5 Surprising Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy

How Finnish and Infrared Sauna Therapy Can Improve Your Well-Being

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.

sauna therapy: Woman with a towel wrapped around her body in a sauna

Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy: A Snapshot

Research suggests sauna therapy can help improve:

  • Cardiovascular health problems
  • Autoimmune, chronic pain, and fatigue conditions
  • Mental health
  • Exercise performance and metabolism
  • Detoxification

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: Finnish sauna therapy and infrared sauna therapy. Let’s discuss what’s unique about each type of sauna therapy.

Comparison chart of Finnish sauna therapy and infrared sauna therapy by Dr. Rusico

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 [1].

Finnish saunas are typically heated with electric coils but may also be wood-fired, and are the most studied type of sauna [1].

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. 

sauna therapy: Man sitting inside an infrared sauna

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 [1]. 

Infrared sauna is not to be confused with near-infrared light therapy, which uses non-heat-emitting LED lights [2].

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 metabolis 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 [4].

The heat stress caused by sauna therapy can:

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 [4].

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]. 

Autoimmune Conditions

There are some promising studies that suggest sauna therapy, in particular infrared sauna therapy, improves autoimmune and chronic disease:

  • 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].

Athletic Performance

Studies suggest that regular sauna use may improve your metabolic performance and your ability to gain muscle mass.

A systematic review of 40 studies concluded that infrared sauna use was helpful for athletes trying to improve their performance [4].

Sauna use increases the secretion of human growth hormones several-fold, a substance your body normally produces after exercise [23 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Human growth hormone causes increased fat burning, muscle building, and endurance [25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Several smaller clinical trials have been done on the performance effects of traditional sauna use. Two of these trials showed that post-exercise sauna bathing improved endurance and heat tolerance [26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 27 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Mental Health

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 [29].

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].

Detoxification

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 [31].

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 [17].

How to Use Sauna Therapy

Classic wooden sauna cabin

There’s not yet clear evidence to recommend the best types of sauna bathing for specific medical conditions [4]. 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. 

