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 saunas, 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 certain 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 a low-EMF sauna at home and have 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 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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