People have used saunas for enjoyment and health for centuries, and none more so than Finns. Ninety-nine percent of Finland’s people use a sauna at least once a week. And people in other countries, including the United States, are discovering sauna benefits — such as improvements in health and beauty — and starting to incorporate the practice of “saunaing” (yes, that really is a word!) into their lifestyle.
But what are saunas, and what specific benefits do they offer? Here’s what you need to know about this ancient practice and its modern incarnations. Plus, why you might want to consider giving saunas a try — and which ones offer the greatest health benefits.
What is a Sauna?
Saunas are small rooms that are heated to between 150-195° F (65-90° C). They often have unpainted wood interiors and temperature controls. Think of a cottage in the woods, add a heating source and some seats or benches, and you’ve got the visual.
Saunas can be used in a number of ways. Some people enjoy using them as part of their exercise routine or gym workout, while others prefer to save saunas as a relaxing experience reserved for a vacation at a spa. Others may use them for health reasons under the supervision of a doctor.
Types of Saunas
The main types of saunas differ based on how they’re heated and how the air feels to the person using it.
These are the oldest, most authentic forms of sauna and require no electricity. They are also known as “savusauna” and are a Finnish type of sauna. Wood-burning saunas use an open fire to heat a pile of rocks, which have to stand up to high temperatures without cracking or becoming damaged. Rocks like peridotite, basalt, and hornblende are often used, which are unweathered, quarried rocks that can stand the pressure from the heat. As you can imagine, the design of wood-burning saunas requires a longer period of time to heat up. Nowadays, there are versions of a wood-burning sauna that uses a stove or kiuas (in Finnish) instead of rocks. My favorite part of the wood-burning sauna is its smell, which is reminiscent of a relaxing campfire in the woods.
Electrically Heated Saunas
Another option are electrically heated saunas. These use an electric stove or other similar heat sources, like propane or natural gas. Because of their heating design, electrically heated saunas are clean, quick to heat, and convenient. The max temperature of an electric sauna is 194° F (90° C). And these usually have safety features that won’t allow the sauna to run for more than one hour without resetting it. The downside, then, is that it requires electricity and will affect your utility bill. Unfortunately, using this type of sauna isn’t very energy efficient.
With an infrared sauna, the air doesn’t heat up around you like more traditional saunas do. They use infrared lamps instead, which use electromagnetic radiation. Infrared saunas can operate between 120-140˚ F (49-60° C) at lower temperatures than traditional saunas, which typically run between 150-180˚ F (65-82° C). The design of infrared saunas allows the heat to penetrate deeper and more directly into your skin than simply warm air. As a result, you will experience a more intense sweat using infrared saunas.
Steam rooms are common in Eastern European and Turkish traditions. And they feature a moist heat, typically operating at around 104° F (40° C). The main source of heat is steam. So in order to make these any hotter, you have to add more steam to them. However, it’s important to practice caution when heating a steam room, as it can quickly reach dangerous, scalding temperatures. Compared to some of the dry heat saunas, steam rooms often feel hotter on your skin because moisture-rich air prevents your sweat from evaporating and cooling down your body.
History of Saunas
How did saunas come to be? Historians determined they originated in Africa to rid people of infectious diseases by sweating them out over a fire.
Roman and Greek bathhouses led the way to spas and spa-like saunas of today. Originally, these were intended to purify and detoxify the body but evolved into social meeting places for many important community and political decisions.
The Turkish Hammam was a type of communal, gender-specific bathhouse built inside intricately designed buildings. These were important for social and spiritual gatherings and became an integral part of socialization for both men and women. They were much like today’s spas, offering hair removal, massages, and beauty treatments.
Native American sweat lodges vary between regions in their languages, music, and rituals, but share the common foundation of being a place to sweat, pray, and connect spiritually. Sweat lodges are dome-shaped, built on a frame of lashed saplings, and held together with clay, grass, and rocks. They retain heat thanks to piled on blankets or animal skins. Traditional sweat lodges are also completely dark. They’re big enough to fit 10-15 people inside, including a community elder who serves as “water pourer” — the ritual position that leads the group in their ceremony.
