The other day, I came across a TikTok, which laid out neatly (and obviously in a short format) the benefits of sauna bathing. I have to admit, I was intrigued. Personally, I love a good sauna but I have to admit that I never thought about its potential health benefits in more detail. Well, it is time to change that 😉. Let’s dive in.
What is Sauna Bathing?
Let us start with establishing what I mean when I say “Sauna Bathing”. Basically, it is a form of whole body thermotherapy, which can come in various forms (e.g. sweat lodge or infrared sauna). Sauna bathing is part of many different cultures and has been used for 1000s of years – either socially, or for hygiene, health, and spiritual purposes. Think: Hammam, Russian Banyas, or Finnish saunas.
Finnish Saunas are by far the most scientifically researched to date. Sauna bathing takes place between 80 – 100 degrees Celsius (ca. 176 – 212 Fahrenheit). They tend to be fairly dry but are interspersed with bouts of humidity by pouring water onto hot stones. You tend to spend between 5 to 20 minutes in a Finnish sauna, which is usually followed by a period of cooling off.
In the last few years, infrared saunas have gained popularity. They work on lower temperatures than a Finnish sauna – usually around the 60 degree Celsius (140 Fahrenheit) mark. These saunas emitt different wavelengths without additional water or humidity. Similarly to a Finnish sauna, each visit tends to be followed by a cooling off period.
Finnish style saunas can be found in a lot of exercise, gym-type facilities whereas infrared saunas are more targeted towards individual or home use. It should be noted that most of the research is conducted on Finnish style saunas, as of now there is little evidence to support the lower temperature ranges.
The Benefits of Sauna Bathing
Now that we know what sauna bathing actually is, let us look at the potential benefits. Whether you do an infrared sauna or a Finnish style sauna, the claims or health benefits are largely similar.
The Benefits of Sauna Bathing – The Claim
A lot of facilities that offer sauna bathing claim that your body detoxifies during the process, along with an increased metabolism, weight loss, blood circulation, pain reduction, anti-aging benefits, skin rejuvenation, and improved cardiovascular function. You may also experience better sleep, less stress, and relaxation. These claims are largely unfounded, or at least not supported from a scientific research perspective.
The Benefits of Sauna Bathing – The Facts
Here is the research that has actually been proven. Short-term heat exposure raises our body temperature and leads to an activation of the autonomic nervous system. This, in turn, leads to cardiovascular effects, including an elevated heart rate and better blood flow. In fact, regular sauna usage has been shown to reduce your risk cardiovascular events or stroke.
Whereas that in and on itself is impressive, on a cellular level, thermotherapy induces metabolic changes. Amongst others, our bodies start to produce heat shock proteins, which play an important roll in cell development and survival. In addition, sauna bathing has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, whilst at the same time it increases insulin sensitivity and nitric oxide availability. However, it needs to be stressed that the overall physiological and cellular changes induced by sauna bathing in relation to our overall health are still being explored and are not yet fully understood.
In addition, sauna bathing has been shown to enhance mood by releasing endorphins in our brains and bodies. Studies have also shown that regular sauna use reduces cortisol levels and can enhance DNA repair mechanisms.
Is Sauna Bathing for Everyone?
Sauna bathing, when applied correctly, can have some great benefits. However, if you are under 16 or pregnant the exposure to higher heats can be counterintuitive and should be avoided. In principal, exposure to heat should be built up gradually. Abnormally high body temperatures and dehydration can also be side effects. For men who would like to conceive children, it should be noted that sperm count can reduce. Whereas this is usually temporary, it takes about 45 to 60 days in order to increase again to previous levels.
What is the Takeaway from this Post?
Sauna bathing can be incredibly beneficial to us and our bodies. Even without any of the proven benefits, it would mean taking a de-stressing moment to yourself, which is already excellent for your parasympathetic nervous system, and will likely calm your stress responses. So, go for it and enjoy! Beautiful cover photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.