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!

Sauna Benefits

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.

  • Saunas Mimic Exercise: Saunas are hot with many reaching temperatures over 150°F. And if you stay in them long enough, your heart rate will rise, you’ll sweat profusely, and they’ll become uncomfortable. In many ways, sauna usage mimics moderate intensity exercise. This surprised me as I expected the sauna sessions to be as relaxing as laying on a couch. But no, as my sessions progressed it took effort to stay in the sauna. It became physically stressful. My heart rate rose to almost 150 beats per minute in some sessions. And because of that, many of the benefits of exercise can also be achieved through sauna usage if done correctly (see optimal sauna conditions below).
  • Alone Time: But while it became physically stressful, it was mentally stressless at the same time. This is another aspect of sauna usage I have never considered. This dedicated technology-free time in the sauna had psychological benefits too. Whether it was practicing mindfulness, meditating, or reading a book, this period of solidarity was indeed relaxing. And that’s when I started to realize how the sauna could play a significant role in cognitive health too.

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:

  • Cardiovascular Health: In a study comparing the effects of sauna frequency, using 20-minute sauna sessions at 174°F, it was found that cardiovascular disease was 27% less likely to occur in people who performed 2-3 sauna sessions per week compared to one session per week. It was also shown that those who perform 4-6 sessions per week were 50% less likely to have cardiovascular disease than the one session users. On top of that, increased sauna usage reduces the risk of a sudden cardiac event and fatal coronary heart disease. The benefits regarding cardiovascular health are overwhelming when looking at the research.
  • Dementia/Alzheimer’s: In the same study comparing sauna frequency, they also found that 4-6 sauna sessions per week reduced a person’s risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by ~65% compared to one session per week.
  • Immune Health: And I found a fair amount of research showing increased immunity in sauna users too. One study showed that two sauna sessions per week reduced the incidence of the common cold by 50% after 4-6 months of usage compared to people who didn’t use the sauna at all.
  • All-Cause Mortality: And it should come as no surprise that many studies show all-cause mortality decreasing as well with increased sauna usage. I mean if your chances of heart disease, dementia, and various illnesses decrease then most likely you’d assume mortality would decrease too. This means that with increased sauna usage, you have a greater chance of living longer and healthier.

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.

Sauna Limitations

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.

  • Detoxification: The main claim many sauna’s make is that the profuse sweating will cause toxins to be removed from the body. But from my research, the sweating mechanism isn’t meant to detoxify the body. And while some toxins are removed from sweat, it’s a minute amount compared to what the liver and kidney do every day. Dr. Schwarcz compared it to someone sitting in a bathtub worrying about drowning. Removing a dropper-full of water from the tub will theoretically reduce the risk — because the chance of drowning is lower in less water — but getting rid of so little water will be effectively meaningless. So, sure sweating does remove toxins, but likely not in any meaningful way.
  • Skin Benefits: I couldn’t find anything proving the benefits sauna usage has on skin health. And in my four sauna sessions, my skin became dried out afterwards. It’s possible a lot of the skin health claims are made by infrared sauna facilities (that use light to heat the body) while most of the research has been done on Finnish sauna facilities (that heat the air around the body). But even that seems like a stretch from my research.
  • Weight Loss: All the weight loss benefits I found were just in terms of water weight by sweating which would all be gained back by the next bottle of water consumed. I couldn’t find any long-term weight loss benefits for sauna usage.

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.

My Sauna Session Stats

Final Thoughts

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.