Using a sauna may seem straightforward: get in, get hot, get out. But what if there was a way to maximize the benefits you get from the sauna? Understanding the science behind this wonderful tool can help us better use them to our advantage.
Exposing yourself to deliberate heat exposure like that found inside dry or infrared saunas is a way of life. These tools for well-being can be found in gyms, social clubs, community centers, or wellness centers all across the world, and their popularity and demand are higher than ever.
Saunas were originally invented in Finland and pronounced “sow nah” and have been around for approximately 2000 years. Their ability to fight off disease, physical deterioration and the long list of mental and physical benefits have always been present.
But only recently has science caught up with this phenomenon to explain exactly how saunas can produce so many positive changes in those who use them. And more specifically, what kind of benefits we can expect to see with long-term use.
While saunas are incredibly useful on their own, there are other activities and tools we can use in tandem with the sauna to maximize the physical and mental health benefits they can provide.
Maximize the physical and mental health benefits of the sauna in 7 steps
- Use the sauna after at least 50 minutes of exercise
- Infuse your sauna with essential oils
- Meditate while in the sauna
- Duration. How long should you stay in the sauna?
- Deliberate cold exposure using a cold plunge, ice bath, or cold shower
- Use the sauna in the evening
- Repetition and consistency
1 – Use the sauna after at least 50 minutes of exercise
What’s fascinating about the sauna is that it resembles a simulated cardiovascular exercise in the effects it has on the body. It raises core body temperature, increases heart rate, and lowers blood pressure post-sauna. However, without the actual exercise, you’re still missing out on activating muscle tissue and getting a real physical workout and the benefits that come with it.
Exclusively using the sauna without the addition of exercise can still provide us with a long list of health benefits. However, according to this study using the sauna for 15 minutes after exercising for 50 minutes per week 3 times per week can significantly supplement cardio-respiratory fitness gains as well as improved systolic blood pressure.
The sauna cannot replace exercise. And exercising without the sauna is simply not as effective as using them in conjunction with one another. So, make the most of your workout and your sauna session by using the sauna post-workout (ideally some form of weight training).
2 – Infuse your sauna with essential oils
While there isn’t much science to support the claims that essential oils have proven health benefits, I think they’re still worth mentioning on this list. Personally, I find essential oils to be a great way to induce stress relief and relaxation.
That is the only benefit I’ve ever gotten from them – they smell good and make your space feel more comforting. So they’re potentially conducive to a more relaxing mental state. Which is why I think they’re an appropriate addition to this list.
The essential oil community claims various other health benefits such as improved immune function, reduced inflammation, improved sleep quality, and much more. But take these with a grain of salt.
Again, the science behind essential oils and their effectiveness is inconclusive. The research on these chemicals is insufficient and necessitates more investigation. Lack of funding and interest in their benefits is likely to blame for the lack of research behind them.
You should decide for yourself based on the current knowledge base available. Essential oils aren’t entirely safe either. For example, lavender and tea tree oil may have potentially endocrine-disrupting characteristics as seen here.
Still considering using essential oils? Great. Here’s how to use them in the sauna:
- Dilute a few drops into 1-2 liters of water.
- Pour the water over the hot rocks
- Pour more water when the steam stops or no longer carries any scent
- While the oil infuses the air, perform a guided meditation
Just be aware of what kind of sauna you’re using. Some saunas shouldn’t have water poured into them anywhere.
3 – Meditate while in the sauna
The sauna is the perfect time to relax, unwind, and destress from a long day or a hard workout. This is your time to recover and heal. So wouldn’t it make sense to take that a step further and add meditation to the mix?
On its own, a sauna is a great tool for relaxation and quieting the mind. Adding meditation to your sauna routine can help compound its positive effects.
Studies investigating the benefits of meditation have shown it to be directly responsible for improvements in:
- Mental health
- Blood pressure
- Cortisol levels
- Sleep quality
- Compulsive thoughts and behaviors
4 – Duration and frequency. How long should you stay in the sauna?
For maximum health benefits the science says you should stay in the sauna for 15-20 minutes per session, at a minimum of 4 sessions per week, at 80-100° C (176-212° F).
