I always used to think that sauna users were just lazy gym goers who didn’t feel like lifting weights or crushing cardio. Instead, they’d rather sit down in a nice warm and cozy sauna, and pretend like they’re losing weight… which obviously would be gained back with the next bottle of water consumed. But, after spending a week going through much of the scientific literature and attending four sauna sessions, my perspective has done a 180. Can sauna usage be used for lifespan extension? Disease prevention? And improved immunity? And if so, what are the appropriate parameters for optimal sauna usage? Well, I got the answers. Let’s get into it!
Many places that offer sauna sessions often promote a multitude of benefits ranging from detoxification, skin rejuvenation, and weight loss, all the way to improved cardiovascular function, improved immune function, and stress management. But scientific evidence to support these claims can be sparse. Let’s start off with the proven benefits of sauna usage. Based on my research, there’s two reasons why saunas are healthy.
And based on these two reasons of sauna usage mimicking exercise and providing dedicated alone time, I could now better understand why the scientific literature was showing numerous health benefits similar to exercise. So, let’s get into the scientific literature. Most of the sauna research has been done in Finland. The Finn’s have about one sauna per household in the country and their usage is higher than any other country in the world. Therefore, it makes it easy to study how their high sauna usage effects various health factors. And after going through many of the Finland sauna studies, here are the most strongly agreed upon benefits I gathered:
The crazy thing is that most of the studies concluded that sauna usage has a dose-dependent effect on cardiovascular disease, dementia, immune health, and all-cause mortality. Meaning that the more you use a sauna in terms of time spent in the sauna per session, and the frequency of sauna sessions per week, the greater the effects will be. And while there isn’t a lot of concrete research on the psychological effects of sauna usage, many studies indicate benefits with stress reduction, depression, and anxiety that could be proven after further research. I also found research linking sauna’s effects with blood pressure, cholesterol, respiratory disease, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer to a lesser degree.
Despite all the benefits, there are a few claims that I couldn’t find any evidence to back up. This could be because there isn’t a lot of research in these areas, or the current research didn’t show evidence proving the following claims.
And the last thing I’ll mention is that even though sauna usage mimics moderate intensity exercise by placing physical stress on the body, it isn’t a replacement for exercise. Physical exercise has the added benefits of increasing bone density, muscle strength, and neuromuscular coordination which can’t be achieved with sauna usage. But I certainly see many use cases for sauna usage supplementing exercise or being used with populations incapable of exercising due to extreme obesity, arthritis, osteoporosis, or other exercise limiting factors.
Optimal Sauna Conditions
So, now that we have a good idea of what benefits sauna sessions can and can’t bring us, what are the optimal parameters? How can we make the most out of the sessions? Most of the studies show dose dependent effects of sauna usage for duration and frequency. This means the longer you use it and the more frequently you use it, the more benefits you’ll get. In many of the studies, optimal benefits were shown with near daily usage for 20 minutes a session at 174°F. And in most cases, only Finnish saunas can achieve this heat level so if you have access to either a Finnish or an infrared sauna, I’d choose Finnish for that reason. But it appears many of the benefits apply to infrared saunas as well at lower temperatures if you increase your session duration. For example, 30 minutes in a sauna at 164°F appears to have the same benefits which would likely be similar to 45 minutes in a sauna at 154°F.
I did my sessions at the Lumos Infrared Saunas Studio in Rochester. I bumped the heat up to the maximum level and saw an average temperature of around 155°F. In this case, I’d recommend opting for their 45-minute sessions. Unfortunately, I scheduled 30-minute sessions before performing most of this research… But I do plan on heading back to Lumos for sessions in the future where I plan on scheduling 45-minute sessions. Below are some readings of my blood pressure, heart rate, and weight that I took before, during, and after my sessions. My heart rate steadily rose to 135 beats per minute in this session where I ended up losing over a pound of sweat.
The sauna provides a fantastic opportunity for many of us to prevent disease, extend life, and facilitate alone time in our otherwise busy schedules. And I think it has so many use cases as I couldn’t find any contraindications, or reasons why someone shouldn’t use the sauna. Although I think the claims for detoxification, skin health, and weight loss may be overblown, the overwhelmingly positive effects seem worth it to me. Whether you’re using the sauna to supplement your healthy lifestyle, or you’re using it as a substitute for exercise because you can’t exercise, I’m all for sauna usage. So much so, I kind of want to buy one. I mean if I’m already spending 30 minutes a day reading, why not do that while saunaing at the same time? That sounds like a healthier and happier life to me.
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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe
Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.
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