What are the health benefits of the sauna? Is it just a way of testing your resilience to pain, or are there some metabolic benefits from embracing the heat? What’s the best way to use a sauna? I’ll answer these questions, and then some, in this article.
I grew up in the small, beautiful city of Ely, MN. During the winter, Ely, or one of the surrounding towns, is usually the coldest place in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Ely has a rich Scandinavian heritage. I’m a quarter Finnish (which is where Nikkola comes from), Norwegian, Swedish, and Slovenian.
Some of Finland’s contributions to the world include wind turbines, heart rate monitors, reflectors (like on your bike), Fiskars scissors, ice skates, and my favorite word (Sisu).
Sisu: Endurance, perseverance, determination, courage, stamina, stregnth…especially during hard times.
The sisu of the Finnish culture might be partly due to their love of coffee. They drink more coffee per capita than any other country in the world.
Of all the good stuff that’s come from Finland, the sauna might be the country’s best invention. By the way, it’s pronounced SOW-na, not saw-na.
In North America, most of us see the sauna as a luxury. In Finland, it’s seen as a necessity, just like taking a shower. In fact, before modern healthcare, Finish mothers delivered babies in the sauna.
Over the past decade, research has shown what the Finns and other Scandinavians have known for millennia. The sauna is good for you!
I’ve outlined six reasons you should sauna, and described how to sauna to get the most health benefit from it.
- The Traditional Sauna
- 6 Sauna Health Benefits
- How To Take A Sauna
The Traditional Sauna
Finnish saunas are hot. They’re kept at a temperature between 176° F (80° C) and 212° F (100° C). For many people, who’ve spent most of their lives in the comfort of an air-conditioned home, the heat can be almost unbearable. However, in a traditional Finnish sauna, the heat doesn’t stop there.
Sitting on top of the wood-burning stove (modern saunas use gas), you’ll find a collection of rocks. In most American “dry saunas,” especially in gyms or hotels, the rocks are there just for looks, as though they add some kind of Zen garden ambiance. In a Finnish sauna, they serve a purpose. Once you start feeling the heat, you douse the rocks with water. The stones instantly turn the water into steam, and a few seconds later, the steam reaches you and feels like a thousand pinpricks.
As if that’s not enough, the hardcore then gently beat their skin with silver birch branches, which help to relax muscles and relieve mosquito bites.
Oh, and one last bit of trivia. It’s a faux pas in a Finnish sauna to wear clothing, although it’s okay to sit on a towel.
When I was 14, I visited Finland with a group of ski jumpers. The ski jump in Lahti had a locker room at the base of the hill, and after our first training session, I decided I’d try a real Finnish sauna. So I put on my swim trunks as most Americans would and walked into the sauna.
My eyes must have been as big as softballs as I walked in and saw the naked bodies of a dozen or so men, leaning back and relaxed, with it all hanging out. After I got through the shock, I saw the amusement in their eyes as they saw me standing in my swim trunks. If they would have spoken English, they might have said: “He must be an American. He comes into the sauna with his clothes on.”
6 Sauna Health Benefits
A sauna is enjoyable, but not necessarily comfortable. It’s actually the discomfort that causes the effects on your body, which is known as heat stress. Your body perceives the extreme heat as a threat and reacts accordingly.
You feel surprised by the initial blast of heat when you walk in the door, but it’s five to fifteen minutes later, when your core temperature begins to rise, that alarms start going off in your body.
Blood flow is directed away from your core and out to your skin, and blood vessels dilate, making it easier to get blood, and the heat it holds onto, out to your skin where the heat passes to the environment. Of course, it doesn’t work so well, since it’s hotter in the sauna than it is in your body.
You begin to sweat as another means of cooling the body. Your heart beats faster and pumps more blood with each stroke. You secrete stress-related hormones and neurotransmitters, and your brain starts talking you into stepping out of the sauna.
But if you wait a little longer, and get past the point of discomfort, you’ll gain the health benefits described below. And with each sauna session, you learn to handle the heat a little better than before, allowing you to last longer, or handle it hotter. You adapt to the stress response as you adapt to any other stress.
What if you don’t sweat?