The longer and more frequently you use the sauna, the more you lessen your risk of fatal cardiovascular events over the course of your lifetime. So going in 7 times per week is even better. However, it’s not recommended to exceed more than 20-30 minutes per session.
This study which took place over the course of 15 years evaluated cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cardiovascular health events that occurred in the 1,688 subjects who were part of the study. It was shown that deliberate heat exposure, duration, and frequency of sauna use linearly decreased the occurrence of CVD events.
Another study investigating saunas showed that increased frequency of sauna use is strongly associated with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. All-cause mortality is a blanket term for death by any cause.
How long should you stay in the sauna as a beginner?
Most beginner sauna users should use the sauna no more than 5-15 minutes. It’s all about comfort level and tolerability. If you’ve never used a sauna before, you’ll notice it’s quite difficult to stay in the sauna for much longer than 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes you may start to feel dysphoric, dizzy, or uncomfortable. This is normal, but it also may be a sign that it’s time for you to get out.
After several sauna sessions over the course of many weeks, your body will build up a tolerance to the heat and will be able to withstand higher temperatures at longer durations. You can slowly add more time at your own pace. You may want to try starting with adding 1 minute per session and seeing how you feel.
Is 30 minutes in the sauna too long?
Staying in the sauna for up to 30 minutes is completely safe for a normal healthy individual who is properly hydrated and doesn’t have any pre-existing heart problems.
Once you reach the 30-minute mark in the sauna, your heart rate will increase sharply, and you will lose around one pint of water or more. You may feel dysphoric during this time, but that is okay and not necessarily a sign that you need to get out.
Is 10 minutes in the sauna enough time?
5-10 minutes spent in the sauna is fine and still effective at producing a positive health response. You should stay in the sauna for as long as you are comfortable. With that being said, the longer you stay in the sauna the more mental and physical benefits you can expect to get.
How long should you stay in a sauna to detox your body?
Assuming saunas are actually effective at detoxing heavy metals and toxicants from the body, a minimum of 15-20 minutes per session, at a minimum of 4 sessions per week, at 80-100° C (176-212° F) is best.
Science supporting the sauna detoxification hypothesis is scant at best. There are two studies that we know of showing potential for using the sauna as a detoxification tool.
This study evaluated the levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, in the sweat of subjects who were exposed to occupational sources of toxicants as well as individuals who didn’t have these exposures. The study showed potential for using saunas as a means of detoxification through sweating, as the toxicant levels in the sweat was reduced with repeated heat exposure.
This study was a small sample size, however, is still worth mentioning here. In this study, the blood, urine, and sweat of 20 subjects were evaluated for the concentration of various toxic chemicals in the body. It was found that these toxins were preferentially excreted through sweat.
How long should you stay in a sauna after a workout?
After your workout, you should stay in the sauna for 15-20 minutes at 80-100° C (176-212° F). If you can’t stay in that long at those temperatures, try working your way up to this level.
You can stay in the sauna longer than 20 minutes and could potentially receive more cardiovascular health benefits from it as well as reduced risk of all-cause mortality.
How often should you use a sauna?
You should use the sauna 4-7 times per week for 15-20 minutes. Studies clearly show a strong correlation between sauna use frequency and duration and reduced episodes of cardiovascular health events.
Is it okay to use the sauna every day?
Yes, using the sauna every day is perfectly fine and is encouraged for maximum mental and physical health benefits.
5 – Deliberate cold exposure using a cold plunge, ice bath, or cold shower
The practice of deliberate cold exposure has become quite popular in the alternative medicine space. Engaging in cold plunges, ice baths, or cold showers can present the mind with new forms of mental challenges to overcome.
Scientifically speaking, cold exposure has a long list of proven health benefits. It has been shown to:
- Speed up metabolism
- Reduce inflammation, swelling, and soreness
- Speed up muscle recovery
- Improve sleep quality
- Boost immune response
- Increase fat mobilization
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Stress relief
- Improve mood
- Improve alertness
Cold exposure in practice
To get the most benefit from cold exposure it’s been shown that just 11 minutes per week is needed for maximum benefits. If you meet this threshold you can expect to see a significant rise in epinephrine and norepinephrine (two forms of adrenaline). This study showed that signaling these hormones increased alertness, focus, and increased pain tolerance.
