The Benefits of Saunas (& the Risks)

How to get the benefits of a sauna at home plus risks and cautions

If you hang around the health and natural living communities long enough, you’ll eventually hear about the benefits of some kind of sauna, especially for “detoxifying.”

In fact, various types of saunas are often touted for their benefits in weight loss, removal of toxins, reduction of cellulite and much more, but it is difficult to find evidence backing these claims. Some sites even go so far as to claim that saunas (especially infrared) can help reverse cellular damage from EMFs and help detox heavy metals.

After a lot of research and testing and trying several saunas myself, I believe that they do have benefits, but not the ones most often touted online.

The Benefits of Saunas

The term “sauna” can refer to any type of small or large room or device designed to help the user experience dry heat or wet heat (steam). There are now also infrared (far and near) saunas that emit infrared light and claim to heat the body more effectively.

Saunas or “sweat lodges” have been used for centuries by different cultures, and while there is a large amount of anecdotal evidence about their benefit, the scientific research is limited and focuses mainly on Far Infrared Saunas (FIR).

According to a review of all of the published scientific literature about these types of saunas, the biggest researched benefit seems to be the coronary benefits, most notably in their ability to help normalize blood pressure and reduce the chance of congestive heart failure. Other research shows the benefits of FIR saunas for chronic pain and to a lesser degree, obesity.

An interesting and unusual benefit:

Far-infrared sauna use is safe and effective for increasing lactation in breastfeeding mothers (source)

Based on the research I’ve read, the heat itself seems to be the most beneficial part of sauna use and Infrared saunas are simply able to heat the body more efficiently without the person feeling as hot. There is some concern about EMF exposure from FIR Saunas, and a few sources recommend Near Infrared Saunas instead, though I’m yet to find any scientific evidence backing this claim.

I have chosen to use a low-EMF FIR Sauna instead (more on that below) but you can also make your own near infrared sauna.

The Benefits of Heat

Though there is debate on the ability of saunas to detoxify or remove cellulite, but there is well documented research on the ability of heat (or “hyperthermic conditioning”) to improve performance.

Tim Ferriss recently interviewed Dr. Rhonda Patrick about the benefits of heat conditioning. Some key points:

  • Increased Endurance: “[Hyperthermic conditioning] increases plasma volume and blood flow to the heart (stroke volume). This results in reduced cardiovascular strain and lowers the heart rate for the same given workload. These cardiovascular improvements have been shown to enhance endurance in both highly trained and untrained athletes.”
  • Natural Growth Hormone Production: “For example, two 20-minute sauna sessions at 80°C (176°F) separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline.1,15 Whereas, two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.1,15 However, what’s perhaps more amazing is that repeated exposure to whole-body, intermittent hyperthermia (hyperthermic conditioning) through sauna use has an even more profound effect on boosting growth hormone immediately afterward: two one-hour sauna sessions a day at 80°C (176°F) dry heat (okay, this is a bit extreme) for 7 days was shown to increase growth hormone by 16-fold on the third day.14 The growth hormone effects generally persist for a couple of hours post-sauna.1 It is also important to note that when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone.20”
  • Faster Recovery: “It increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, keeping them fueled with glucose, esterified fatty acids, and oxygen while removing by-products of the metabolic process such as lactic acid. The increased delivery of nutrients to muscles reduces their dependence on glycogen stores.”
  • “One study demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session two times a week for three weeks POST-workout increased the time that it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline.”
  • Increased Muscle: It has been shown that a 30-minute intermittent hyperthermic treatment at 41°C (105.8°F) in rats induced a robust expression of heat shock proteins (including HSP32, HSP25, and HSP72) in muscle and, importantly, this correlated with 30% more muscle regrowth than a control group during the seven days subsequent to a week of immobilization.
  • Increased Insulin Sensitivity:For this reason, hyperthermic conditioning may also lend itself to promoting muscle growth by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing muscle protein catabolism. Intermittent hyperthermia has been demonstrated to reduce insulin resistance in an obese diabetic mouse model. Insulin resistant diabetic mice were subjected to 30 minutes of hyperthermic treatment, three times a week for twelve weeks. This resulted in a 31% decrease in insulin levels and a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, suggesting re-sensitization to insulin.

