Stepping into the sauna for reflection, relaxation, and well-being has long been a tradition in cold countries like Finland and Sweden, and it’s a common practice in the spa, fitness, and wellness communities. But more recently, sauna therapy has been studied for its potential benefits for health problems like heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic pain and illness.
Is there any truth to the claims that sauna therapy can improve your health? In this article, we’ll define sauna therapy and look at the difference between a traditional sauna and the more recently popularized infrared sauna. And we’ll see what the research says about how sauna therapy can benefit your health.
Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy: A Snapshot
Research suggests sauna therapy can help improve:
Cardiovascular health problems
Autoimmune, chronic pain, and fatigue conditions
Exercise performance and metabolism
For best results, short 15-20 minute sauna bathing sessions 1-3 days per week for traditional Finnish saunas or 3-7 days per week for infrared saunas are advised.
What Is Sauna Therapy?
Sauna therapy is exposing your body to high heat in an enclosed space for health purposes. The resulting elevation in core body temperature — hyperthermia — may improve your health.
Traditional cultures used saunas for ceremonial or spiritual purposes. For example, Native American or shamanic sweat lodges were used for vision questing or purification as a cultural ritual.
Modern-day sauna therapy is the use of sauna bathing as a health practice. As your body is exposed to heat, your breathing rate increases and your body may begin to sweat.
Types of Sauna Therapy
There are two main types of sauna therapy in use today: Finnishsauna therapy and infrared sauna therapy. Let’s discuss what’s unique about each type of sauna therapy.
Traditional Sauna Therapy
Traditional Finnish saunas are usually kept between 175-212 degrees F. You stay in the sauna for 5-20 minutes, and then cool off outdoors or in a cold water plunge. Finnish saunas are generally kept dry, but some people pour water onto the heated rocks to make a steam sauna .
Finnish saunas are typically heated with electric coils but may also be wood-fired, and are the most studied type of sauna .
Far-Infrared Sauna Therapy
Infrared sauna therapy is a newer type of heat therapy, popularized in the last decade. Infrared saunas emit far-infrared heat, a wavelength of red light, from a special lamp.
A far infrared sauna is kept at a lower temperature than a Finnish sauna, between 113-140 degrees F. No water or humidity is added, and infrared sauna sessions are typically 5-20 minutes .
Infrared sauna is not to be confused with near-infrared light therapy, which uses non-heat-emitting LED lights .
There isn’t yet a lot of human research about the health benefits of far-infrared sauna therapy, but the limited research that’s been done implies that it is a promising therapy to help many different types of patients.
Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy
In simple terms, similar to exposure to hot weather or exercise, sauna use increases your core body temperature and heart rate, which dilates your blood vessels, increases your blood flow, and lowers your blood pressure [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. These physiological changes give your body a healthy type of stress that can have a balancing and healing effect.
How Sauna Therapy Affects Your Body
Recent research suggests saunas can induce positive changes in human metabolism and can have a regulating effect on the immune system and nervous system.Natural stressors, like cold or heat exposure — called “hormetic stress” — mimic the natural stressors our human ancestors were often exposed to. A systematic review reported that the health benefits of regular sauna use likely comes from the biochemical cascade caused by healthy heat stress .
Here is a look at some of the more specific research surrounding the beneficial effects of sauna therapy.
Heart Disease and Sauna Therapy
There is some very promising research that shows the benefits of sauna therapy for cardiovascular disease. A recent systematic review of 40 studies found that both Finnish and infrared sauna bathing [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source] was beneficial for people with heart-related disease .
One way infrared sauna bathing is thought to improve heart disease is by significantly reducing a peptide that is commonly elevated in chronic heart failure patients, and by reducing blood pressure [1, 18 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Two clinical studies in chronic fatigue syndrome patients using Waon therapy (infrared sauna therapy followed by wrapping in thermal blankets) saw significant improvement of wellbeing metrics [19, 20 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Fibromyalgia patients who used infrared sauna therapy three times per week for twelve weeks had 31-77% reductions in pain, which for many patients continued after 6 months [21 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Patients with rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis who used four weeks of infrared sauna therapy in a pilot study saw 40-60% reductions in pain and stiffness [22 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Studies suggest that regular sauna use may improve your metabolic performance and your ability to gain muscle mass.
Limited evidence suggests that sauna therapy has some benefits for mental health, though more research needs to be done. For example, six weeks of infrared sauna therapy led to lower depression scores compared to placebo treatment in one study [28 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. And frequent sauna use was strongly associated with a lower risk of psychotic disorders in middle-aged Finnish men .
Even more promising are some early studies suggesting there may be some benefit from using sauna therapy for preventing Alzheimer’s disease. A 20 year-long prospective study of Finnish men concluded that 2-7 sauna bathing sessions per week were associated with a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [30 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
Sauna use is frequently thought of as a tool to help detox your body from chemicals. But is this claim accurate?
A systematic review of observational studies found that repeated sauna use can lead to significant excretion of heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury through the skin .
And a study of police officers who were exposed to methamphetamine fumes in the line of duty saw improvements to sleep, mental health, neurotoxicity scores, and more after completing a program of sauna therapy, exercise, and nutrition support. Sauna therapy may have assisted with detoxifying their toxic exposure .
How to Use Sauna Therapy
There’s not yet clear evidence to recommend the best types of sauna bathing for specific medical conditions . But following typical sauna therapy approaches used in research studies is a good place to start.
Traditional Finnish or infrared saunas are typically used for short 5-20 minute sauna bathing sessions. One to three days per week for traditional Finnish saunas and 3-7 days per week for infrared saunas is likely a reasonable guideline.
A general rule of thumb is to respect how your body responds to sauna use.
A Few Tips for Safe Sauna Use:
Start with shorter sessions and work your way up to longer sessions.
Stop if you begin to feel lightheaded, short of breath, or like you might pass out.
Drink plenty of clean water before, during, and after your sauna sessions.
Avoid alcohol use before, during, and after sauna use.
If you notice an increase in pain or other symptoms, reduce the frequency of your sauna sessions or stop.
If you have any concerns about whether sauna therapy is safe for you, be sure to consult your doctor.
How to Access Sauna Therapy
Not everyone has a sauna in their home, but it’s not too difficult to access a sauna. Many gyms have Finnish-style saunas available as a perk of membership. Many spas or health centers also provide sauna access.
You can also buy a sauna to install in your home or backyard. Some varieties of infrared sauna are small, can be set up in a shower or bathtub, and break down when not in use.
The Bottom Line
Sauna therapy shows a lot of promise as a way to improve health conditions that affect many of us. Preliminary research has shown its potential to improve metabolism, blood sugar, heart disease, blood pressure, and mental health, and even help you detox. But it may be some time before we have clear recommendations for specific diseases.
Frequent, short sauna therapy sessions are likely to provide the most benefit. See where you can access saunas in your community to get sweating.
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