Cold exposure also works to improve mood by directly causing sharp and prolonged increases in dopamine.
This study investigated these claims and found sound evidence to support the bulk of them.
Wim “The Iceman” Hof
A peculiar individual named Wim Hof has popularized this practice by performing physical feats that science previously thought were impossible.
Wim has done extraordinary things and broken numerous world records all of which he credits to the use of cold exposure. Some of his feats include standing in a container full of ice for more than 112 minutes unfazed, running half a marathon in the snow on his bare feet, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, and willfully influencing his autonomic nervous system to behave in new ways.
Wim Hof has worked with scientists to prove his claims and his feats which makes this practice even more fascinating.
Using cold water exposure in tandem with the sauna could be potentially life-changing. Exposing yourself to the stress of the cold can strengthen the mind and improve the overall health and functionality of your body to potentially superhuman levels. Cold showers can even be used to alleviate hangover symptoms.
6 – Use the sauna in the evening
The best time of day to use the sauna is in the evening, preferably one to two hours before bedtime. Extreme temperatures can help ease your body into sleep by helping the body to reduce its core temperature.
When our circadian rhythm signals to the body that bedtime is approaching, the body will actually lower your core temperature by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat exposure like a hot shower or a hot sauna will cause the blood in your body to go to the surface which causes your body to release heat like a radiator.
This study showed that deliberate heat exposure 1-2 hours before bed significantly reduced sleep onset latency in subjects.
7 – Repetition and consistency
The health benefits whether physical or mental from the sauna come from repetition. Yes, you can still receive short-term stress relief, relaxation, and improved sleep from one single sauna session. But the science suggests that the more frequently you use the sauna the more likely you are to:
- Potentially detox toxicants and heavy metals from the body
- Reduce the likelihood of fatal cardiovascular events over your lifetime
- Reduce all-cause mortality
Like anything worth achieving, you get there with repetition and consistency.
What are the benefits of sitting in saunas?
One study gathered data from nearly 600 subjects who used the sauna regularly and reported benefits and adverse side effects. Some proven benefits of using saunas verified by peer-reviewed research are:
- Relaxation, stress relief
- Anxiety relief
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Reduction in the risk of high blood pressure and hypertension
- Reduced risk of all-cause mortality
- Reduced oxidative stress and inflammation
- Improved pulmonary function
- Increased nitric oxide bioavailability
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Improved mood
- Improved stress response (hormetic effect)
- Improved sleep quality
- Improved circulation
- Increased growth hormone secretion
- Improved quality and duration of sleep
- Reduced cortisol levels
- Reduced frequency and intensity of headaches
- Pain relief
Is the sauna beneficial to your lungs?
The sauna may have some promise in helping the lungs to function at a higher level in those with pre-existing conditions.
This study showed sauna use as a potential therapy for improving pulmonary function in subjects with obstructive lung disease. The sample size was small (12 male patients).
The subjects showed significant improvements in lung functionality parameters, forced vital capacity, and forced expiratory volume.
How long will it take to see the benefits of using the sauna?
Benefits from short-term sauna use can appear as soon as the first day. Lowered blood pressure, improved mood, and improved sleep quality can all be achieved with a single sauna session.
The more profound health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of hypertension, increased insulin sensitivity, improved stress response, and reduced likelihood of CVD events are achieved through long-term repeated use of sauna bathing.
Are saunas good for acne?
Saunas may provide some benefits to the skin by reducing cortisol, sebum content, and inflammatory markers.
A study of 41 subjects that investigated the effect of sauna use on epidermal barrier function and stratum corneum water-holding capacity showed that sauna use may provide a protective effect on the skin and casual sebum content.
Do saunas help with eczema?
Saunas may help reduce the symptoms of eczema indirectly by reducing stress and inflammation in the body. Both of which can contribute to eczema flare-ups.
What are the disadvantages of sitting in saunas?
Decreased sperm count
If you and your partner are trying to conceive, it’s important to know that repeated sauna use can significantly decrease sperm motility and also on sperm count. Fortunately, with the cessation of sauna use, sperm count and motility return to normal within a short period of time.