Here’s a video by Dr. Patrick that details these benefits in great length and I also recommend this guest post she did for Tim Ferriss.

Cautions for Sauna Use

Though sauna use is generally considered safe (even for pregnant women, according to this study), anyone considering sauna use should absolutely check with a doctor or medical professional first, as some people (including Tim Ferriss) have genetic conditions that can lead to over-heating and health problems from sauna use.

Common sense cautions also include avoiding direct contact with heating elements to avoid burns, not using a sauna for more than the recommended amount of time, or using a sauna after alcohol use or exercise. Additionally:

Contraindications to sauna bathing include unstable angina pectoris, recent myocardial infarction, and severe aortic stenosis. Sauna bathing is safe, however, for most people with coronary heart disease with stable angina pectoris or old myocardial infarction. Very few acute myocardial infarctions and sudden deaths occur in saunas, but alcohol consumption during sauna bathing increases the risk of hypotension, arrhythmia, and sudden death, and should be avoided. (source)

How I Get the Benefits of A Sauna

One local gym where I live has a sauna. When I asked, they didn’t know what kind it was and the idea of saunas that many people use on a daily basis just grosses me out.

We realized long ago that by the time we paid for a gym membership for my husband and I (that included child care), we could buy much of the equipment we’d be using instead over the course of a couple of years. So instead of going to the gym for sauna use and working out, we have this low-EMF portable sauna at home that stores behind our door in our bathroom and have also just purchased workout equipment we actually use (kettlebells, pull-up bar, weights, etc).

Since the most beneficial part of the sauna is the heat itself, we have worked up to spending as much as half an hour in the portable sauna. I find this relaxing and it has been beneficial for my skin as well!

DIY Sauna?

Another option that I have not personally tried but that a friend recommended was making your own DIY Near Infrared Sauna using this method:

Near infrared lamp saunas use incandescent red ‘heat lamps’ for heating. Bingo! This is the type of sauna you want. The lamps are very inexpensive and found at most hardware stores. The bulbs emit mainly near infrared energy, with a bit of middle infrared. Typically, three bulbs are sufficient to heat a sauna. A single bulb can be used to focus healing energy on a specific body part, injury or infection.

My friend uses an incandescent infrared bulb like this one and a metal clamp with porcelain socket like this one in her closed shower for a homemade near infrared sauna and has had good results with it. Again, I haven’t tried it, but it is a DIY option for under $20.  This article discusses more of the benefits of near infrared.

Sources:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2718593/
Kihara T, Biro S, Ikeda Y, Fukudone T, Shinsato T, Masuda A, et al. Effects of repeated sauna treatment on ventricular arrhythmias in patents with chronic heart failure. Circ J. 2004;68(12):1146–51
Miyamoto H, Kai H, Nakaura H, Osada K, Mizuta Y, Matsumoto A, et al. Safety and efficacy of repeated sauna bathing in patients with chronic systolic heart failure: a preliminary report. J Card Fail. 2005;11(6):432–6.
Sugahara Y, Ishii M, Muta H, Egami K, Akagi T, Matsuishi T. Efficacy and safety of thermal vasodilation therapy by sauna in infants with severe congestive heart failure secondary to ventricular septal defect. Am J Cardiol. 2003;92(1):109–13.
Masuda A, Koga Y, Hattanmura M, Minagoe S, Tei C. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. Psychother Psychosom. 2005;74(5):288–94.
Hannuyksela ML, Ellahham S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. Am J Med. 2001;110(2):118–26.
Ogita S, Imanaka M, Matsuo S, Takebayashi T, Nakai Y, Fukumusa H, et al. Effects of far-infrared radiation on lactation. Ann Physiol Anthropol. 1990;9(2):83–91.

Do use a sauna? What benefits have you noticed, if any?

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Reader Comments

  1. Well being from Finland we are the inventors of Sauna! We use sauna at least once a week and almost everybody has their own sauna in their houses. I know they have great benefits. Also it is great during long cold winters. And sauna is a great stress release!

