Saunas have been used for hundreds of years and still continue to be popular today. Many people enjoy sitting in a sauna to unwind and relax.
Spending time in a sauna can feel good, and there may be additional health benefits to be had beyond relaxation.
Contents of this article:
What is a sauna?
Many people enjoy relaxing and unwinding in a sauna.
A sauna is typically a room heated to between 70 to 100°C. Traditional Finnish saunas usually involve dry heat.
The relative humidity is often between 10 and 20 percent, but there are also sauna types where moisture is higher. Turkish-style saunas involve a greater level of humidity, for example.
Sauna use can raise the skin temperature to roughly 40°C. As the skin temperature rises, heavy sweating also occurs. The heart rate soars as the body attempts to keep cool. It is not uncommon to lose about a pint of sweat while spending a short time in a sauna.
Types of saunas
There are several types of saunas based on how the room is heated. These types include the following:
- Wood burning: Wood is used to heat the sauna room and sauna rocks. Wood-burning saunas are usually low in humidity and high in temperature.
- Electrically heated: Similar to wood-burning saunas, electrically-heated saunas have high temperatures and low humidity. They use an electrical heater, which is attached to the floor to heat the sauna room.
- Infrared room: Infrared saunas are different to wood-burning and electrically-heated saunas. Special lamps use light waves heat a person's body, not the entire room. The sauna room still gets warm, but temperatures are typically lower than other saunas. Usually, infrared saunas are about 60°C.
- Steam room: Steam rooms are not traditional saunas but are still sometimes referred to as a sauna because of similar effects. Instead of using dry heat, a steam room involves high humidity and moist heat.
Potential health benefits of using a sauna
Regardless of how a sauna is heated or the humidity level, the effects on the body are similar. When a person sits in a sauna, their heart rate increases and blood vessels widen. This increases circulation.
The effects on the body from sauna use may have some potential health benefits. Increased circulation may help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement, and ease arthritis pain. The heat in a sauna may also promote relaxation, which can improve feelings of well-being.
A potential health benefit from sauna use may be a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. One study conducted in Finland followed 2,315 men ages 42 to 60 over the course of 20 years.
Of these participants, a total of 929 died from cardiac disease, coronary artery disease, or sudden cardiac death. Participants were also categorized by how often they used a sauna, including once a week, two to three times a week, and four to seven times a week.
Steam rooms involve high humidity and moist heat as opposed to the dry heat of traditional Finnish saunas.
After the researchers had adjusted for cardiovascular risk factors, increased sauna use was linked with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular-related diseases.
Participants who used the sauna two to three times a week experienced sudden cardiac death 22 percent less than those who only used it once a week.
The results were even greater for men who used a sauna more often. Those who used a sauna four or more times a week experienced sudden cardiac death 63 percent less often than those who only used a sauna once a week.
The idea is that sitting in a sauna may have cardiovascular effects similar to moderate exercise. Heart rate may increase to 150 beats a minute while using a sauna. When heart rate increases, it pumps more blood to the body. Circulation increases in a similar way to the effects of exercise.
Another theory is that sauna use may improve the function of cells in the heart. Cells that line the arteries play a role in the amount of blood that flows to the heart. Improving the function of these cells may also boost heart function.
The effects of lowering stress levels when using a sauna more may also help reduce cardiovascular events. The bottom line is that when it comes to the cardiovascular effects, more research is needed to find out if there is a definite link between sauna use and a decrease in deaths from heart disease.
While studies may be promising, sauna use should not replace an exercise program to keep the heart healthy. There is more evidence to support the benefits of regular exercise.
Health risks and precautions
It is vital to drink plenty of water after using a sauna.
According to the American Heart Association, sauna use in moderation appears to be safe for most people. Switching between the heat of a sauna and cold water in a swimming pool is not advisable, however, as it can raise blood pressure.
Since sauna use may cause a drop in blood pressure, people with low blood pressure should talk with their doctor to make sure sauna use is safe. People who have recently had a heart attack should also talk to their doctor before using a sauna.
One of the biggest risks of spending time in a sauna is dehydration due to fluid loss from sweating. People with certain conditions, such as kidney disease, may be at a higher risk of dehydration. The increased temperatures can also lead to dizziness and nausea in some people.
Steps that should be taken to avoid any negative health effects include the following:
- Avoid drinking alcohol: Alcohol can increase the risks of dehydration since it causes the body to lose more water through urinating more.
- Limit time spent in a sauna: Don't spend more than 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. People who have never used a sauna should consider limiting their time to about 5 to 10 minutes. As they get used to the heat, they can slowly increase the time to about 20 minutes.
- Drink plenty of water: Regardless of the type of sauna a person uses, it's important to replace the fluids lost from sweating. People spending time in a sauna should drink about two to four glasses of water after using a sauna.
- Avoid sauna use if ill: People who are ill should also wait until they recover before using a sauna. Women who are pregnant or those with certain medical conditions, such as low blood pressure, should ask their doctor before sauna use.
Health myths about saunas, hot tubs, and steam rooms
Although there may be some potential health benefits to spending time in a sauna, there are also a few myths. One myth involving sauna use is that sweating can remove toxins from the body.
It's true that sweating occurs during sauna use, but there is no scientific research that proves sweating detoxifies the body. Sweat is not made up of toxins, however. Toxins such as alcohol, mercury, and aluminum are mainly removed by the kidneys, liver, and intestines.
Another myth about the use of sauna is that it leads to weight loss. It is possible to lose about a pound after using a sauna, but weight loss is due to fluid loss, not fat. The weight will be replaced as soon as a person eats or drinks something.