➕ References
  1. Hussain J, Cohen M. Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 Apr 24;2018:1857413. doi: 10.1155/2018/1857413. PMID: 29849692; PMCID: PMC5941775.
  2. Johnstone DM, Moro C, Stone J, Benabid AL, Mitrofanis J. Turning On Lights to Stop Neurodegeneration: The Potential of Near Infrared Light Therapy in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Front Neurosci. 2016 Jan 11;9:500. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00500. PMID: 26793049; PMCID: PMC4707222.
  3. Tei C, Imamura T, Kinugawa K, Inoue T, Masuyama T, Inoue H, Noike H, Muramatsu T, Takeishi Y, Saku K, Harada K, Daida H, Kobayashi Y, Hagiwara N, Nagayama M, Momomura S, Yonezawa K, Ito H, Gojo S, Akaishi M, Miyata M, Ohishi M; WAON-CHF Study Investigators. Waon Therapy for Managing Chronic Heart Failure - Results From a Multicenter Prospective Randomized WAON-CHF Study. Circ J. 2016;80(4):827-34. doi: 10.1253/circj.CJ-16-0051. Epub 2016 Mar 18. PMID: 27001189. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  4. Sugahara Y., Ishii M., Muta H., Egami K., Akagi T., Matsuishi T. Efficacy and safety of thermal vasodilation therapy by sauna in infants with severe congestive heart failure secondary to ventricular septal defect. American Journal of Cardiology2003;92(1):109–113. doi: 10.1016/S0002-9149(03)00483-1.
  5. Ohori T., Nozawa T., Ihori H., et al. Effect of repeated sauna treatment on exercise tolerance and endothelial function in patients with chronic heart failure. American Journal of Cardiology2012;109(1):100–104. doi: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2011.08.014.
  6. Miragem AA, Homem de Bittencourt PI Jr. Nitric oxide-heat shock protein axis in menopausal hot flushes: neglected metabolic issues of chronic inflammatory diseases associated with deranged heat shock response. Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Sep 1;23(5):600-628. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmx020. PMID: 28903474. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  7. Joseph B. Martin, M.D., Ph.D. The Integration of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience in the 21st Century. Psychiatry Online, The American Journal of Psychiatry. 1 May 2002. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.5.695
  8. Imamura M, Biro S, Kihara T, Yoshifuku S, Takasaki K, Otsuji Y, Minagoe S, Toyama Y, Tei C. Repeated thermal therapy improves impaired vascular endothelial function in patients with coronary risk factors. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2001 Oct;38(4):1083-8. doi: 10.1016/s0735-1097(01)01467-x. PMID: 11583886. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  9. Podstawski R, Borysławski K, Clark CCT, Choszcz D, Finn KJ, Gronek P. Correlations between Repeated Use of Dry Sauna for 4 x 10 Minutes, Physiological Parameters, Anthropometric Features, and Body Composition in Young Sedentary and Overweight Men: Health Implications. Biomed Res Int. 2019 Jan 21;2019:7535140. doi: 10.1155/2019/7535140. PMID: 30800676; PMCID: PMC6360547.
  10. Mattson MP. Hormesis defined. Ageing Res Rev. 2008 Jan;7(1):1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2007.08.007. Epub 2007 Dec 5. PMID: 18162444; PMCID: PMC2248601.
  11. Arena R, Guazzi M, Lianov L, Whitsel L, Berra K, Lavie CJ, Kaminsky L, Williams M, Hivert MF, Cherie Franklin N, Myers J, Dengel D, Lloyd-Jones DM, Pinto FJ, Cosentino F, Halle M, Gielen S, Dendale P, Niebauer J, Pelliccia A, Giannuzzi P, Corra U, Piepoli MF, Guthrie G, Shurney D; AHA Writing Group, Arena R, Berra K, Dengel D, Franklin NC, Hivert MF, Kaminsky L, Lavie CJ, Lloyd-Jones DM, Myers J, Whitsel L, Williams M; ESC/EACPR Writing Group, Corra U, Cosentino F, Dendale P, Giannuzzi P, Gielen S, Guazzi M, Halle M, Niebauer J, Pelliccia A, Piepoli MF, Pinto FJ; ACPM Writing Group, Guthrie G, Lianov L, Shurney D. Healthy lifestyle interventions to combat noncommunicable disease-a novel nonhierarchical connectivity model for key stakeholders: a policy statement from the American Heart Association, European Society of Cardiology, European Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation, and American College of Preventive Medicine. Eur Heart J. 2015 Aug 14;36(31):2097-2109. doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehv207. Epub 2015 Jul 1. PMID: 26138925. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  12. Jack Tsonis. Sauna Studies as an Academic Field: A
    New Agenda for International Research. Sauna Studies. Literature & Aesthetics 26. 2016.
  13. Genuis SJ, Sears ME, Schwalfenberg G, Hope J, Bernhoft R. Clinical detoxification: elimination of persistent toxicants from the human body. ScientificWorldJournal. 2013 Jun 6;2013:238347. doi: 10.1155/2013/238347. PMID: 23844383; PMCID: PMC3691527. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  14. Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi: 10.1155/2012/184745. Epub 2012 Feb 22. PMID: 22505948; PMCID: PMC3312275. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  15. Genuis SK, Birkholz D, Genuis SJ. Human Excretion of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether Flame Retardants: Blood, Urine, and Sweat Study. Biomed Res Int. 2017;2017:3676089. doi: 10.1155/2017/3676089. Epub 2017 Mar 8. PMID: 28373979; PMCID: PMC5360950. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  16. Genuis SJ, Beesoon S, Lobo RA, Birkholz D. Human elimination of phthalate compounds: blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. ScientificWorldJournal. 2012;2012:615068. doi: 10.1100/2012/615068. Epub 2012 Oct 31. PMID: 23213291; PMCID: PMC3504417. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  17. Ross GH, Sternquist MC. Methamphetamine exposure and chronic illness in police officers: significant improvement with sauna-based detoxification therapy. Toxicol Ind Health. 2012 Sep;28(8):758-68. doi: 10.1177/0748233711425070. Epub 2011 Nov 16. PMID: 22089658; PMCID: PMC3573677.
