by Jaakko M. March 27, 2020 12 min read
You have considered adding a sauna to your house but you are still not sure if it will benefit your wellness routine and overall health? Maybe you think saunas are just a passing trend?
I was born and raised in Finland, and I’m very passionate about saunas and sauna culture in general. Saunas are everywhere in Finland.
There is one sauna for every two people (1.8 to be exact). Many people own two saunas: one at home and one at their summer cabin.
As the sauna is such a normal every day thing for us Finns, we often don't consider all the health benefits. I used to think that saunas are something "nice to have", just a stress reliever that you could do a few times a week.
When I started writing more about saunas and doing deeper research, I found a lot of health claims that seemed too good to be true. So, I started looking into the scientific evidence to counter some of the false beliefs. I wanted to figure out what was actually true.
What I found was mind-blowing: I would never have believed the health benefits are as strong as science has proven them to be. Many of the really rigorous scientific studies have only been done in the last 10 years, so these health effects were news to me.
Not all saunas are created equal - and all health effects may not apply to all saunas. That's why it's important that we start with differentiating between the sauna types. In this blog post, we're going to talk about two things:1. The 3 different sauna types - Traditional, Steam and Infrared
Saunas are all about heat. A sauna can be any kind of room that is designed to be heated to a considerably higher temperature than normal living spaces. There are 3 main types:
1. Traditional Finnish style saunas, with electric or wood burning heaters
2. Steam rooms, heated by steam generators
3. Infrared cabins, heated by infrared heaters
It's important to understand the differences between steam rooms, infrared cabins and Finnish style saunas. Most of the scientific studies are done with the Finnish types, so those are the main focus of this blog post. I'll cover the other two quickly here.
With infrareds, the air temperature is usually only at 110-130°F (43-55°C). They may feel hotter because the heat is radiant heat. Kind of like being out in the sun: you feel hot on the side of your body where the light and radiant heat is coming from.
The steam rooms are heated directly by steam. They are what you often see in movies, and maybe you've been in one: those tiled rooms where you can't see more than a few feet. They feel hot as the humidity is at 100%, but the actual temperatures may not get that high. They're usually at somewhere between 90-120°F (32-50°C).
The main difference is that these are HOT saunas. As those two other sauna types usually stay under 130°F (55°C), the traditional sauna is used at temperatures starting from 140°F (60°C). If you have health issues or just want a smooth ride, it's ok to use the sauna between 140-160°F (70-90°C). What most people prefer is 160-195°F (70-90°C).
The temperatures are not written in stone (see what I did there? ;) as everyone has different preferences and health situations. They’re guidelines and can be adjusted based on the person and type of sauna being used.
An important method of fine-tuning the temperature is called löyly. It can also bring its own health improvements.
There are different ways to get the sauna to 195°F and beyond, but the similarity with all Finnish style sauna heaters is the heated rocks on top of the heater. You can use the sauna with simple dry heat, but to be honest, that's just boring.
It's better to use löyly (pronounciation: imagine a very British way to say "Low-loo", impossible to write out in English really).
Löyly is the Finnish term for the steam that comes off when you throw water to the heated rocks. If you do not use löyly, the air in the heated sauna will be extremely dry at 5-15%. If you add water, it jumps to almost 100% for a short time. You get a "wet and dry sauna" in one.
You can play with the humidity levels, and make adjustments by either increasing or decreasing the amount of löyly. The humidity levels should be rising and falling.
Löyly has traditionally been considered to ease the symptoms of mild cold. During the cold winters of Finland, the air is very dry. Inhaling steam and moisture can help your lungs cope with whatever challenges they are facing. The added moisture is also good for your skin. This way you can have the same "moisture boost" as from steam saunas.
It's important to note that almost all of the scientific health benefits have only been proven with the traditional Finnish type saunas. That's because high all-encompassing full-body heat is likely the main driver of these health mechanisms.
Personally, I do believe that you can get many of the same benefits from the lower temperature saunas.
Even if the benefits from the "lower grade saunas" are not perfect, they're much better than nothing. Just doing your sauna routine without any heat can have meditative advantages. It's a sliding scale. If you want to be sure to get the full, scientifically proven improvements, go with the traditional type sauna.
