One might think that saunas were invented in the Modern Age. But, historical records tell us that Greeks, Romans, Mayans and Scandinavians were using saunas – or sweat houses – thousands of years ago for wellness and health purposes.
In today’s world, saunas are used for almost the same purposes and are associated with various health benefits. But, how many of these claimed benefits are real and backed by science?
In this article, we are going to investigate the evidence-based health benefits of using a sauna. However, before dive into let’s briefly explain what a sauna is for those who don’t know.
Note: Although using a sauna has many health benefits, it may not be suitable for everyone. For instance; pregnant women or people with blood pressure problems should speak with their doctors before using a sauna. To find more detail, please read the “potential risks of using a sauna” section which we added below.
What Is a Sauna?
A sauna is a heated room specifically designed to promote sweating. Although it may differ from sauna to sauna, typically the temperature in the room is between 150°F – 195°F or 65°C – 90°C (1).
As for the word ‘sauna’; it means “wooden room” in the Finnish language (2).
There are different types of sauna and the followings are the 4 most common sauna types in today’s world (3):
- Wood-burning Sauna
- Electrically Heated Sauna
- Infrared Room
- Steam Room
Potential Health Benefits of Sauna
Although saunas are categorised and named based on how the heat generated inside the room, the health benefits they offer to the human body are very similar.
Therefore, we will investigate sauna health benefits irrespective of how the heat is generated.
Here are the 6 ways saunas can contribute to your health.
1- May Relieve Pain and Muscle Soreness
Can using a sauna genuinely relieve pain and muscles soreness? Patients reports and scientific studies tell us that regular use of saunas may reduce pain and muscle soreness.
Then, the next question is ” How does spending time in the sauna relieve pain and muscles soreness? “.
The explanation is not too difficult. When the body is exposed to heat, the blood vessels relax and widen. The widen blood vessels promote better blood and oxygen circulation to the tissues, joints and organs. This effective blood circulation helps ease joint pain and muscle soreness.
Please note that poor blood circulation in the body is one of the causes of joint pain and muscle cramping (4).
But, it is not the only way saunas help relieve the pain in the body. Here is another.
To consolidate all, let’s also cite a study.
Researchers – in a pilot study – found that patients with chronic musculoskeletal diseases including rheumatoid arthritis showed improvement in pain, fatigue and muscle stiffness after a 4-week sauna treatment (6).
The authors noted that; the findings show the short term benefits of an infrared sauna on body functions and structures, such as fatigue and pain.
Summary: Regular use of a sauna could lower inflammation, ease joint pain and relieve muscle soreness.
2- Saunas Can Provide Stress Relief
Stress relief was one of the main reasons that ancient people used saunas. Today’s people as well use saunas to feel relaxed and to better cope with stress.
So, how does using a sauna promote a feeling of relaxation? The answer is that saunas can provide stress relief and happiness in two ways.
The first one is about better blood circulation. As we discussed above, the heat in the sauna improves blood circulation by widening the blood vessels. The better the blood circulation, the more oxygen and energy the brain gets. That, in turn, contributes to the feeling of relaxation.
The second one is about hormone release. According to the North American Sauna Society; exposure to the heat in the sauna triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin hormones, both of which cause a sense of euphoria, a sense of calm and pain tolerance (7).
Summary: exposure to high temperatures in the sauna promote relaxation by improving blood circulation and causing the release of happy hormones.
3- May Improve Cardiovascular Health
Regular sauna bathing may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, studies suggest.
In a prospective long term study (20 years), researchers followed 2315 middle-aged men. As per the findings of the study; researchers came to the conclusion that saunas have the potential to lower the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases, such as; stroke, heart attack, heart failure (8).
Researchers categorised people according to how often they used a sauna in a week. The results indicated that those who used a sauna more often experienced relatively less cardiovascular-related diseases.
To be more precise; those who used the sauna 4 to 7 times are 50 % less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who used a sauna once a week, according to the findings.
Additionally; the stress-lowering effect of saunas may also be another reason why saunas improve cardiovascular health. After all, as medical experts state, there is a strong link between stress and cardiovascular diseases (9).
Summary: it appears regular sauna bathing may improve cardiovascular health. Nevertheless, more research is necessary to understand how effective saunas can be on cardiovascular health.
4- May Be Beneficial for Asthma
Even though sauna use is not a cure for asthma, those who suffer from asthma may find relief from sauna use.
If we need to briefly explain; Asthma is a chronic health condition. The airways swell and become narrow in people with asthma. And, this makes breathing difficult for them.
The question to ask at this point must be “how exactly using a sauna can ease asthma symptoms ?”.
Firstly; the heat from the sauna can keep the airways open and loosen the phlegm. Therefore, breathing may become easier for asthma sufferers.