I’ve found that many people who start a fitness program have a hard time sweating, and they overheat during their training sessions.
Some of my clients would reach a point in their training session, where one set they felt fine, and in the middle of the next set, they’d get cold, clammy, and lightheaded. I’d take them to the treadmill and have them walk at 2.0 miles per hour, just enough to keep their feet moving.
Within two to three minutes, they’d transform from pale, cold, and clammy to flushed and drenched in sweat. Shortly after they started sweating, they’d feel normal again. It was as though their bodies resisted sweating, and they’d overheat.
If that sounds like you, use the sauna to retrain your body to sweat so you can maintain a more steady core temperature.
1. Saunas Enhance Hormones and Neurotransmitters
If testosterone and growth hormone were sisters, testosterone would be the popular sister that gets all the time in the spotlight, while growth hormone would be the more talented and better-looking sister who spends most of her time behind the scene.
Whenever I come across a way to stimulate growth hormone, I’m all ears. Among other things, growth hormone enhances muscle growth, bone formation, and tissue regeneration after injuries. It also increases fat metabolism.
Growth hormone-releasing hormone (the hormone that tells your pituitary to release growth hormone) can rise to four times its normal level, while growth hormone itself can increase two to five times normal levels.
Norepinephrine increases by two to four times normal levels, but studies on epinephrine show it doesn’t always rise. Both neurotransmitters usually increase in response to stress.
The effects of the sauna on cortisol and thyroid hormones are mixed, and the sauna does not seem to affect testosterone levels. However, animal research shows the sauna does improve insulin sensitivity, which is essential for body composition as well as muscle growth.
It can take up to 24 hours for some hormones to return to baseline.
Since the sauna is a stressor, albeit a healthy stressor, those with adrenal fatigue should work up gradually.
In my opinion, the sauna can be a great way to work on rebuilding your resilience, so don’t mistake the fact that it’s a stress as it being something to avoid.
You should just take your time in building up. Perhaps, start with five minutes two to three times a week, and add a minute each week until you can handle 15 minutes at a time. Then, go to a couple of sauna sessions with a brief cooling-off period in between.
2. Saunas Speed Up Detoxification
You release toxins through your sweat.
To protect the rest of the cells in your body, your body stores toxins in your fat cells. As you lose weight or drop body fat, you release those toxins back into your circulation.
You can help your body eliminate toxins through sufficient hydration, sufficient fiber intake, and support detoxification with supplements like milk thistle, berberine, curcumin, N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC), and others.*
However, perspiration is an essential part of the detoxification process as well.
To emphasize the power of the sauna for detoxification, check this out.
Repeated exposure to methamphetamines during drug busts can cause severe and debilitating effects for police officers. A 2012 paper outlined the impact of a sauna-based detox program for the officers.
Following the treatment, the researchers concluded, “sauna and nutritional therapy may alleviate chronic symptoms appearing after chemical exposures associated with methamphetamine-related law enforcement activities.”
One of the improvements worth mentioning was sleep. Before the treatment, officers averaged 5.8 hours of sleep. Following the treatment, they averaged 7.6 hours.
The improved sleep alone is enough to impact their health dramatically!
If a sauna is that powerful for something like meth, imagine the impact it could have on the hundreds of other toxins you’re exposed to every day.
While in the sauna, or any other time you’re sweating, wipe the perspiration off your body. Some toxins penetrate the skin, and if you don’t wipe off the sweat, as you cool off the toxins can make their way back into your body.
3. Saunas Improve Recovery
Since the sauna raises growth hormone, it’s no surprise that it improves recovery rates from exercise. However, the hormonal benefits of the sauna aren’t the only way it enhances recovery.
Sauna sessions have been shown to reduce oxidative stress after exercise. The more intense your training session, the more free radicals you create.
You can consume antioxidants through the diet and supplements, like a high-quality multivitamin. But your body has its own built-in antioxidant system as well. The sauna improves your ability to combat free radicals, which speeds recovery from exercise and improves muscle tissue regeneration.
It’s no surprise that sauna sessions are a regular practice for professional athletes.