Now let’s check those 8 ways that science proves how saunas can make you healthier and happier.
There is clear scientific proof that regular sauna bathing use can prolong your life. It is good to understand:
a) what the science says is statistically true, and
b) how do the those health effects actually work?
One of the most significant benefits of using a sauna regularly was sited in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Internal Medicine in 2015. Their study was large in scope, as it studied over 2000 Finnish men between 42-60 years old.
These men were studied over a span of 20 years and the study found that the more times that they used a sauna each week, the more they lowered their risk of sudden cardiac death and cardiovascular disease.
The list didn't stop there. The results showed something mind-boggling: the men who had a sauna 4-7 times a week were 40% less likely to die of any disease. That's just a unbelievably huge health benefit.
In other words, doing sauna on a semi-daily basis cuts the chance of dying of any illness in almost half. I think that in the modern world, we are all in a "risk group" of getting something like cancer. Now you have a new tool in your arsenal to fight that.
This cited study has strong scientific validity. It not only included a large number of participants but it also followed them over a very long period, proving that the findings were not just a blip over a short cycle. This is the hardest science you can get.
Now, scientists have proven beyond any doubt that sauna health benefits are real. What is still not fully known is how those benefits actually work: what the mechanisms are.
The scientific studies on the exact mechanisms of sauna benefits are ongoing. It is easier to get statistical proof that this thing is real - figuring out all the tiny details of the specific functions takes more work. We do have some knowledge already.
There was a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showing that heat can significantly improve how the cells work in our bodies. Our cells have these "motors" called mitochondria. They provide the cells with the energy they need. In simple terms: if the mitochondria work better, the cells work better, and then your body works better.
Mitochondrial function is improved by all kinds of exercise, and now that study showed that heat treatment can have similar effects (at least in human skeletal muscles).
Heat causes the cells to create heat shock proteins, and those have a wide range of benefits in the human body. They protect our cells from damage and aging.
This is just my own speculation, but I assume that the beneficial effect is not restricted to just skeletal muscles, but works in other parts of the body as well.
When you are in a sauna, it affects your body like moderate exercise. Your heart rate goes up and your circulation gets better. When these things happen, your cardiovascular cells work better due to the increased blood flow. Saunas can reduce blood pressure, lessen inflammation, reduce the chance of stroke, and more.
Obviously, the best thing you can do is do both exercise and sauna. Combining those two powerful health effects will surely boost you to having a healthy life to 100 years of age - and beyond!
If you are an athlete, using a sauna a few times a week after your exercise program for at least three weeks can increase athletic performance as proven in a 2007 study found in the Journal of Science in Medicine and Sport. This study looked at men who were long-distance runners and had them do sessions in a sauna after they finished their workout.
At the end of three weeks, there were able to run 32% longer than at the beginning. Their plasma volume and red blood cell count both went up along with their running endurance.
You can also use a sauna to help with heat acclimation. When you add extra heat to your training, then working out in normal temperatures feels easier. Just be careful with this and don't overheat your body! You can use this to get an edge on your competition. Just listen to your body, and have someone like your coach keep eye on things.
Many of us feel better when we have had a sauna but we may not attribute it to the effect heat has on our cardiovascular system. The European Journal of Preventative Cardiology included a study done in 2017 with results showing that saunas can improve the ability of a body’s blood vessel walls to expand and contract as blood pressure changes happen.
It further notes there is a reduction in blood pressure with regular sauna use. Your cardio function improves because sauna heat causes your heart to beat quicker, and your blood vessels expand to allow for more sweating. As a side effect, blood moves easier through your body.
In Finland, doctors agree that sauna is safe for healthy individuals and persons with stable heart conditions. If you have an acute (active) heart condition, it might be best to stay out. Always consult your doctor if in doubt.
Our body needs some inflammation as it is a signal to the body that it is injured and needs to start healing.
That said, when you have chronic systemic inflammation, it could cause cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and various forms of cancer. It is almost like the immune system of your body turns against you.
The Laukkanens wrote a paper in the European Journal of Epidemiology that took a look at how sauna use reduced the levels of C-reactive protein, a blood marker strongly indicating systemic inflammation.
They did a multivariant analysis (removing the effect of factors other than sauna) and found that frequent sauna use significantly lowered systemic inflammation.