However, it is important to note that the steam room and infrared saunas are the most effective for relieving asthma symptoms.
Another way that using a sauna can relieve asthma symptoms is about saunas’ stress-lowering effect. Because stress is an absolute asthma trigger and can also make symptoms worse (10).
Here is a study that may demonstrate the potential effectiveness of sauna on asthma patients.
According to a 1987-88 study published in the Medical Journal; Dr, Jozef Krop, a sauna therapist, treated a teenage girl’s asthma symptoms significantly with sauna therapy (11).
Summary: There are studies and evidence pointing out the potential effectiveness of sauna for asthma patients. Nonetheless, we strongly recommend asthma patients work with their doctors before using a sauna.
5- May Flush out Toxins
One of the most common misconceptions about saunas is that using a sauna can remove toxins as it promotes sweating.
Dr Charles Smith, UAMS family medicine physician, said: “the belief that sweat can cleanse the body is a myth”. He says; most of the toxic materials are removed from the body by the liver, intestines and kidneys (12).
However, using saunas regularly can indirectly help flush out toxins. Many people increase ( and should increase) their water intake before, during and after sauna sessions.
This increased water consumption – although most of it leaves the body through sweat – can increase urine output. With the increased urine output, kidneys can get rid of more toxins from the body.
Summary: Sauna does not flush out toxins from the body since the body doesn’t remove the toxins through sweating. However, it can increase water consumption and promote toxin elimination from the kidneys.
6- Sauna Use Can Promote Sleep
Regular use of a sauna can improve sleep quality. Let’s explain this suggestion right away.
As we mentioned above a couple of times; using a sauna relaxes the body and relieves muscle tension mainly by improving blood circulation and also causing the release of happy hormones. And, better blood circulation and happy hormones mean less stress and fewer muscle aches and pain.
Taking these factors into account; it is safe to say that using a sauna can promote sleep.
Many people around the world utilise the sauna’s relaxation effect to improve the quality of their sleep.
Summary: Sauna bathing has a huge potential in terms of promoting sleep by relaxing the muscles and the mind.
Potential Risks of Using a Sauna
Although saunas can offer a variety of health benefits, the excess heat in the sauna can cause complication for some people based on their medical conditions. In this section, we will discuss who should avoid a sauna and why.
Below, we have shared some health conditions that can make using a sauna risky. Therefore, those who have the following conditions must not use the sauna before talking to their doctors.
1- Heart Disease
If you have heart disease – which is any condition that affects the heart – speak with your doctor before using a sauna. In doing so, you can prevent potential heart problems that may happen due to the high temperatures of the sauna.
2- Pregnant Women
If you are pregnant, it is best for you to avoid using saunas. Here is why.
During the pregnancy process, the mother’s body (in general) feels warmer than a normal person due to hormonal changes. This increased body temperature and hormonal changes may make pregnant women susceptible to fainting, overheating and dehydration (15).
So, discuss the issue of using a sauna in the pregnancy period with your doctor.
3- Very High and Very Low Blood Pressure
If you have blood pressure problems, both high or low blood pressure, speak with your doctor as to the safest way to use saunas.
Particularly people with low blood pressure are advised not to use saunas. Because the extreme heat in the sauna can further lower the blood pressure and may lead to fainting (16).
If you have very low or very high blood pressure, speak with your doctor about sauna use.
The heat that can be as high as 195°F or 90°C in saunas can significantly increase the chance of having a seizure in people with epilepsy (17).
So, people with epilepsy should avoid using saunas unless talking to their doctors.
5- Those Who Have Had Alcohol
According to Harvard Health Publishing; individuals should avoid alcohol before, during and after using the sauna (18).
6- Contact Lenses
If you wear contact lenses, you might consider taking off your lenses before entering the sauna. Here is why.
According to contact lens producers and opticians; sauna use is safer without lenses. It is stated that; saunas and steam rooms can dry out the lenses and make them irritated (19).
Note 1: What is obvious is that the sauna promotes heavy sweating. Therefore, it can cause serious complications such as; heatstroke, kidney failure, seizures, unconsciousness, if you don’t replenish the lost water. Make sure to drink plenty of water prior to and after the sauna.
Note 2: Leave the sauna without hesitation if you feel dizzy, experience a headache and very thirsty. And, cool down yourself right away.
Tarkan is an experienced health writer ( currently more than 600 articles ) and also the founder of this website namely www.neededforhealth.com. His expertise in health stems from in-depth medical research and knowledge which he obtained over the course of many years.
Tarkan enjoys sharing factual knowledge on health, psychology and nutrition. He always aims to deliver evidence-based recommendations, provide links to related scientific studies.