Spending time in a sauna is considered a form of therapy that, much like cold plunge therapy, has several different health benefits. There are many different types of saunas, including electric saunas, which are the most common and safe. Temperatures in these rooms generally range from 150 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit.
The American Sauna Society recommends spending no more than 15 to 20 minutes in a sauna since extended stays can increase your chances of dehydration. However, shorter stays in a sauna, especially after exercising, can improve your health and wellbeing in many ways. Here’s how:
Helps Increase Circulation and Support Muscle Recovery
Increased circulation is one of the many health benefits of relaxing in a sauna. The high temperatures make the heart beat faster and blood vessels expand, allowing blood to move more freely throughout the body. Better circulation can help alleviate muscle soreness and even improve joint movement after strenuous exercise. Moreover, enhanced circulation can reduce symptoms of pain and increase mobility for people with arthritis.
The body also releases endorphins when experiencing the heat provided by a sauna. These endorphins help minimize the pain from joint and muscle soreness. Several prominent athletes, including legendary NCAA and Olympic wrestler Dan Gable, have spoken to the effectiveness of saunas in that regard. Even in retirement, Gable spends time in a sauna twice a day. He also dedicated a chapter in his book (A Wrestling Life 2: More Inspiring Stories of Dan Gable) to the benefits of saunas and their impact on his athletic career.
“Nothing’s going to replace the sauna—for me, it’s a tool of health,” notes Gable. “I always say for every sauna you take, it adds that much time back to your life. And if you can’t exercise, at least sauna, because not only will you have heart rate increases, like a workout, but … if nothing else, you know that you feel better.”
Assists with Weight Loss
Sweating burns calories, whether you’re working out or simply lounging in a sauna. People who are overweight or in poor shape can burn off calories at a relatively rapid rate when first using a sauna, while those in moderate shape can burn up to 300 calories during a single session. The heat causes your heart and cardiovascular system to work faster, which requires the body to convert calories into energy.
Of course, saunas shouldn’t be viewed solely as a weight loss tool. If you make no other changes to your diet or activity level, sauna sessions on their own will not help you lose weight or keep it off over the long term. Rather, sauna use should complement an exercise regimen and healthy eating habits.
Sweating not only burns calories but flushes toxins such as arsenic, lead, copper, mercury, and cadmium from the body. These elements are absorbed by the body through daily interaction with the outside world and can contribute to long-term health problems. For instance, exposure to high levels of mercury can cause symptoms such as muscle weakness, lack of coordination, speech and hearing impairment, and even kidney and respiratory failure in the most extreme cases. Many doctors are proponents of saunas for their detoxifying capabilities.
Many who regularly use saunas speak about their abilities to relieve stress. The act of spending time alone in a sauna is a conscious choice to choose relaxation over distractions such as computers, phones, and other gadgets. Sitting and chatting with friends in a sauna can also reduce tension as it is a great way to unwind and socialize—without distractions—following a workout.
In addition to these perceived stress reduction benefits, there is a scientific reason why people feel more relaxed after spending time in a sauna. Heat from the sauna helps reduce cortisol hormone levels in the blood and stimulates serotonin production. Cortisol is released when we feel stressed, whereas serotonin is known as the “happy hormone.” Too much cortisol can negatively affect sleep and cause problems with the immune system.
Reduces Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Saunas originated in Finland, and researchers from this Nordic country have since conducted studies that demonstrate the long-term health benefits of regular sauna use. One study, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Eastern Finland over a 20-year period, tracked the health effects of sauna use among more than 2,300 participants. The researchers found that those who had at least two sauna sessions a week were less likely to be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and coronary artery disease. They were also less likely to experience sudden cardiac death.
Lowers Risk of Dementia
Results from the aforementioned study also highlighted the cognitive benefits of regular sauna use. Dr. Jari Laukkanen’s team of researchers concluded that individuals who spent 19 minutes in a sauna at 176 degrees Fahrenheit four to seven times per week had a lower risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. This aligns with the Alzheimer’s Association’s recommendation of sweating as critical to improving brain health.