4. Saunas Change Your Perception of Heat and Pain
Have you ever noticed how hot a 50° F spring day feels after bitter and snowy winter, but how cold a 50° F day feels by late-summer? Your body adapts to temperature changes the same way it adapts to almost anything else.
By consistently exposing it to extreme temperatures, you get better at regulating your temperature in any environment. You also get better at handling pain.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that the steam from throwing water on the stones feels like a thousand pinpricks. The first time you feel it, it might be almost unbearable. Over time, you adapt. Your perception of the pain changes.
5. Saunas Reduce Pain and Inflammation
As a short-term stressor, saunas stimulate white blood cell production, which enhances your immune system. Those who sauna regularly have a lower occurrence of infections, especially respiratory-related infections.
Because the sauna lowers levels of inflammation, it helps improve cardiovascular health. Research shows that using the sauna reduces C-reactive protein levels and arterial stiffness. It may slow the progression of degenerative diseases (including Alzheimer’s according to some research) and has been shown to reduce the progression and pain associated with arthritis.
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6. Saunas Lower Stress Levels
The sauna is a great place to take a break from the rest of the world. You can think, pray, or meditate if you’re alone. You could bring in a book or newspaper as long as you don’t mind ruing the paper it’s printed on. But you’d be foolish to bring in a smartphone, laptop, or other electronic devices.
Taking a break from technology can go a long way toward reducing your stress levels. Of course, the hormones secreted during and after the sauna also serve to lower stress levels.
With your private time, you can pray, meditate, or get in your head to come up with solutions to some of the situations you face. You could visit with anyone else who might be in there with you (although I sometimes find it a little weird if I’m in a public sauna) and the guy next to me is content just sitting on his towel, rather than wearing his towel.
And if you’re fortunate enough to have a sauna in your home, it can be a great way to reconnect with your significant other. You could talk without other distractions. You could play a game of rock, paper, scissors (bonus points if they’re Finnish-made Fiskars). Or, take advantage of the private time, turn up the heat even a little more and…well, you get the idea. As I said in the beginning, babies used to be born in saunas. Many babies are still made in saunas today.
Sauna Vs. Steam Room
I’m often asked which is better.
Steam rooms have a lower temperature, but higher humidity, and may trigger heat stress faster than a sauna.
You’d likely experience similar benefits from either one, with two exceptions.
Because of the lower temperature in the steam room, you might not experience the same respiratory health benefits, though the humidity does feel good when you have a cold.
Also, you do not sweat in a steam room as you do in a sauna since the moisture prevents you from doing so. As a result, you’re unlikely to experience the detox effects.
How To Take A Sauna
A traditional Finnish sauna can last for as little as a half hour, to two hours or more.
To get the health benefits described above, stay in the sauna for at least fifteen minutes, take a break to cool down, and re-enter for another fifteen minutes, completing two to three sessions of heat exposure and cool down.
Cooling down is as important as the heat exposure. If you remain overheated after the sauna, you decrease blood volume from water loss.
Your hematocrit levels rise as well, which makes your blood thicker and more difficult for your heart to pump through your vessels. You could experience fatigue, chest or joint pain, bruising, or even bloody stools.
Also, if you don’t cool down properly, cortisol levels could continue to rise instead of returning to baseline. However, you’d likely experience these issues only if you had a habit of using the sauna and then rushing off to work day-after-day.
To cool down, you could relax outside the sauna for 15-20 minutes.
From a performance standpoint, this would be a great time to drink a serving or two of branched-chain amino acids.
A cold shower or jumping in the pool could help cool you down faster. Or, if it’s winter, you could jump in a snowbank or a hole cut in the ice on a lake. It might sound extreme if you’ve never done it, but I can tell you from experience that it feels incredible.
After your sauna session, you should feel refreshed, not fatigued.
Start with taking a sauna a few times per week for three months. If you combine it with a good strength training workout, take your sauna after your training session. I prefer to take a sauna on my off-days from exercise. As you increase your duration, you might decrease your frequency.
Stick with it for three months and you’ll see why the Finns and other Scandinavians love the sauna so much. Other than getting enough sleep, I don’t know of another activity that offers so many health benefits for sitting in place, not doing anything.