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Health Benefits

This website does not purport to provide expertise on the subject, nor is anyone behind the scenes a doctor or scientist. Rather than espouse any half-baked theories or personal anecdotal results, we will rely on the experts who study this area professionally and highlight some of their findings. 

 

This site is intended to provide general sauna information and while health benefits may be a byproduct of regular sauna use, they are not a primary driver of this site’s raison d’etre. However, as many of the newly Sauna Curious owe their interest in sauna to the preponderance of recently published research indicating regular sauna use accrues health benefits, the topic warrants coverage. 

 

What you will read below is a brief history of heat therapy and an incomplete  summary of the research (cited at the bottom) overviewing consensus findings. For those inclined to pursue the health science behind regular sauna use, please read the citations noted. 

Sweat more stress less

Research on the effects of sauna on overall health and wellness is still in its infancy. While there have been several robust studies that have come out of Finland over the last several years, the rest of the world is only now starting to catch up.

 

Many health experts suggest that unwanted stress (as opposed to healthy hormetic stress) can be the driver of a host of downstream diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, depression and Alzheimer’s. Stress relief is one of the most associated benefits of a regular sauna practice. The heat significantly relaxes the body’s muscles and improves circulation and can also play a role in the reduction of mental stress. If the Ancients were still around, they might say that heat is the great healer. 

A brief history of heat therapy

In her 2023 book Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat, author Emma O’Kelly writes, “every culture, through every age, has enjoyed its own form of sweat bathing.” While these ancient practices were ingrained into everyday life and often served multiple purposes, the healing power of heat has been understood and sought out for millennia.  

 

The documented history of heat therapy can be traced back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used the power of the sun, thermal baths and hot air caverns for heat therapy as early as 500 BCE. 

 

Greek physician Hippocrates in particular was a fan of the power of heat stating, “Give me the power to produce fever, and I will cure all disease”. In fact, Hippocrates devoted large sections of his writings to heat therapy. In later posts we will explore the paradox of fever, which can be deadly but in moderation can provide surprising health benefits.   

 

In Japan the documented practice of thermal bathing dates back to 720 when Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) was finished. It references several onsen (Japanese thermal springs and bathing facilities) that were already in operation then. These hot springs were reported to have myriad health benefits and – as in Finland – have been integral to the well-being of Japanese society for well over a thousand years. 

 

Ancient sauna practices in Finland looked nothing like the modern-day incarnation. Pits were dug into small hillsides and covered with bushes. Inside rocks were heated with fire and people would gather for warmth, sustenance and yes, for the healing power of the heat. Folk healers would travel from village to village bestowing their inhabitants with ritualistic healing ceremonies.

 

Fast forward a thousand years and the world is abuzz with research on the health benefits of regular sauna use (as well as other forms of thermal bathing). A landmark study published in in 2018 by Dr. Jari Laukkanen from the University of Jyväskylä in central Finland is often credited as the progenitor of professional interest in North America. We too will use this as our jumping off point to highlight its findings and the offshoot studies currently being conducted around the globe.

Is sauna the reason Finns are so good at hockey?

Before we get into the nitty gritty lets touch on some basic aspects of sauna bathing.

 

Sauna makes you sweat. A lot. It would follow then that all this sweating should flush out at least some bad stuff from our bodies. However, a cursory Google search would indicate that a host of medical professionals think otherwise. So be it. We’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind but before you do have a click herefor a different take on the science.

 

One also doesn’t need a medical degree to surmise that prolonged exposure to heat should improve blood circulation and help reduce inflammation. The research evidence is mounting and overwhelmingly suggests sauna can accelerate muscle recovery after exercise. 

 

Many professional sports teams are starting to incorporate sauna into their training regiments both for recovery and performance purposes as it can also improve endurance and VO2max. It might be one of the reasons the Finnish National Ice Hockey Team often tops the world ranking tables. This new study published in the American Journal of Physiology concludes that their findings are indicative of the noteworthy potential that passive heat therapy has. 