  18. Källström M, Soveri I, Oldgren J, Laukkanen J, Ichiki T, Tei C, Timmerman M, Berglund L, Hägglund H. Effects of sauna bath on heart failure: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Cardiol. 2018 Nov;41(11):1491-1501. doi: 10.1002/clc.23077. Epub 2018 Nov 21. PMID: 30239008; PMCID: PMC6489706. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  19. Keiko AMANO, Ryoko YANAGIHORI, Chuwa TEI. Waon Therapy is Effective as the Treatment of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The Japanese Society Balneology, Climatology and Physical Medicine. 2015. Volume 78, Issue 3, p. 285-302. https://doi.org/10.11390/onki.78.285
  20. Soejima Y, Munemoto T, Masuda A, Uwatoko Y, Miyata M, Tei C. Effects of Waon therapy on chronic fatigue syndrome: a pilot study. Intern Med. 2015;54(3):333-8. doi: 10.2169/internalmedicine.54.3042. PMID: 25748743. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  21. Matsumoto S, Shimodozono M, Etoh S, Miyata R, Kawahira K. Effects of thermal therapy combining sauna therapy and underwater exercise in patients with fibromyalgia. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Aug;17(3):162-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.08.004. Epub 2010 Sep 25. PMID: 21742283. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  22. Oosterveld FG, Rasker JJ, Floors M, Landkroon R, van Rennes B, Zwijnenberg J, van de Laar MA, Koel GJ. Infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. A pilot study showing good tolerance, short-term improvement of pain and stiffness, and a trend towards long-term beneficial effects. Clin Rheumatol. 2009 Jan;28(1):29-34. doi: 10.1007/s10067-008-0977-y. Epub 2008 Aug 7. PMID: 18685882. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  23. Leppäluoto J, Huttunen P, Hirvonen J, Väänänen A, Tuominen M, Vuori J. Endocrine effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta Physiol Scand. 1986 Nov;128(3):467-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.1986.tb08000.x. PMID: 3788622. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  24. Kukkonen-Harjula K, Oja P, Laustiola K, Vuori I, Jolkkonen J, Siitonen S, Vapaatalo H. Haemodynamic and hormonal responses to heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1989;58(5):543-50. doi: 10.1007/BF02330710. PMID: 2759081. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  25. Bidlingmaier M, Strasburger CJ. Growth hormone. Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2010;(195):187-200. doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-79088-4_8. PMID: 20020365. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  26. Kirby NV, Lucas SJE, Armstrong OJ, Weaver SR, Lucas RAI. Intermittent post-exercise sauna bathing improves markers of exercise capacity in hot and temperate conditions in trained middle-distance runners. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2021 Feb;121(2):621-635. doi: 10.1007/s00421-020-04541-z. Epub 2020 Nov 19. PMID: 33211153; PMCID: PMC7862510. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  27. Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, Cotter JD. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Aug;10(4):259-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009. Epub 2006 Jul 31. PMID: 16877041. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  28. Janssen CW, Lowry CA, Mehl MR, Allen JJ, Kelly KL, Gartner DE, Medrano A, Begay TK, Rentscher K, White JJ, Fridman A, Roberts LJ, Robbins ML, Hanusch KU, Cole SP, Raison CL. Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 1;73(8):789-95. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1031. Erratum in: JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Aug 1;73(8):878. PMID: 27172277. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  29. Laukkanen T, Laukkanen JA, Kunutsor SK. Sauna Bathing and Risk of Psychotic Disorders: A Prospective Cohort Study. Med Princ Pract. 2018;27(6):562-569. doi: 10.1159/000493392. Epub 2018 Sep 2. PMID: 30173212; PMCID: PMC6422146.
  30. Laukkanen T, Kunutsor S, Kauhanen J, Laukkanen JA. Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in middle-aged Finnish men. Age Ageing. 2017 Mar 1;46(2):245-249. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afw212. PMID: 27932366. Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source
  31. Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi: 10.1155/2012/184745. Epub 2012 Feb 22. PMID: 22505948; PMCID: PMC3312275.
➕ Links & Resources

Recommended Products

Need help or would like to learn more?
View Dr. Ruscio’s additional resources

Get Help

Discussion

I care about answering your questions and sharing my knowledge with you. Leave a comment or connect with me on social media asking any health question you may have and I just might incorporate it into our next listener questions podcast episode just for you!