14 Health Benefits of Saunas

Odds are you have heard at one point or another that using saunas can be beneficial for your health.

The sauna industry has greatly expanded in recent years due to increased consumer demand, as a result of the research demonstrating the positive health effects. 

The problem is that it can be difficult for someone to know what type of saunas are best and why, the best temperature, ideal duration, and frequency of usage to maximize the health benefits.

This article will outline 14 proven health benefits of sauna usage and explain what you need to know to maximize your sauna usage.  

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The Four Main Types of Saunas

1. Finnish Sauna

  • Wood paneled, typically cedar.
  • Humidity 50-60 gm H2O vapor
  • Temperature: 158 - 212 degree fahrenheit
  • Typical protocol : 2-3 sessions of 5-20 minutes
  • Do cold immersion, then recover at room temperature, then repeat 2-3 times 

2. Dry Sauna

  • Same as Finnish Sauna without steam 

3. Infrared Sauna

  • Contains incandescent infrared lamps (primarily near & mid infrared) 
  • Typically 120-140 degrees fahrenheit  
  • No Steam 

4. Far Infrared Sauna

  • Far Infrared heaters (primarily far infrared) 
  • Typically 120-140 degrees fahrenheit
  • No steam 

Despite common misconceptions, far infrared actually has the lowest level of tissue penetration and near infrared has the deepest tissue penetration.

Near infrared (IR-A) Saunas are the only infrared saunas that have been shown to penetrate down to the subcutaneous fat layer. 

Sauna Contraindications 

Before getting into all the amazing health benefits of sauna usage, it is important to know the contraindications of those at risk for sauna use.

  1. Pregnant women who have a high-risk pregnancy (potentially safe for uncomplicated pregnancy in women accustomed to sauna usage)
  2. People with severe aortic stenosis
  3. Individuals with unstable angina
  4. Individuals with recent myocardial infarctions

As with any new therapy, it is important to consult your physician before beginning. 

Start slowly and work your way up. You can do more harm than good, and even experience life threatening situations when saunas are used incorrectly and irresponsibly.

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14 Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy 

1) Induce Detoxification Through Sweat

The skin is one of the three major organs of detoxification

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of regular sweating for elimination of toxic compounds from the body. (1)

Most toxic compounds were found to be preferentially excreted through sweat over other elimination pathways. (2)

A profound finding in a 2012 study published in the journal of environmental public health demonstrated that high mercury levels normalized with daily sweat therapy (3)

Flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly detected in the environment, humans, and animals. They are typically put into household furniture, mattresses, and various other places which are constantly outgassing and exposing our bodies to these harmful chemicals. These pollutants are increasingly recognized as being very harmful to our health and pose many risks.

A study published in 2017 demonstrated that regular induced perspiration proved to be an effective method for therapeutic elimination of these harmful flame retardant chemicals. (4)

It is no secret that the chemical contaminant Bisphenol A (BPA) is commonly associated with adverse effects on human health. It is a problematic toxin which found in our environment and detectable levels are found in humans. This study demonstrates sweating to be a method for elimination of BPA (5)

Another research study has shown that, “Induced perspiration may be useful to facilitate elimination of some potentially toxic phthalate compounds including DEHP and MEHP” (6)

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are organic compounds used in plastics, lubricants, and dielectric fluids. These are commonly detected in our home's, environment, and in humans. Studies have shown that by inducing perspiration we are able to eliminate some of these problematic PCBs from our bodies. (7)

Although I could go on and on showing you study after study demonstrating the detoxification benefits of inducing sweating, I think you get the picture.  

2) Increase your body’s fat burning ability

The evidence is clear have shown sauna therapy can increase the rate of lipolysis (the breakdown of fat cells)

The xenobiotics (foreign substances in the body) in subcutaneous fat pads can be released through the skin (8)

In obese individuals, a short 2 weeks of repeated sauna therapy was shown to significantly decrease body fat and overall body weight. (9)

3) Increases production of heat shock proteins

The heat exposure experienced in sauna therapy increases the production of heat shock proteins which has been shown to have many benefits.   