  2. We have a little portable infrared sauna that we bought from Therasage, about 3 or 4 years ago and it has been worth every penny and then some! We use it all the time, especially in the winter and it has held up so well, I’m so surprised since it can actually be broken down and folded up into a carrying case. It was on the pricier side of the portables (I think $475) but I did a lot of research before purchasing and It’s been a great little guy so far!

  3. I don’t know much about saunas and personally used one only twice. I do have a friend though, who loves to use them, and has one of her own. She told me that some sauna manufacturers use woods or wood treatments that emit toxins. So this may be something to check for if you decide to buy one.
    A question. Is there some kind of benefit to the practice of rolling in the snow after a sauna session?

  4. Hi Katy, thanks for doing this amazing research.
    I saw the link for the sauna you have recommended and I am not sure if it’s “organic” as it made in China. The whole point of getting a sauna is to detoxify your body, not to add toxins to your body. I am sure you have done your research but maybe it’s worth checking again with them that those materials of all parts are not toxic.
    I called one company that imported from China and they said that it’s not organic.

    • I finally purchased an infrared for my home and LOVE it! I was extremely interested in ONLY purchasing a sauna that used no glues, no stains, Japanese heaters (not Chinese), non toxic wood (no cedars, etc.) – I finally chose a sauna made by Heavenly Heat. I wanted to place the sauna in my home by somewhere that would not take up an entire bedroom. I have a home gym (converted bedroom) which had a “coat type closet”. They customized the sauna the the size of a closet, at no extra cost! (other sauna manufactures could not do this). It was delivered to my home and my husband installed it. It fit and worked perfectly! I am so thankful to have this in my home!!! I started using the infrared at a local spa but the hours were very inconvenient, as was the drive. Also, I hated finishing my session all sweating and having to get dressed and drive home. Lastly, I figured with the amount I was paying each month, it would equal the cost of owning a sauna in about 18 months. I definitely use the sauna much more because it is in my home. It has even helped motivate me to begin exercising again. The thought of going into my sauna for 20-30 minutes is inviting (exercise alone did not allure me as much) and I found that if I bring a pair of shorts and top with me, it is easy to just on elliptical or treadmill after sauna session for 20 – 30 minutes. I sometimes stretch in sauna (stretches are limited due to size) or I use this time to read or write in journal (until sweat starts pouring down). It has been life changing in so many ways to have sauna at home! I would highly recommend making the sacrifices that would be needed to put one in your home.

  5. How often do you sit in the sauna? Do you increase frequency as well as duration?

    • It’s hard to be consistent with kids constantly running around, but I *try* to do it daily for up to 20 minutes.

      • Good morning! I am interested in using the portable device that you mentioned. My concern is in the radiation exposure. I’m not educated on this myself, but you feel that it is safe to use regularly after your research?

  6. Saunas are much more helpful in detoxifying chemicals than heavy metals. For heavy metals, you need chelation.

  7. Why not use it after exercise? After my workout at the gym, I typically do 5 min dry and then 5 min in the wet (steam). I’m pregnant and doctor recommended no more than 10 minutes.

  8. Thank you for your detailed and encouraging article Katie. Great job! I have recommended your writings to many of my followers and medical support teams with their Physical therapists. We so appreciate what you are doing to help many families and friends. My wife and I visit our favorite Spa here in Chicago land and in Texas. With Several mineral and specialty rooms and private ice baths with steam saunas, we enjoy a great meal in their restaurant afterwards. We are both endurance athletes over 40 years of age and compete often with great joy and success because of these spas, nutrition and deep sleep. To your Health Katie!

  9. My husband and I bought a sauna about 5 years ago. I used it off and on for a while, but began to use it regularly when I began taking my health seriously 2 years ago. I am a warm weather girl, so the sauna feels great on a cold winter morning, and I feel that it help relieves some of my aches (back) and (sciatic) pain. But I have also found it to be great for my skin! I use the sauna at least twice a week for 50-60 minutes up to 120 degrees. My face acne has disappeared and my skin is nice & tight. Since I drink sooo much water before AND after each sauna, my system get a complete clean-out. I really do feel that it has helped me overall and love it! However, it is not for everyone. Do your own research.

