The Health Benefits of Saunas

The Health Benefits of Saunas

by Chris Kresser

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health benefits of saunas
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Saunas have been around for hundreds of years as a relaxing and therapeutic practice. (1) The Finnish enjoy sauna baths weekly or more often—a custom that we might want to adopt. Read on to learn about the many health benefits of regular sauna use, both in healthy people and in patients with a variety of health conditions.

Saunas are common in spas and are popping up in fitness centers across the United States. Most people find a sauna relaxing after a spa treatment or a workout. Saunas might not only feel good but could also be advantageous for your health. In the past two decades, dozens of studies have reported health benefits from regular sauna use.

Saunas: dry, steam, or infrared

Saunas come in three varieties: dry, steam, and infrared. A dry sauna is based on the traditional Finnish sauna, with low humidity and a high temperature, from 80 to 100° C (176 to 212° F). (2) A steam sauna has higher humidity and therefore cannot be as hot as a dry sauna. Steam saunas are more uncomfortable and stressful than dry saunas. (3)

Infrared saunas, like in Japanese Waon therapy, use infrared radiation lamps that emit both visible and infrared light. Far-infrared saunas emit longer wavelengths of infrared light that penetrate tissue to 0.1 mm deep. Near-infrared saunas emit shorter wavelengths that can penetrate the body up to 5 mm. (1) Because of the deep tissue penetration, infrared saunas operate at cooler temperatures than dry saunas while still heating up the body.

What happens to your body in a sauna

Saunas are hot—so hot, in fact, that the body’s usual means of cooling down through sweating cannot compensate for the extreme heat. As a result, oral temperature rises 1 to 3° C (1.8 to 5.4° F), and rectal temperature increases up to 0.9° C (1.6° F), depending on humidity, temperature, and duration. (4, 5, 6) Heart rate increases by up to 130 percent. (4) This is accompanied by increased cardiac output and reduced blood pressure.

The endocrine system responds to the heat by increasing several circulating hormones. (1) Growth hormone increases, which also happens after a deep sleep or fasting. Beta-endorphins, which are responsible for the “pleasure” and “analgesic” effects of a sauna, also increase. Norepinephrine increases, causing the increased heart rate. (7)

Are saunas healthy? Here’s what the research says.

A single sauna session stimulates the immune system. White blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil counts are all increased, which may translate to fewer illnesses. (8) In a six-month study, participants who engaged in regular sauna baths had significantly fewer colds than the control group over the same time period. (9)

Saunas might also reduce oxidative stress, which is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and degenerative diseases. After a 30-minute aerobic workout, men who recovered in the sauna had significantly lower markers of oxidative stress than those who followed their workout in room temperature. (10)

Health benefits of saunas

The physiological effects experienced during sauna baths translate to a variety of health benefits, including positive outcomes for cardiovascular health, fitness, and detoxification.

Cardiovascular

Heart disease was once contraindicated for saunas, but more and more research is proving the opposite—that saunas can be safe and actually beneficial for people with cardiovascular disease. A 2015 prospective study followed 2,315 middle-aged Finnish men for 20 years. Those who frequented saunas the most (four to seven times per week) had a lower risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, and fatal cardiovascular disease compared to those who visited saunas two to three times per week or one time per week. (2) Incredibly, increased sauna use was also associated with lower all-cause mortality.

A large number of studies highlight many cardiovascular benefits of regular sauna use, especially Waon (infrared) therapy, including the following:

  • increased left ventricular ejection fraction (11, 12)
  • improved exercise tolerance (12, 13, 14)
  • increased cardiac output (15)
  • better prognosis for patients with chronic heart failure (16)
  • lowered markers of oxidative stress (17, 18)

Blood pressure

Nitric oxide, a vasodilator, increases during a sauna bath, which may be one mechanism by which sauna therapy has been shown to lower blood pressure. (17) Frequenting the sauna twice weekly for three months decreased blood pressure in hypertensive men from 166/101 mmHg to 143/92 mmHg, a result similar to taking one blood pressure-lowering medicine. (1, 19)

Exercise is often advised for hypertensive patients, but combining sauna use with exercise for eight weeks lowered diastolic blood pressure 1.8 times greater and systolic blood pressure 3.3 times greater than just exercise alone. (1) The patients who engaged in both activities also lost more weight and body fat.