A potential risk for hyperthermia
While hyperthermia is the main course of action in producing a hormetic effect and stress response in the body producing heat-shock proteins, hyperthermia is still a cause for concern if you are not properly hydrated.
It’s important that you don’t overdo it in the sauna, drink water, take breaks if necessary, use cold exposure to help cool down, and absolutely never consume alcohol before or while using the sauna. These precautions should help you avoid becoming excessively overheated and dehydrated.
Risk of dehydration
Where there is heat, there is sweat. The risk of dehydration in a sauna is real. It goes without saying that you should enter the sauna properly hydrated and with cool water inside of a stainless steel container. This should help you mitigate overheating and losing too much water.
Sauna frequently asked questions
What is a sauna?
A sauna is a small room designed for deliberate heat exposure. Often made with a stone and wood interior. Saunas are generally considered to be therapeutic tools for health.
What is a dry sauna?
A dry sauna is heated by a heater and doesn’t include any kind of steam, water, or infrared technology to achieve the desired effect. Dry saunas are often heated to temperatures of 150°F to 195°F at the hottest.
What is an infrared sauna?
Infrared saunas use light to create heat inside of the sauna enclosure. They are powered by infrared lamps and electromagnetic radiation. Infrared saunas usually are heated to 120°F and 140°F.
What is a steam sauna?
Steam saunas are generally lower in temperature than dry saunas (110°F to 120°F) and are rooms filled with heated water and pressurized steam that is released into the enclosure. Sometimes, oils are infused into the steam.
When is a sauna harmful to your health?
An individual who has pre-existing heart conditions, high blood pressure, or is chronically dehydrated should not use saunas before consulting with your doctor or another medical professional, as they may pose a serious risk to your health.
What are heat-shock proteins?
Heat shock proteins or HSPs are molecules that are expressed more frequently during stressful situations such as deliberate heat exposure and are a primary source of the health benefits one receives from sauna use. These proteins assist in making healthy cells fight stronger against disease and cellular degeneration.
Heat shock proteins assist in the reduction of oxidized cells and free radicals, help muscle tissue recover faster, protect the heart from CVD, and help to normalize insulin sensitivity.
Should you shower immediately after getting out of the sauna?
If you opt not to shower after a sauna, there is a risk of bacterial build-up that can occur on the body. Additionally, any toxicants that are potentially released during sweat excretion may remain on the skin post-sauna and therefore may pose a mild risk of reabsorption.
Do saunas burn fat?
Saunas do not burn fat. Fat is burned through the expenditure of energy in the form of calories which is done through physical movement or dietary caloric deficit. The laws of thermodynamics prevent the sauna from having any ability to burn stored energy in the body.
A sauna will simply resemble a cardio exercise giving the illusion of potential fat-burning. However, the heart is just going through a hermetic stress response to the extreme heat.
A sauna is one of the most effective tools for wellness and has the potential to add years to your life and prevent fatal cardiovascular events with consistent use. This tool for health has withstood the tests of time and remains one of the most important staples in an effective wellness routine.
To find a sauna near you, try reaching out to health clubs or gyms in your area and asking to see if they have a sauna there. Personally, I find the sauna to be an irreplaceable tool in my arsenal for mental and physical health.
Until next time.
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- Effect of regular sauna on epidermal barrier function and stratum corneum water-holding capacity in vivo in humans: a controlled study
- Sauna to transiently improve pulmonary function in patients with obstructive lung disease
- Before-bedtime passive body heating by warm shower or bath to improve sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis
- The science behind the Wim Hof Method
- Examining the benefits of cold exposure as a therapeutic strategy for obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study: monitoring and elimination of bioaccumulated toxic elements
- Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Sweat: A Systematic Review
- Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events
- Sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and improves risk prediction in men and women: a prospective cohort study
- Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils
- Effects of regular sauna bathing in conjunction with exercise on cardiovascular function: a multi-arm, randomized controlled trial
- A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey
- Effects of long-term whole-body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta-endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines and cytokines in healthy females
- Influence of cold exposure on dopamine content in rat brown adipose tissue