Increases in heat shock proteins have been shown to be potentially therapeutic in obesity induced insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes) (10)

The increased production in heat shock proteins from heat exposure is shown to reduce oxidative stress by scavenging free radicals, which helps to improve muscle recovering post exercise and increase muscle mass. Additionally, the heat shock proteins aid in maintaining healthy glutathione levels (master antioxidant in the body). (11)

4) Balances hormones and increases testosterone

Heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath was shown to improve hormone balance in a study done on eight healthy young men. Growth hormone and testosterone levels increase, while cortisol levels decreased during 3 periods of heat exposure. (12)

5) Improves cardiovascular health and lowers high blood pressure

Cardiovascular responses from sauna exposure include increased heart rate, 70% increase in cardiac output, increase nitric oxide, 40% decrease in peripheral resistance (lowers high blood pressure), increases blood flow to periphery and decreases flow to the viscera. The study also concluded that the cardiovascular risk related to correctly performed sauna use is very small. (PMID: 3218896) (13)

Sauna users have reduced rates of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, and fatal cardiovascular disease. The frequency of regular saunas inversely related to risk of cardiovascular-related mortality. (14)

Sauna therapy also improved endothelial function in subjects with lifestyle related conditions, suggestive a preventive role in atherosclerosis. (15)

Regular sauna usage was associated with reduced risks of hypertension which is very possibly related to the cardiovascular benefits associated with sauna use. (16)

Although exercise is incredibly important, sauna alone has been shown to be effective in reducing blood pressure in hypertensive subjects. (17)

"In obese individuals, a short 2 weeks of repeated sauna therapy was shown to significantly decrease body fat and overall body weight."

6) Improved recovery post-exercise and increases stress resilience  

Sauna therapy can help with a reduction in oxidative stress following exercise. Forty three 20 year old men did 30 mins of aerobics followed by either room temperature recovery or recovery in a heated sauna. The subjects who followed exercise with sauna had TBARs (byproduct of oxidative stress) 17.5% lower than those with room temperature rest. Catalase (CAT), an important enzyme in protecting the cell from oxidative damage, had significantly higher activity in sauna group subjects. (18)

Due to the effects on reducing cortisol and helping to balance hormones, sauna usage is associated with balancing the HPA axis. (19)

This study demonstrated a 142% increase in IGF1- a crucial hormone in growth and recovery. (20)

Far infrared sauna usage has been shown to aid the neuromuscular system in recovery from maximal endurance performance. (21)

7) Improves athletic performance

In a study done on distance runners, sauna use increased time to exhaustion (running) by 32%, increased plasma volume 7.1%, and increased red blood cell volume 3.5%! (22)

Sauna usage can also increase blood flow to the muscle tissue which would improve nutrient delivery resulting in less glycogen depletion during workouts. This results in an enhanced ability to perform high intensity exercise. (23)

Regular sauna usage has been shown to acclimate the body to heat stress during athletic events and improve the bodies cooling mechanisms. This is an excellent strategy for any athletes who have to complete in warm climates. (24)

Heat exposure can also increase your heart's efficiency to pump blood (increasing stroke volume) which is shown to improve physical performance due to the increase in cardiovascular output. (25)

8)  Improving skin health

Although you may not think exposing yourself to heat will benefit your skin, the research is clear that regular sauna use to have a positive effect on skin physiology, especially skin PH. It also reduces oil on the forehead making sauna use a potential therapy for resolving acne caused from oily skin. (26)

9) Reduces LDL cholesterol levels

The positive effects of sauna therapy can mimic those of moderate intensity exercise including lowering LDL cholesterol and slightly increasing HDL cholesterol. (27)

10) Anti-aging and longevity benefits

Increased usage of sauna therapy has been shown to decrease risks of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all cause mortality!