The modern Western sauna — that cottage design I mentioned earlier — originated in Finland. The Finns have used saunas for relaxation, health, and communal bonding for centuries. It makes sense, given their long Scandinavian winters, that they have such an affinity for spending time in intense heat. Some Finnish women even gave birth in saunas!
11 Powerful Sauna Benefits
Besides making you feel relaxed and rejuvenated, there are many other potential sauna benefits that modern science is beginning to discover.
1. May help your body rid itself of toxins.
It appears that sweating does more than just help cool your core body temperature. Research indicates that sweating promotes natural detoxification. A 2016 study published in BioMed Research International found that inducing sweating may help the body eliminate organochlorinated pesticides (OCPs), which we’re regularly exposed to via food, water, and air as a part of living in this world. This is a good thing because OCPs have been demonstrated to negatively impact metabolic functions and likely promote disease processes.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health also saw induced sweating as a way to help the body rid itself of Bisphenol A (BPA), a known endocrine disruptor. In both of these studies, the toxins were most highly detected in sweat, when compared to their presence in other bodily fluids like urine and blood.
This makes intuitive sense to me. If you’ve ever eaten a hot pepper and found sweat pouring down your temples, you know that your body is well equipped to sweat out some chemicals it would prefer to be without.
2. May be a useful application in cancer treatment.
A 2002 study published in the Annals of Oncology suggested that hyperthermia — or the raising of body temperature above normal — should be further researched for its ability to shrink tumors and promote cancer cell death.
Temperatures between 104-111° F (40-44° C) are toxic to cells and appear to be especially impactful against cancerous tumors, enhancing the success of radiotherapy and certain chemo drugs. In reviewing studies, the researchers found that hyperthermia alone raised complete overall response rates among cancer patients by 13%.
While I’m pleasantly surprised by the cancer finding, it also makes sense to me that mimicking our body’s natural defense against pathogens — fever — would help us defend against tumors as well.
3. May help improve heart health.
Exposure to high temperatures and induced sweating appears to have benefits to your heart. A 2015 Finnish study published in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed a population study among 2,315 middle-aged adults examined at baseline between 1984 and 1989, investigating the association between frequency and duration of sauna use and heart disease.
With the data collected from a 21-year follow-up, researchers concluded that increased frequency of sauna use was associated with a lower risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality. Although, more research was needed to determine why that was. Still, the data showed that regular sauna use was associated with nearly a 50% reduction in heart-related deaths! Seems like sweating is sweet for your ticker!
Other studies indicate that the heart health benefit of saunas may be due to their ability to improve vascular endothelial function — or open up arteries among those at risk for plaque blockages — and lower high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.
4. May alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
A 2018 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology evaluated the effects of saunas on the blood inflammation marker, C-reactive protein (CRP), among 2,084 men (42-60 years) without acute or chronic inflammation. When potential confounding factors were addressed — like BMI, smoking status, age, alcohol use, and exercise habits — the researchers found a significant inverse association between how often the men used a sauna and their CRP levels.
Saunas may also help alleviate pain through its relaxation effects on the body. A 2011 study among 44 females with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) — a chronic condition characterized by pain and tenderness — found that sauna therapy and underwater exercise improved their reported quality of life, pain, and FMS symptoms. The patients underwent sauna therapy once per day for three days a week, and completed underwater exercises two days per week, for a total of 12 weeks.
5. May lengthen your lifespan.
As sauna usage can benefit heart health and lower inflammation, it may also lead to increased longevity. Not only do saunas help lower the risk of heart disease, but they also appear to reduce the risk of all-cause mortality.