Lipid profiles

Regular sauna therapy can also improve lipid profiles. In healthy young men, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol decreased after three weeks of sauna treatment, and blood plasma volume increased. (20) In healthy young women, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol decreased, while HDL cholesterol increased after two weeks of sauna therapy. (21)

Fitness

Probably at least partially due to its cardiovascular benefits, sauna use can improve athletic performance. In a cross-over study, runners had better endurance and higher plasma red-cell volume after regular sauna therapy. (22) Cyclists also benefited from sauna therapy, shown by increased plasma volume and better heart rate recovery after a cycling test. (23)

Detoxification

We are exposed to thousands of environmental toxins, and we don’t yet understand the long-term health effects of the vast majority of them. Sweating as a means of detoxification is a controversial topic, but there’s no denying that our sweat contains toxins like BPA, phthalates, and heavy metals. (24, 25, 26) In people who have higher toxic body burdens, the concentration of toxins in sweat can exceed that of the plasma or urine, indicating that increased sweating could help rid the body of harmful substances. (27)

In several small studies, detoxification therapies have incorporated sauna baths. Police officers were treated successfully for methamphetamine exposure using a combination of exercise, nutritional support, and sauna therapy. (28) Women with occupational exposure to solvents improved after therapy that included sauna use. (29) In a case report, a patient recovering from mercury poisoning used sauna sweats to help recover after chelation therapy. (30) Using saunas to aid in detoxification is a promising option, but further exploration into understanding the mechanisms is needed.

Additional benefits

Numerous other positive health outcomes have been linked to sauna use:

  • reduced pain in patients with fibromyalgia (31)
  • reduced fatigue, anxiety, and depression in individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome (32)
  • lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia with increased sauna use (33)
  • improved relaxation and mental complaints in patients with depression (34)
  • improved insulin sensitivity (35)
  • improved respiratory symptoms, including vital capacity, minute ventilation, and forced expiratory volume of lungs (36, 37)

A lot of what the body experiences in a sauna is similar to what happens during exercise—increased heart rate, nitric oxide, acute metabolic rate, and oxygen consumption, to name a few. (38, 39, 40) Many of the benefits of saunas discussed above are also benefits of regular exercise, probably not coincidentally. I’m not suggesting that you replace your weight lifting and yoga with daily sauna baths, but incorporating saunas into your wellness routine could be a healthy addition.

Who should avoid the sauna?

Recommendations on who should avoid saunas have changed over the years. Although pregnancy and saunas are often contraindicated, several studies have concluded that saunas are not teratogenic (i.e., they don’t disturb the development of the fetus) in healthy women. (41, 42, 43, 44) However, one study reported that sauna use near conception for the mother or father and in early pregnancy for the mother were linked to increased brain tumors in the children. (45)

The basis for recommending against sauna use for pregnant women probably stems from the fact that fevers during early pregnancy are correlated with neural tube defects. (46) In pregnant animal models, teratogenic effects don’t occur until the mother’s core temperature is raised 1.5° C (2.7° F). (1) Under regular conditions, a sauna visit is short, unlike a fever that can last days, and body temperature shouldn’t increase 1.5° C (2.7° F). If you are adamant about wanting to continue the sauna during pregnancy, play it safe and consider decreasing the duration and temperature, or avoiding it during the first trimester altogether.

