Wellness Tips

Surprising Benefits of Sauna Therapy

The hot air in a sauna isn’t just great for stress relief, it also has some real health benefits.

Sauna use is already a big part of many cultures, particularly in Scandinavia. There are two types of saunas:

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Some cultures use steam rooms or steam baths, such as the Turkish or Russian bath. These aren’t exactly the same as saunas but they have similar concepts. Steam rooms have temperatures ranging from 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity.
In the U.S., you can find saunas in some gyms, spas, hotels and physical therapy offices. You can also purchase a sauna to use at home.

The Surprising Health Benefits of Saunas

A sauna session may seem like just a relaxing addition to a post-workout ritual or on a spa day, but long-term sauna use can have some real health benefits. These include:

The exposure to heat in saunas increases the amount of blood pumped by the heart, while lowering blood pressure and increasing heart rate variability (the amount of time difference between each heartbeat), meaning sauna use may benefit cardiovascular health.

In small studies focused on patients with rheumatological diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or ankylosing spondylitis (an inflammatory arthritis that affects the spine and large joints), regular sauna use was associated with decreased pain and stiffness, according to a review article published in 2018 in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

A randomized controlled trial with 37 people who had chronic tension headaches found that regular sauna use over eight weeks led to a 44% reduction in headache intensity compared with the trial’s control group, according to a 2015 report in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

If you’ve ever used a sauna, you may have walked in and said “Ahhh.” That’s because the heat helps the body to relax. Feeling more relaxed contributes to a healthier body and mind, and you may just feel your stress melt away. Plus, sitting in a quiet, calm environment can help provide a pause when you have whirlwind days, says Shawn M. Houck, a physical therapist with Physical Therapy Central in Yukon, Oklahoma.

“No phone, no computer and no distractions,” he adds.

These benefits usually come from sustained, regular sauna use of at least twice a week, rather than occasional use.

Does Sauna Use Help With Weight Loss?

It’s possible to lose a small amount of weight after a sauna session. However, if you lose a pound or so, that’s probably sweat and water loss.

“It’s not a long-term or sustainable weight-loss method, but it can definitely be used in adjunct to your diet and exercise routine,” says Jayesh Tawase, a physical therapist and clinical director of special projects and outpatient at Theradynamics in New York.

Plus, the relaxation that comes with regular sauna use can have an indirect, positive effect on weight loss, Greenwell says. In other words, many of us tend to put on weight when we’re stressed. When we’re less stressed, we may maintain or lose weight more easily.

Precautions for Sauna Use

As great as regular sauna sessions can be, there are still some risks due to the high heat levels. Here’s when you should avoid sauna use or check with a health care provider first:

  • If you’ve had a recent cardiac event, such as a heart attack or unstable angina (a type of chest pain).
  • You have a history of complications from heat exposure.
  • You use medication or have a medical condition that reduces your ability to sweat, such as anhidrosis.
  • You have uncontrolled blood pressure.
  • You’re pregnant.

6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Sauna Sessions

Keep these tips in mind to get the most out of your sauna sweat sessions:

1. Start slowly and then add more time and frequency. Start with 10 to 15 minutes in the sauna, and build your body’s tolerance from there, Greenwell advises. This can help cut down the risk for effects from overheating, such as dizziness, nausea or fainting. You may decide to start with one session a week and then add more as your body gets more comfortable with the heat. If possible, you could start with a sauna that’s at a lower temperature before increasing your time and heat, Tawase says.

Positive effects from sauna use are associated with at least two to three sessions weekly or even more frequent or daily use. Sauna sessions usually range from 15 to 30 minutes.

2. Stay hydrated. Keep drinking water to replace the fluids you’ll lose from a sauna session. Drinks like coconut water can help replace electrolytes like potassium and magnesium that escape the body when you lose fluids. You can also use food to replace electrolytes, Houck says. Examples of those foods include:

3. Avoid alcohol before, during and after your sauna time. This will only make dehydration from fluid loss worse.

4. Stay careful about avoiding burns. Because saunas are so hot, it’s possible to get burnt when you sit down. Use a towel to protect your skin, and follow any other instructions from those managing the sauna on how to avoid burns.

5. Do some light stretching when you leave the sauna. This can help reduce a buildup of lactic acid (a chemical the body makes when it turns glucose into energy) and boost your overall flexibility, Houck says.

6. Aim to get enough sleep. Using saunas regular may enhance your sleep. Take advantage of this by aiming to get seven or more hours a night and making sleep a priority.

A Final Word

There are lots of reasons to hop into a sauna. If you can’t get to one as regularly as you’d like, then use them when you can. Check with a health care provider first if you have any risk factors, and stay hydrated during and after your sauna sessions.

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