Some hypothesize that it’s the heat activation of the “longevity gene,” FOXO3, that can be attributed to this effect of sauna usage. FOXO3 and its variants have been linked to a lower risk for age-related diseases, fewer bone fractures, and a lower prevalence of heart disease and cancer.
6. May reduce memory loss.
In a 2017 study published in the journal Age and Ageing, researchers looked at repeated heat exposure from saunas and the effects on memory disease risk. Researchers analyzed the data from the 21-year follow-up of the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease population-based prospective cohort study of 2,315 healthy middle-aged men.
They found that moderate to high frequency of sauna use was associated with lower dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risk. Men who used a sauna four to seven times per week experienced a lower risk for memory disease compared to men who used it one to three times per week.
7. May improve health and well-being in diabetics.
The impact of repeated thermal therapy, by way of sauna baths, on the reported quality of life among people with type 2 diabetes was analyzed in a 2010 study. Participants underwent a far-infrared sauna bath three times per week, for 20-minute sessions, over a period of three months. At the end, they completed a questionnaire regarding their health and quality of life. Participants reported feeling that their physical health, general health, and social functioning improved and that levels of stress and fatigue decreased.
8. May reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Other studies have found sauna benefits such as improved vascular endothelial function, improving circulation, preventing blood clots, and lowering high blood pressure, which are all risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
9. May improve physical fitness.
Enjoying a sauna bath after a hard workout may help your body recover faster and perform better. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport followed six male distance runners who completed three weeks of post-exercise sauna bathing and three weeks of control training, with a three week washout period between. During the sauna bathing period, the men took a humid 90° F (32° C) sauna bath for 30-35 minutes, approximately 13-15 times during the three weeks.
An exercise performance test via a 15-minute treadmill run showed how their running endurance was affected. Their plasma, red blood cell, and total blood volumes were measured. Compared to control, sauna use increased run time to exhaustion by 32%. For a distance runner, that’s a huge improvement.
Blood volume measurements also increased post-sauna. The researchers concluded that sauna usage could improve running endurance, likely due to its ability to increase blood volume.
10. May promote weight loss.
Using a sauna may help promote healthy weight loss through the natural process of sweating and the triggering of other physiological changes that boost body fat reduction.
In a Binghamton University study, participants were exposed to a 110° F (43° C) infrared sauna for 45 minutes per day, three times per week, for 16 weeks. The effects on body temperature and long-term body weight changes were measured. Participants were responsible for their own compliance to the exposure and ranged from completing 12 sessions to 45 sessions. Those who used the sauna the most lost more body fat, with up to a four percent reduction over four months.
Here’s a cool finding from that study: People who went to the sauna later in the day lost a significantly higher amount of body fat than those who went in the morning. The researchers concluded that raising core body temperature causes human growth hormone production and blood sugar levels to rise, leading to a greater loss of body fat. So if you want to try sweating to lose weight, don’t schedule it first thing in the morning.
11. May improve the appearance of your skin.
Infrared saunas may have the added beauty benefit of making your skin look and feel better. Research indicates that infrared radiation may reduce wrinkles and improve the texture of photo-aged skin (that is, skin aged by sunlight or tanning beds) by increasing collagen and elastin in a safe and non-invasive way. Regular sauna usage can also benefit the moisture of the skin and possibly reduce the incidence of acne.
However, some skin issues could become exacerbated by saunas. Rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis have had mixed results in regards to sauna usage. If you have one of these conditions, consult with a doctor before use. And if you do decide to use a sauna, try to limit your sauna use to 15 minutes and see how your skin reacts.
Health Risks & Precautions When Using a Sauna
Despite all the sauna health benefits, using one does require taking some precautions to make sure you minimize potential safety risks.
Drinking alcohol is not recommended when using a sauna. Alcohol raises your risk of hypotension — or low blood pressure — which can become very dangerous. Drinking while using a sauna can also cause arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and even lead to sudden death.