Sauna use may, at least temporarily, impact male fertility. Decreases in sperm count, motility, and average path velocity following a few weeks of regular sauna use have been reported in the literature. (47, 48, 49) Prospectively, sauna habits had no effect on overall fertility, according to people’s reported habits. (50) If you are having trouble conceiving or anticipate that you might, temporarily dropping the sauna habit is worth a shot.

Most sauna accidents and death involve alcohol consumption. (51, 52) Don’t mix the two.

People who already have heat sensitivities, such as those with multiple sclerosis, probably want to avoid the sauna. (53)

Saunas can feel relaxing and luxurious, but don’t forget that they are also stressful for the body. Be smart about it. Go into the sauna well hydrated, don’t stay beyond your comfort level, and don’t exceed the recommended 20 to 30 minutes, even if you are not yet feeling uncomfortable.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you enjoy the sauna? Do you prefer dry, humid, or infrared? What do you think about the health benefits shared in this post? Let us know in the comments!

33 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. i’ve been using a far infrared sauna by crystal light for five years several times per week until recently when i read about how high the EMF readings are in most saunas. since i’m working very hard to minimize EMF exposure i’d appreciate it, chris, if you could recommend your favorite low EMF sauna.

  2. I have a free standing Sauna in my basement now for 15 years! love it I don’t use it as much as I would like to. When new I needed to turn up the temp on the heater, as on high it would only go to 120 deg F. It now maxes out at 165 deg F. I go in using it dry for 15 minutes then dump water on the hot stones for steam and stay in an additional 10 minutes. Always feel great after using it!

  3. I USED TO GO FOR SAUNA WHEN I WAS AT THE UNIVERSITY AND MY SKIN WAS LOOKING WOW BUT SINCE I STOPPED ,ITS NOT NICE THE WAY IT USED TO BE,WAS IT BECAUSE OF SAUNA OR NOT?

  4. I have a far-infrared portable sauna at home that I use daily (my favourite thing, especially in winter!). I use a standard dry sauna at a friend’s apartment block when I am able.

    They make a huge difference to me. I am treating CFS/lyme/leaky gut (the standard complex chronic illness mix…) and find that saunas go a long way to relieving my symptoms. I am almost always cold, and the sauna feels like energy coming into my body, and like my body can finally relax…

  5. Hi Chris,
    Could you also write an article on the different types of saunas available on the market and what you’d recommend? What brand/type do you own? I have long-considered a Sunlighten, but haven’t made the purchase due to the high price point. Thanks!

  6. I built a sauna per aw gee can’t remember his name, but recommended infrared not far. I really can’t say it has helped as I’ve done hundreds of them. I have late stage lyme and hoped that it would help, but know that no matter what sweating is good.

  7. I love saunas, infrared, dry and with steam. Also soaking in hot tubs. Harbin was my go-to for 40 years. I’m wondering about enhancing the benefits of sauna and hot soaks by alternating between the hot environment and the very cold plunge. I personally found the combination, and going back and forth, to be extremely rejuvenating.
    I have really felt the difference in my body and energy since I stopped being able to experience hot-cold-hot-cold at Harbin. What do others have to say about this combination?

  8. Is it advantageous to have the deeper penetration of the near infra-red? In the studies you cite, you refer to ‘sauna’ and not whether it was standard dry heat, near or far infra-red. Does it not matter in terms of the benefits attributed to ‘saunas’? Since saunas have been around for centuries (at least), I’m wondering if perhaps the near infra-red might be too much of a good thing when used regularly. Thank you for your thoughts and input!

  9. A full spectrum sauna from Sunlighten was part of a protocol I followed that resulted in shrinking thyroid cancer to 1mm at time of surgery. Full spectrum is far, mid, and near. I created a custom setting of all three at full power for 30-40 minutes but I didn’t preheat as I didn’t like having the heat over 120 for more than last 10 minutes.

