Saunas have been around for hundreds of years, and the mega-relaxing practice of using one continues to have a permanent spot in many people's wellness routine. Warming your body from the inside out probably works wonders when you want to decompress after a long day, but sauna benefits go way beyond that.
Whether you prefer sweating it out in a sauna or steam room (which is a type of sauna, BTW), they are loaded with benefits, says Michele Bailey, DO, a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Group in Chicago. Not only are they calming, but saunas may also help you manage various conditions, including rheumatologic and skin diseases such as psoriasis, she adds. That said, there needs to be more studies that show saunas can actually accomplish all these things.
What research has shown, though, is that high temperatures can boost your circulation, alleviate chronic pain, reduce joint stiffness, and even strengthen your immune system. And while there are various types of saunas, you can expect them to deliver similar health benefits, says Dr. Bailey.
Ahead, experts break down all the different types of saunas out there, how to choose one that's right for you, and the best way to reap the benefits you may get by heating up your body.
Meet the experts: Michele Bailey, DO, is a primary care physician at Rush University Medical Group in Chicago. Purvi Parikh, MD, is an internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Denise Millstine, MD, is an internist at Mayo Clinic’s family medicine office in Scottsdale, Arizona
All right, what's a sauna?
Saunas use dry heat. They’re typically heated between 180°F and 195°F with very low humidity. “It’s like sitting in an oven,” says Purvi Parikh, MD, an internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. That's why people often pour water over heated rocks in a sauna room—it creates steam for a little bit of humidity, she explains.
There are many variations. The most traditional type is a wood-burning sauna, which uses fire to heat up the space. Whether a sauna uses a stove, hot rocks, or wood, it’s all relatively the same since you’re heating the space with embers to generate dry heat. Then there are electric saunas, which produce heat with electricity and is typically the kind people install in their homes.
Infrared saunas, as the name suggests, utilize infrared light waves to warm your body up directly without raising the temperature of the air around you. They are said to bring about the same effects in your body as a traditional sauna but at a lower temp, making it easier to tolerate.
Lastly, steam rooms are characterized by moist heat. They are not as hot as saunas, and they are much more humid. Typically, steam rooms are heated between 100 and 120°F and have nearly 100 percent humidity, says Dr. Parikh. But even though they are not technically as hot, you will likely feel the heat more in steam rooms than in saunas because of that extra moisture in the air.
If you have respiratory issues, it's best to stick to steam rooms since they can keep your respiratory tract hydrated (a sauna might dry it out even more), says Dr. Parikh. Otherwise, it's all about personal preference, and you get similar health benefits from saunas or steam rooms.
What are the health benefits of sitting in a sauna?
The effects of heat are the same whether it's dry or moist, says Dr. Parikh. This means you'll still get the same benefits whether you sweat it out in a sauna or steam room.
There is, however, one extra benefit to steam rooms for anyone who has respiratory problems like asthma or allergies. “Medications for these kinds of respiratory problems might dry out your breathing passages,” says Dr. Parikh. “Steam will moisturize and open the lungs a little more and hydrate the respiratory tract.” If you struggle with congestion, the steam can also act as a humidifier and help clear your nasal passages for easier breathing.
Research on the use of dry saunas has shown that they can provide these benefits.
1. Improved Circulation
Anything that raises your body temperature will increase your heart rate, which in turn increases your circulation, says Denise Millstine, MD, an internist at Mayo Clinic’s family medicine office in Scottsdale, Arizona.
And sitting in a sauna is almost like walking on a treadmill at a regular pace, says Dr. Parikh. Because of the heat, your heart has to pump harder to circulate your blood, which means you’re getting some cardio benefits even though all you’re doing is sitting in the heat. (Keep in mind, though, it's still no replacement for exercise, which has tons of other body-benefits.)
2. Lowered Blood Pressure
Spending time in a sauna can lower your blood pressure, says Dr. Millstine, but you wouldn’t want to go into a sauna if you have uncontrolled blood pressure.
Traditional Finnish sauna bathing is associated with overall lower blood pressure when people are using it regularly, research shows. “So physiologically, much like exercise, your blood pressure would go up initially and then long-term, it would likely result in better management of your blood pressure and a lowering of your blood pressure,” says Dr. Millstine.
In fact, people can see improved cardiovascular health from sauna use. Research shows that people who regularly use a sauna (at least four times a week for 20 minutes) have a significantly lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and dementia, notes Dr. Parikh.
3. Stress Relief
Sauna bathing is a regular part of Scandinavian culture, says Dr. Millstine, and is viewed as a way to destress and relax. Saunas reduce the stress hormone cortisol by as much as 10 to 40 percent, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Medical Principles and Practice.