Frequency of 4-7x weekly demonstrated the most profound risk reduction. (28)

Mild heat exposure has been found to induce anti aging hormetic effects by reducing protein damage and inducing antioxidant and repair mechanisms in the body. (29)

11) Improve symptoms of depression

28 patients with mild depression, general fatigue, and appetite loss underwent 20 far infrared sauna sessions, 5 days per week over 4 weeks. Subjects had significant improvements compared to controls including improved mood, increased hunger, and enhanced ability to relax. (30)

Sauna therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing depression in subjects with cancer and improving overall mood. (31)

12) Reduces Chronic Pain 

Sauna use, when combined with other therapies, can help in managing rheumatoid arthritis.(32)

Regular sauna bathing can also be helpful in managing chronic headaches. This study showed efficacy in reducing headache pain intensity.(33)

Sauna therapy in conjunction with underwater exercise was shown to help improve the pain and symptoms of fibromyalgia patients. (34)

A study done with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis patients showed that all subjects experienced reduced fatigue, decrease in pain, and decrease in stiffness.(35)

13) Improve cognitive performance and brain health

 Moderate to high frequency of sauna bathing is associated with decreased risk of dementia and alzheimer's disease. In a study with 2,315 health men age 42-60 that has follow ups for 20+ years found a significant decrease in the changes of alzheimer's. Sauna use 4-7x weekly was correlated to a 66% decrease in dementia risk and 65% decrease in alzheimer's risk!  (36)

Studies have demonstrated that sauna use can increase norepinephrine levels, which is a hormone that increases focus. (37)

14) Fight infection and prevention of pneumonia

Raising body temperature has been shown to help kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.

The increase in thermal temperature can stimulate innate and adaptive immune responses. (38)

This study demonstrated the effects of heat therapy in regulating the immune system and stimulating epidermal langerhan cells (immune cells of the skin and musca) (39)

Pneumonia is a huge killer in older individuals. A large study looked at 2210 men aged 42-61 over the course of 25.6 years. Those subjects doing sauna usage 2-3 times weekly has a 33% reduced risk of developing pneumonia and subjects doing 4+ sauna session per week has a 44% reduced risk. (40)

Summary 

If you read this far, I bet your ready to go jump in a sauna and start sweating! So the question remains, what type of sauna is best to use.

Studies have shown that the key to achieving these benefits is simply sweating!

Hot boxes work regardless of the heating unit. Weather the sweat is induced by any type of sauna, hot yoga, or simply cranking the heat up in your car, the main takeaway is to expose your body to hot environments that cause it to sweat.

Higher temperature, lower duration sauna exposure is great for cardiovascular issues and stimulating heat shock proteins

Lower temperatures with longer duration is necessary for mobilization of toxicants

No significant difference found in toxicant clearance between sauna heating units

Two advantages of infrared:

  1. It does penetrate to the subcutaneous fat layer
  2. It induces sweating while maintaining a lower temperature in the sauna, so for those who find it difficult to sit in a hot sauna, this heating mechanism may be a better option.

Important points to keep in mind when purchasing a sauna:

  1. A good exhaust fan is very important for proper ventilation
  2. Saunas constructed with non-toxic materials/wood/adhesives so you don’t have chemicals outgassing in your sauna poisoning you as you are trying to detox (what a counter intuitive practice that would be)
  3. Many saunas output a high amount of non-native electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs), so be sure to find a sauna with low levels of EMFs. 

Helpful things to do in conjunction with sauna therapy:

  1. Drink plenty of high-quality water (stay hydrated!)
  2. Exercise prior to sauna use
  3. Stretching/flexibility training during sauna use
  4. Cold shower immediately after leaving the sauna

Many of the toxins that are excreted through sweat can be reabsorbed through the skin if you do not shower after sauna bathing. Cold showers also have additional benefits. 

Sauna usage can be very time efficient as well due to the ability to multitask. While sauna bathing one can read a book, listen to a podcast/audiobook/mp3, meditate, study, stretch, have a conversation, etc.

Read Next: THE 8 BEST HIGH INTENSITY INTERVAL TRAINING (HIIT) WORKOUTS FOR QUICK & EASY WEIGHT LOSS

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