    • Hi Liz – Wow, that’s really impressive and inspiring. I also have a sunlighten sauna, the portable one, and I’m wondering if you can share how you configured your settings. – thank you

  10. Do baths do the same thing or is there something better about using a dry sauna? I do find baths (with epsom) to be a bit stressful on my body, but Im probably in it too long/it’s too hot.

  11. Hi,

    I live in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and would like to know where to purchase of near-infrared sauna. All I find are far-infrared.

    I would also appreciate knowing if there is some type of spa in my area that has near-infrared saunas, if possible.

    Thank you,

  12. I consider sauna 1 of my top 3 for removing mycotoxins. The other 2 (if you’re curious) are coffee enemas and herbal nasal rinses for marcons infection.

    While we were most sick, we just used steam or dry sauna at the gym. But we are still not fully recovered and I just purchased a one-person far infrared sauna. I’m really excited to see how it goes.

    • Thanks for sharing, Bridgit. What do you use for coffeee enemas (coffee brand(s) and enema kit) and what is in the herbal nasal rinse you mentioned?

    • Hi Bridgit
      Can you shere what herbs you used in your nasal rinses for marcons infection.

      Kind regards
      Heiða Mjöll

  13. Hi has anyone used the cheap saunas that you can buy in the web that are like a small tent with your head out and they use steam? I live in an apartment and that would be a good option for me. Thanks!

  14. I love the sauna. I use far infrared.
    I decided to use the sauna because it is a very rare occasion that I sweat. I have a multitude of unexplainable symptoms, and auto immune issues.
    I can’t tolerate prescriptions, herbs, homeopathy nor HRT. I get serious improvement after sauna. I enter at 130 degrees and do stay for apx 45 mins as I do not begin to sweat for at least 20 mins.
    Could you clarify? Does near infrared penetrate tissues more deeply than far infrared?

      • Hi Kat,

        Number 1 benefit is that I feel more energetic. My normal body temp is 96 so this makes me wonder if by simply warming up I just feel better. My body parts move more fluidly. It’s an overall general improvement in well being. I feel relaxed and very comfortable. My skin looks better too! I usually go straight from the sauna into the ocean to add some benefit.

    • I have used a FIR (Far Infrared) sauna for several years, but recently added a NIR (Near Infrared) 4 light panel inside of it. I wanted both advantages, but since using the NIR panel, I prefer that over the FIR. My skin has much improved along with several painful injuries nearly unnoticeable now. I sweat in 7 minutes and its the most all-over copious sweat ever…like being outside in the rain. After my research, I’ve concluded they are both good, but NIR has several advantages including zero EMF and deeper penetration. Do some research on the differences of NIR versus FIR on line, and you’ll come up with a huge amount of discussion. Not sure if I’m allowed to say what I’m using, but the NIR panel is from SaunaSpace and it fits very nicely with in my existing cedar sauna.

  15. I am finding great benefits to far infrared sauna use in detoxing from mycotoxins (Trichothecenes and Gliotoxin). My daily headaches have virtually disappeared with 2-3 x week sauna visits.

    • If you don’t mind me asking, do you get “detox” symptoms after the sauna? How often and how long do you do them? I have an infrared sauna in my house and am scared to use it!

    • Hi again Kat,
      Thought I’d chime in. I’ve used biomat. Feels good while using it but I personally did not see any helpful ongoing benefit. Unlike sauna where I just *feel* better and it seems to be cumulative.

    • Kate i have both à Biomat and a far infrared sauna at home. The biomat is excellent if you are a cold person, tend to get cold easily, have a hard time staying or keeping warm, and/or have low thyroid or low immune function or just low body temp. It has saved me so many times when I was just so cold and could NOT get warm. However it is not a substitute for a sauna- not at all. The sauna makes me feel detoxified and really helps boost my immune system, body, everything. The only exception is if I overdo it, which is easy to do for me bc it makes me feel so good and I’m not in a good place nutritionally or adrenally to support that much. they are both great health products and they have helped me survive/cope with severe illness. But they serve 2 different purposes.

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