“If using a sauna becomes a regular practice for you and it's something that you can do fairly easily, such as on your way from home from work for a brief session, or if you’re able to socialize while doing it, it likely will reduce your stress levels,” she says.
4. Glowy Skin
Using a sauna can benefit your overall skin health because it helps bring blood flow to the surface of your skin before you start sweating.
“Regular sauna use makes the skin more robust, meaning it sort of firms it up and makes it more elastic, which is good for aesthetic reasons, but also because the skin acts like a general health barrier,” says Dr. Millstine.
5. Reduced Joint Stiffness And Muscle Soreness
Sauna also makes for a great workout recovery tool, as it can help loosen up any tense muscles after a workout.
“The heat can make your muscles more pliable and elastic, so it would probably help with workout recovery soreness,” says Dr. Milstine. Anecdotally, people with stiff joints and body aches swear by saunas for easing pain. Sauna use can also help with tension-type headaches, likely because it alleviates the muscle soreness that contributes to them, she adds.
6. Stronger Immune System
Using a sauna isn’t directly tied to better immunity, but sauna bathing can bring on relaxation and reduce stress, which dampens your immune system function. Sauna usage has also been shown to decrease circulating levels of inflammatory markers, which mess with your immune system response too.
7. Better Mood
Sauna sessions can lift your mood, which could, again, be tied to the relaxation factor, some studies show. However, men in Finland who regularly used a sauna had a decreased risk of psychosis, according to one study, and sauna usage can reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, another study showed.
“It’s unclear if those benefits are directly related to sauna use or, again, or if it’s simply tied to a healthy lifestyle that involves socialization and relaxation,” says Dr. Millstine. Either way, there seems to be some positive brain and mental health perks to visiting a sauna.
Does using a sauna help you burn fat?
It is thought that the changes your body goes through while in a sauna mimic those after you do a moderate- to high-intensity workout (such as walking) and saunas boost your metabolism. However, this needs to be further studied, as the data on this is not consistent.
Any actual pounds dropped will be water weight, you know, because of sweat—and that goes for both the sauna and the steam room. And that's not the same as fat loss.
“Saunas increase our internal temperature, and in order to prevent overheating, our bodies redistribute our blood towards our skin to promote sweating,” says Jeff Gladd, MD, an integrative medicine physician and the chief medical officer at Fullscript. The excess water stored in your body is then used to cool you down. But once you rehydrate, you’ll likely immediately gain the weight back. If you’re looking to lose weight and decrease excess fat, it’s best to stick to exercise and a balanced diet.
Another myth? The idea that you can detox from a night of drinking in a steam room. You can sweat off product on your skin, like sunscreen, but simply sweating won't help your body process something you've ingested, like food or alcohol, says Dr. Millstine.
Are there any risks to using a sauna?
As far as risks go, you're mainly looking at dehydration and dizziness from the heat, says Dr. Parikh. So it's important to make sure you're well hydrated before and after your sauna or steam room sesh. You'll also want to skip the sauna if you've recently had a heart attack or any other cardiovascular issues, like high blood pressure, adds Dr. Parikh.
Pregnant women and anyone who has autonomic dysfunction, chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, or is generally frail should consult their doctor before heading inside one, says Dr. Millstine.
Everyone handles heat and humidity differently. It's always a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.
How long can you sit in a sauna?
Most people’s sessions are only five to 30 minutes. But how long you can safely use a sauna or steam room depends on how acclimated you are to it, or how hot the sauna or steam room is.
“If you feel lightheaded or you’re feeling dehydrated because you perhaps just came back from a long run, it’s not a good idea to spend a long time in the sauna,” says Dr, Millstine. “But if you’re well hydrated and feel fine, you can stay a bit longer.”
It’s also common practice to get out of the sauna or steam room for frequent breaks, so leave and drink water whenever you feel you need to, she says.
Dr. Parikh suggests starting low and slow. The lower you sit in the sauna or steam room (i.e., the closer to the floor), the less intense the heat will be because heat rises. While it’s best for your health to use a sauna or steam room regularly (several times a week, if you can), maybe start with one trip to the spa for no longer than five or 10 minutes at most to see how well you can handle it, then add on from there.
Can you use a sauna every day?
It is generally considered safe to use it every day, says Dr. Gladd. That said, it’s not imperative to keep up with a daily practice to reap all the benefits of sauna. “Someone who uses sauna bathing for relaxation may go less frequently than someone using sauna bathing therapeutically,” he says.
And it’s always best to consult with your doctor to determine the most appropriate frequency and duration for you, especially if you have a chronic condition or take medication, notes Dr. Gladd. If you ever feel really tired, dehydrated, or generally unwell, consider cutting down on how often and how long you use a sauna each time.
The bottom line: Saunas offer many health benefits (and risks), and when choosing the best type for you, it's all about personal preference and finding out which one works for you.
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