You may have heard that stepping into a hot sauna after a session at the gym can be relaxing and detoxifying for your body.
For hundreds of years, Scandinavians have been using saunas for their alleged benefits of cleansing, relaxation, and weight loss. In Finland, for example, there are roughly 2 million saunas for the country’s 5.2 million people. Sauna use in Scandinavian countries starts in early childhood.
Current research about the benefits of saunas is mixed. If you’re considering adding the sauna to your health and wellness routine, make sure to evaluate your specific health needs first.
Saunas vs. steam rooms
You might be wondering what the difference is between a sauna and a steam room. Both types of rooms are used to promote sweating, but they use different types of heat to accomplish it. Saunas use dry heat produced from a stove or hot rocks to escalate the room up to 195°F (90.5°C) with very low humidity.
On the other hand, steam rooms involve moist heat. They operate at lower temperatures, usually around 110-120°F (43-49°C) and 100 percent relative humidity.
The benefits of saunas
When you enter a sauna, your skin temperature rises, your pulse rate soars, and your blood vessels become more dilated. This happens as your heart begins to pump more blood. Of course, you also begin to sweat. There are a few benefits to this experience.
Saunas have been traditionally used to produce a feeling of relaxation. As your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels dilate, there is an increase in blood flow to the skin. Saunas may also improve blood circulation.
Your sympathetic nervous system becomes more active in order to maintain a temperature balance in your body. Your endocrine glands begin to get involved in this response. Your body’s reaction to the heat can make you less perceptive to pain, more alert, and give you a feeling of elation. The heat relaxes your muscles, including those in your face and neck. These muscles are often tense after long day.
This relaxation effect is one of the biggest benefits to using a sauna. To add to the relaxation effect, practice meditation while in the room. When you soothe your body physically, often the mind and the emotions follow suit. The effect is long-lasting and may even help you get a better night’s sleep.
Using a dry sauna can leave people feeling invigorated. Since the blood vessels relax and dilate in a sauna, blood flow increases and the experience can help reduce tension in the joints and relieve sore muscles.
Saunas might also help those with chronic pain and arthritis. A study in people with chronic musculoskeletal diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis discovered that sauna sessions improved pain, stiffness, and fatigue over the course of four weeks.
While all patients reported some benefit, the improvements were not found to be statistically significant. The authors recommend that patients with these conditions undergo a couple of trial sessions to see whether sauna use improves their symptoms before incorporating it as part of their treatment routine.
Risks of using saunas
The average person loses about a pint of sweat in just a short period of time in the sauna, so be sure to drink plenty of water before and after using one. Don’t spend long periods of time in the sauna, as prolonged periods increase your risk of dehydration.
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. You should leave the sauna immediately if you feel dizzy/lightheaded, have a headache, or get very thirsty.
Complications of severe dehydration include:
- low blood pressure
- heat exhaustion or heat stroke
- kidney failure
- hypovolemic shock
After your sauna session, drink plenty of water to rehydrate your body.
Saunas aren’t effective for weight loss because the only weight lost is fluid weight, and your body will replenish the lost fluid as soon as you eat or drink. As soon as you drink water, you’ll gain the weight right back. If you’re looking to lose weight, stick with a healthy eating and exercise plan.
There is no evidence to suggest that sweating during a sauna session releases toxins from the body or skin. The sole purpose of sweating is to prevent overheating of your body. It’s your liver and kidneys that do the detoxifying.
Proper hydration is important for your liver and kidneys to function properly. Make sure to drink plenty of water to replenish lost fluids after using the sauna. Let your liver and kidneys do the work.
Research has found an association between sauna use and loss of fertility in men. A recent study in Finnish men who underwent two 15-minute sauna sessions per week for three months found that the use of saunas had a significant negative effect on their production of sperm.
The good news is that the effect was found to be reversible. More research is needed to understand the impact of saunas on fertility, especially in men who already have low sperm counts or other issues with fertility.
When to avoid saunas
Certain health conditions are not compatible with saunas or steam rooms. If you have any of the following conditions, be sure to check with your doctor before using a sauna:
- asthma or other breathing conditions
- heart disease
- very high or very low blood pressure
- people under the influence of alcohol
- those taking stimulants, tranquilizers, or other mind-altering drugs
A study published in the Journal of Forensic Science revealed that deaths due to sauna use were exceedingly rare (less than 2 per 100,000 inhabitants). Fifty-one percent of deaths were thought to be due to natural causes and 25 percent were associated with heat exposure. Half of all deaths occurring in saunas were in people under the influence of alcohol, and most were alone.
Current evidence suggests that there are both benefits and risks to using saunas. Saunas are generally safe for healthy individuals. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to show they have health benefits above relaxation and a general feeling of well-being.
While many people use saunas as part of a healthy lifestyle, what’s best for you may not be what’s best for someone else. When used in combination with a healthy diet, exercise routine, and plenty of water, saunas may help you:
- relieve minor pain and muscle aches
- relax and help you sleep
- improve blood circulation
If you want to use a sauna to relieve some stress, it’s important to remember that high temperatures for long periods of time can actually put strain on the body. Aim for 15-minute sessions at first and work your way up to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time.
Remove jewelry, eyeglasses, contact lenses, or anything metallic before entering. If you feel dizzy, unwell, or develop a headache while in a sauna, leave immediately and cool down. Make sure to rehydrate with a couple glasses of water after using a sauna.