People have used saunas for their health benefits since Roman times, and a description of a Finnish sauna exists from the year 1112. Today, many gyms have saunas for their members. Despite their popularity, few people understand the health benefits of saunas. As with any trend, there are also many misconceptions and wild claims about the wonders of this treatment option. Thankfully, there are plenty of positive reasons to use saunas, with scientific evidence to back them up.
Relieves Sore Muscles
Saunas are a common feature in gyms because people think sitting in a sauna after a workout helps relieve sore muscles. There is evidence this long-held belief is indeed true. Saunas are hot, and the high heat encourages increased blood circulation to the skin, and therefore to the muscles, as well. After a workout, muscles flood with lactic acid, a natural result of use. However, the acid causes soreness. Increased blood flow can more quickly ease the aches and pain caused by the lactic acid faster than at room temperature.
Clears the Skin
Besides bodybuilders and those who frequent the gym, saunas are a popular choice for people with skin conditions. Spending time in a sauna can make the skin feel cleaner, and there is evidence the steam in a wet sauna is more effective than washing the face at clearing blemishes. Wet saunas are steamy, hot rooms. The heat makes skin sweat and opens pores. The water in the air then helps bacteria within the skin flow away from the body. If skin blemishes are due to hormones or medications, however, saunas may be less effective in this regard.
Expels Toxins from the Body
Nearly every site discussing the benefits of saunas repeats the claim that saunas help the body expel toxins. Because of this claim, people sit in a hot sauna when they are ill with a cold or feeling hungover, believing the heat will discharge toxic chemicals and make them feel better. This is not entirely true. The truth is, the liver processes toxins, and seldom needs extra help. Spending time in a sauna can make you dehydrated due to increased sweating, and dehydration can slow the work of the liver. People with colds or hangovers will do better with bed rest and lots of water than time in a sauna.
Helps Weight Loss
Long-term weight loss comes predominantly from burning more calories than consumed and boosting time or effort in exercising. That said, many people notice that sitting in a sauna helps with this goal, as well. The weight lost in a sauna is all water weight, however. While the heat of a sauna increases metabolism and burns more calories than sitting stationary at room temperature, the number of extra calories burned is comparatively quite small and is unlikely to affect permanent weight loss.
Reduces Blood Pressure
High blood pressure or hypertension can be dangerous; blood pressure remaining too high for a long time puts a strain on the heart muscle, increasing the risk of a stroke or heart attack. When doctors prescribe treatment to patients with high blood pressure, they often recommend drugs like statins to reduce blood pressure, and may also suggest regular sauna use because heat improves the function and flexibility of blood vessels. As with any changes to treatment, it is best to confirm this option with a doctor rather than undertaking sauna use without medical advice.
Helps Chronic Pain
People with chronic pain have used saunas to alleviate their condition since Roman times, largely due to the relaxing environment. Today, patients with conditions such as fibromyalgia use heat treatment to manage their pain without prescription drugs. While saunas reduce pain for a time, any form of heat, including a hot bath, will have the same effect. People with mobility issues may find saunas easier than tubs to enter and exit.
Increases Tolerance to Exercise
Saunas are a great benefit to athletes and people looking to boost their endurance. For years, coaches in Europe have encouraged their athletes to use a sauna after training, particularly cross country skiers. Scientists now know the reason for these benefits. The heat and mild dehydration the body experiences in a sauna triggers the release of the hormone erythropoietin or EPO, which encourages the body to create more blood cells. These blood cells can carry more oxygen to muscles when exercising, enabling people to use their muscles longer and harder.
Helps Manage Stress
Anyone experiencing excess stress, depression, or anxiety should speak to a medical professional, who may prescribe medicine or therapy. For everyday stress, which everyone feels at times, the relaxing benefits of a sauna can be helpful as one method of reducing stress. Studies show saunas help reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, which jumpstarts the fight or flight response, resulting — in this day and age — in high stress. Saunas provide time away from the hustle of a busy life and give the mind time to relax and recharge. Research suggests infrared saunas are particularly beneficial in this regard.
Helps Fight Illness
Saunas may not be a suitable treatment for colds or hangovers, but what about other illnesses? While saunas might help manage symptoms, there is little evidence that they can cure disease or speed recovery for most people, with the possible exception of respiratory conditions. A sauna will not speed recovery from any virus, but the heat and humidity could kill bacteria. Because sinus infections are often caused by a bacterial infection, and because the hot steam of a sauna is breathed in, time in the sauna could shorten the length of such illnesses.
Social Health Benefits
Finally, time in a sauna has health benefits because it is often a social activity. Although time spent alone is good for mental health, social interaction has a lot of pros, too. The first saunas in Ancient Rome were communal, and many countries today including Japan, Norway, Turkey, and Sweden, emphasize the social healing power of saunas. Relaxing with other people stimulates our bodies to release feel-good hormones, and endorphins, which have many proven health benefits.