When you have regular saunas and combine them with a good, healthy diet, you can make sure your immune system works for your body, not against it.
There is no scientific proof that saunas can improve sleep. Sorry! I just wanted to make sure you're not sleeping while reading this...
On a more serious note, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence (and some preliminary studies) showing that heat therapy can make you sleep better. There was also this small study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research that just went to indicate what all Finns intuitively know: sauna use improves sleep.
While I would prefer to see more scientific studies on the topic, it doesn't take years of research to come to the conclusion that relaxing in a quiet, dimly lit room helps you prime for sleep.
Important note: while searching for scientific studies, I came across several blog posts encouraging you to use a sauna right before going to sleep. DON'T DO THAT. That's not how this works.
Over thousands of years, our bodies got used to taking tips from the environment on when it's time to sleep. The coolness of the evening air is one of those. You can supercharge that effect by first heating up your body, and then giving it time to cool off before going to bed.
You don't want to go to sleep feeling hot from the sauna. Give yourself at least 30 minutes, and preferably an hour or two before going to bed. That way, you will sleep like a rock!
Studies indicate that saunas reduce how often people get sick throughout the year. A study dating back to 1990 from the Annals of Medicine discovered that using a sauna regularly reduced how often users became sick with the common cold.
It is worth noting that this is only proof that sauna can act as a preventative measure. If you're already down with a fever, consult your doctor before doing sauna.
This study is followed by a newer one from the 2013 Journal of Human Kinetics that showed that even a single sauna use improved the immunity function, especially in white blood cells. These results were even better in those who were considered athletes. It would seem to indicate that if you use a sauna regularly and also exercise, you can create a stronger immune response in your body.
One of the main characteristics of saunas is that we sweat. A lot. We seem to inherently know that sweating does a lot for us, from cleaning our pores to making us feel refreshed.
Even though the main function of sweating is to cool the body down, there is some research that shows that other good things are going on. I'm not a huge fan of the word "detox" (it is so heavily misused), but I can be convinced through scientific studies.
A systematic review on heavy metal excretion in sweat was made in 2012. It found that toxins such as cadmium, arsenic, lead, and mercury that are usually found at some level in our systems are excreted through sweat when we use a sauna. These toxic chemicals have no place in your body, so you should do what you can to get rid of them!
While we know that many of us get a little more forgetful or become less mentally sharp as we age, the benefits of a sauna may help alleviate some of that aging brain fog. A study in The International Journal of the British Geriatrics Society – Age and Aging shows that men who used a sauna regularly have a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are also earlier studies that discuss the increased levels of norepinephrine which make you more alert, have better memory and help you focus.
Along with reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, the psychological benefits of sauna are further touted by Europe PMC. The study shows that using a sauna is a great mental health activity. It reduces stress and aggression while enhancing feelings of peace and calm.
Consistent use of a sauna can have long-lasting, positive mental effects.
Whether you are a fine-tuned athlete, or could use a boost with your mental or physical health (couldn't we all?), or simply want to pivot to a healthy lifestyle routine, the consistent use of a sauna will help.
Sauna use can increase your athletic abilities, improve your immunity, and bring some calm to your day-to-day life. After just one session in a sauna, you will notice a positive change in how you feel. The release of toxins and stress happens quickly and leaves you feeling refreshed.
When you establish the ongoing habit of using a sauna, it only takes a couple of weeks before you can start to notice a reduction in heart rate when exercising, less mental stress, more mental acuity, and an overall feeling of positivity.
While it's easy to get opinions from others about their feelings and experiences with a sauna, science can be trusted. The many studies cited here tout the benefits of sauna use.
Using a sauna regularly will give you the final proof of the positive health effects shown in these studies. You will discover that you feel not only healthier but happier, too.
After all of those amazing benefits that a sauna can bring to your overall health, it's safe to say that saunas are not just some trend. Being happy, healthy and living longer will never go out of style! So, if you're as convinced as we are that a sauna will make your life better, check out our outdoor saunas!
The author has lifelong experience of saunas, as is natural for Finns. When not busy learning about how Bitcoin makes the world a better place, he's learning more about saunas. Jaakko shares his findings here in Divine Saunas blog!
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