People with pre-existing health conditions should practice extra caution when using a sauna. Anyone who has a cardiovascular problem or who is pregnant should seek medical advice beforehand. Even if you’re generally healthy but feeling ill, you might want to wait on stepping into the sauna until you feel better.
Spending time in a sauna makes you sweat, which causes water loss from the body. This can lead to dehydration if you’re not careful about hydrating yourself before and after. People with health conditions like kidney disease may be at a higher risk of dehydration from using a sauna. A good practice is to drink a glass of water before entering the sauna. You can also bring water into the sauna with you.
Even the average healthy person may experience some adverse effects from using a sauna. High heat temperatures can lead to dizziness, nausea, and even fainting for people who are especially sensitive to them. If you’re concerned about heat sensitivity, you can usually choose a lower heat and length of time to start.
Best Post-Sauna Beverages for Rehydration
After you get out of the sauna, it’s important to rehydrate your body after all of the water you’ve lost through sweating.
Some of the most refreshing and hydrating beverages to enjoy after your sauna include:
- Coconut water
- Sparkling water
- Fruit-Infused water or mocktails
- Herbal iced teas
- Natural electrolyte solutions
While pure water is the most hydrating for your body, it won’t replenish as many electrolytes as some of these other beverages will.
What about electrolyte-replacement sports drinks? While these do contain more electrolytes than plain water, they also tend to be high in added sugar, artificial colorings and flavorings, and other unnecessary ingredients. And you don’t need to buy a premade electrolyte drink to meet your needs. You can actually make them yourself at home.
Post-Sauna Hydration Recipes
Sweating may help you detox, but the body doesn’t necessarily select the toxins while leaving important electrolytes behind. Along with the unwanted chemicals, you may lose important vitamins and minerals as well. Therefore, it’s important to replenish through nutrient-dense, hydrating foods, and beverages. Below you’ll find a Mexican Watermelon Salad that you can enjoy immediately after saunaing. And if drinking your nutrition sounds more appealing to you after a sweat session, then try the Lemon Drop Smoothie. Or, try hydrating and replenishing while you’re in the sauna by sipping on FRN’s DIY Electrolyte Drink.
The water content of this salad is over 90%, meaning you’re sure to stay hydrated while also enjoying the sweet taste of the watermelon combined with the naturally salty cucumber. Speaking of natural salt, this salad has the minerals you need to replenish what’s lost after sweating — sodium, potassium, vitamin C, and magnesium.
When you sweat, you lose important minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and vitamin C. Replenishing these losses with water during or immediately after sweating is key to preventing dehydration, but minerals are equally essential. The Lemon Drop Smoothie is packed with potassium and magnesium from the banana, vitamin C from the lemon, and most likely will have calcium from the plant-based milk (since most nut and seed-based milk products are fortified with calcium and other minerals). What’s more, you’ll get an additional nutritional boost from anti-inflammatory turmeric!
No need to waste your hard-earned money or extra packaging when you can easily replace your electrolytes and rehydrate with produce from your refrigerator. Simply squeeze some fresh oranges and lemons, add a little water, salt, and pomegranate juice, and mix! Oranges, lemons, and pomegranate juice all offer vitamins and minerals needed from sweat loss.
Enjoy the Benefits of Saunas
Saunas have been around for a long time and offer many health benefits beyond just helping you relax. Enjoying a sauna regularly may help improve your heart health and circulation, remove toxins from your body, reduce pain and inflammation, improve your skin and endurance, and even prolong your lifespan. And apart from purchasing your own sauna for use at home, you may also be able to find saunas at spas, gyms, and health clubs (if they are open and safe to use, that is). Something so simple that can calm the mind and body, while also improving your well-being? Seems to me that taking the time to enjoy a sauna is something most of us could benefit from.
Tell us in the comments:
- Have you ever used a sauna? How did it make you feel?
- What’s your favorite type of sauna?
- What are some of your favorite post-sauna beverages?
Feature image: iStock.com/qwerty01