    • which kind do you have?

      • It’s a Solarus.

  10. Thanks for the interesting read. Can you or someone explain a little more to what health benefits the natural growth hormone production links? Muscle growth and/or recovery I would guess?

  11. I am wondering what prevents mold when these saunas are damp and then not used for a time, especially the portable one that folds up in your bathroom. Wouldn’t it grow mold when not in use? What sort of maintenance and care does it need? I’ve been wanting to be in one lately so this is a timely topic!

    • I wipe it out every so often with a microfiber cloth and let it dry out before folding it up.

  12. Looking to purchase a FIR portable sauna(trying to get rid of lyme disease)…Just really sensitive to EMF/EMRs. This article caused me to look at the one Katie uses….Its say ‘low EMFs’
    Wondering if this includes low EMRs…and what the readings are on this sauna on a trifield or other meter. Katie, or anyone else out there, do you know?

    Also, does anyone out there know of FIR portable sauna with minimal EMFs/EMR readings on a meter?

  13. Just wondering what the EMFs readings are this sauna, (provided in the link in the article). I’m sensitive to EMFs so I have to be very careful. Also, does anyone out there know if it advertises low EMFs, if that includes low EMRs? What is the difference?

  14. I would like to use a sauna (love that dry heat), but having lymphedema following a mastectomy, I am concerned about increasing the lymphedema symptoms. Any research done on thus subject?

  15. If you buy the infrared heat light bulbs do you have to have a space that you sit in or can you use it in a large room with the lamp clamped to a bookshelf or desk?

  16. Thank you so much for this info Katie… I learned even more amazing benefits of sauna use! 🙂 My husband and I purchased a Far Infrared sauna a few years ago, but I haven’t used it in over a year (while I was pregnant). Now that I am breast feeding, I feel it could really help me get back in shape, however I am looking for the answer on whether it actually causes toxins to leach into the breast milk or if the heating is harmful to the milk… Do you know anything about sauna use in relation to breastfeeding? Any help is appreciated! 🙂

    • I also have this question…

  17. I am looking into purchasing a home infrared sauna but I have two concerns: infrared light causing cataracts with repeated exposure as well as photoaging of the skin. Does anyone else share these concerns or can shed some light?

  18. Hi Katie! Would you do this while nursing??

    • Figured I’d answer since Katie won’t lol–
      I don’t see how this would be bad while nursing. It’s draws toxins out of the body. It won’t pull toxins from your body to your milk but then again I’m a believer of kombucha while breastfeeding too.
      as long as u drink sufficient fluids to flush the system u should be just fine (IMHO)

  19. I forget what prompted me to start looking into saunas today, but I suddenly thought, “let’s check Wellness Mama and see if she’s written about saunas!” Sure enough! So after scouring the gyms in my area (ugh), then looking up prices on FAR saunas and other portable saunas, I think I am going to attempt to create my own sauna. We have a stall shower in our master bathroom that we do not use (too small for us). My plan is to use two shower curtain rods and put them in the front and the back of the stall (above the glass door & the showerhead), then attach two of the bayco clamp lights to each rod and add a phillips 250w red heat lamp bulb. If I add a chair, I could sit in there and be on pinterest for ages! The only thing is, do you think the bulbs would be too far away if they’re up closer to the ceiling?
    Any help or suggestions are welcome at this point! I’m looking forward to my husband’s face when I tell him what I’m up to now….hehe.

  20. My wife and I have been using a Full Spectrum infrared sauna for about six months. The benefits are definitely worth the price.
    She has Lupus and arthritis. The sauna helps her with pain relief, energy level, relaxation, and detoxification. I’m sure there is more that I am not aware of.

  21. I have been using a dry heat sauna for about a year and have test confirmed results showing a big reduction in Mercury, Aluminium and Cadmium – but this is also in combination with healthy eating and nutrient support. I feel stress fall away when I have it, and my mind clears incredibly. I have found timing and not overdoing it pretty important too. Going too far by a couple of minutes can have the opposite effect on your well being.