make sure to drink plenty of water before and after going sauna bathing. Ideally, you should drink at least one glass of water before going in and at least two glasses immediately after stepping out of a sauna. Keep drinking water afterward to rehydrate your body. Remember to avoid alcohol, as it can only worsen potential dehydration.

Do Prepare for Your Sauna Session Properly

There are also some basic things to keep in mind to ensure your sauna session goes off without a hitch.

For starters, remove any accessories (e.g., jewelry and eyeglasses) before entering the sauna. The same goes for your contact lenses and anything metallic on your person.

If you’re sharing the sauna with other people (e.g., in a gym), make sure to shower before going in. Then, grab a towel to sit on and quickly enter the sauna to keep the heat inside.

Do Adjust the Temperature Accordingly

If the sauna temperature is too hot or cold, make sure to adjust it accordingly. Of course, if you’re in a group setting, ask for permission first. Alternatively, change your seat level inside the sauna and adjust the temperature to your liking this way.

Sauna Bathing: Myths and Facts

By now, we can answer the “Is daily sauna good for you?” question with a resounding “yes!” But just because there are many benefits of sauna bathing, it doesn’t mean this activity can resolve every health issue.

Sauna bathing has been a wellness staple for centuries, which is more than enough time for many myths about its capabilities to arise. But we’re here to tell you – don’t believe everything you hear! Let’s go over some of the most common sauna bathing myths and debunk them once and for all.

The Truth About Detoxification

Though, sauna detox is often listed as one of the benefits of sauna bathing, there’s not enough scientific research to support this idea. The proponents of this idea claim that the sauna causes excessive sweating, which, in turn, removes toxins from your body. However, the truth is that your sweat doesn’t contain any toxins and, as such, can’t be used to “cleanse” your body. Organs like kidney, liver, and intestines are the ones that take care of these toxins.

The Truth About Weight Loss

Unfortunately, there’s no magic way to shed pounds without putting in the work. Going sauna bathing is no different. Sure, you can lose up to a pound after using a sauna. But you’ve only lost fluid and not fat. In other words, you’ll gain this weight back as soon as you drink water or eat.

But don’t get discouraged. A sauna can still help your weight loss journey. Use it post-workout, and the heat will amplify your workout’s cardiovascular perks.

The Truth About Boosting Immunity

Many sauna companies include boosting immunity as one of the benefits of sauna bathing. But the truth is there isn’t enough research to claim that this activity directly influences your immune system. However, some of the proven benefits of sauna (e.g., reducing stress and enhancing blood circulation) can indirectly contribute to a stronger immune system.

The Truth About Sauna Frequency of Use

There’s a myth that saunas shouldn’t be used more than once a week. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As you might’ve noticed in the studies mentioned in this guide, people who use sauna four to seven times a week experience its most significant benefits. This means that it’s perfectly healthy to use the sauna daily, as long as you limit each session properly (and take other precautions mentioned in this guide).

Enhancing Health and Wellness Through Sauna Bathing

After reading this guide, you should have a clear answer to the question, “What does a sauna do for the body?” The truth is that it does a lot, positively affecting multiple body systems and helping you lead a healthier lifestyle. After reading all the benefits of sauna bathing, incorporating this activity into your wellness routine sounds like a no-brainer. Ideally, you’ll be able to purchase a sauna for your property and enjoy its many benefits in the privacy of your own home.

 

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