 

A final note of introduction before we get into the statistics. Sauna has a sister and her name is Ice. Full name Ice Water and she hates being left out. Hot and cold stimuli work together to invigorate and supercharge the body and a cooling off phase is an indispensable part of healthy sauna bathing. 

 

It is also important to note that any physical benefits garnered from sauna use happen over time and as a result of prolonged, regular sauna use. So make it a habit and the below statistics might apply to you! 

The man who changed it all

Sometimes trends evolve as a reflection of changing social and cultural moods and their origin stories are hard to pinpoint. And then sometimes the evolution of trends has an inflection point that is impossible to ignore. Analyzing sauna’s rising prominence as an important tool in North America’s modern health tool kit, it is a case of the latter over the former. 

 

In 2018 Dr. Jari Laukkanen out of the University of Eastern Finland published his seminal work on the health effects of sauna bathing. His findings were expansive: the clinical study was conducted over 20 years and is widely recognized as the precursor to today’s Google results for “sauna health benefits”.

 

The findings below are for a cohort of 2000 men who used sauna 4-7 times per week as compared to a cohort of men who only used sauna once a week (I’m assuming he couldn’t find enough subjects in Finland who used sauna zero times per week). For the purposes of this website, we will only touch on the key findings. Additional resources are included at the bottom of this writeup. 

Below are the statistical highlights for the control group (these are NOT typos).

  1. 40% reduction in all-cause mortality.

  2. 50% reduction in risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases.

  3. 65% reduction in risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

  4. 66% reduction in risk of developing dementia.

  5. 77% reduction in risk of developing psychotic disorders. 

Duration and Temperature

For the aforementioned study, saunas were typically heated to at least 79C with an average duration of 15 minutes with 1-3 rounds per session. Rounds lasting 19 minutes or more produced more robust protection against mortality than rounds lasting 11-18 minutes.

Author’s note: my normal practice involves a 30-minute first round at 100C followed by 5 minutes of cold water immersion (usually in 5-10C water) followed by 5-10 minutes of fresh air recovery and then subsequent rounds of 15-5-5 for approximately 2 hours total. I do this 3-5 times per week. 

Additional Benefits

Hormesis

Hormesis is the phenomenon whereby the body is exposed to short, intermittent bursts of stressors that can trigger cellular responses that enhance overall health, slow aging, and make you more resilient to future stress. 

 

Sauna use has been shown to mimic the effects of exercise on the body – causing increased core body temperature, sweating, and increased heart rate.  

In short, hit the sauna, get a workout.

Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia is the state of elevated core body temperature. Normal body temperature ranges from 36.1C to 37.2C. A 30-minute sauna round can temporarily increase your body temperature by 1 to 2C.

 

When the body’s core temperature reaches fever level hyperthermia (38C+) the body signals for the production of additional white blood cells to combat what it thinks is a fever state. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system and help ward off infection and other diseases. 

 

In short, get nice and hot in the sauna, receive an immune system boost!

 

Hyperthermia therapy has also been found to be effective in treating cancer and depression.

Heat Shock Proteins 

Heat shock proteins (HSPs) are a group of proteins that help protect cells from stresses such as heat, cold, and low amounts of oxygen. They exist in all life forms. Increased levels of HSPs have shown to aid in the prevention of serious neurological conditions, as well as other chronic autoimmune disorders. 

 

Exposure to sauna heat causes an increase in the levels of HSPs. Benefits from increased levels of HSPs include:

 

  • Repair of damaged proteins

  • Increased immune response

  • Faster muscle recovery and repair

  • Heart protection

 

In short, have a sauna, recover faster!

Summary

There may be many significant health benefits from prolonged, regular sauna use. They include:

 

  • Immune system boost

  • Flushes toxins

  • Increases blood flow

  • Improves heart health

  • Muscular repair and recovery

  • Stress relief

  • Sleep aid

  • Burns calories

  • Cleanses skin

  • Fights illness

  • Reduces inflammation

  • Increased longevity!

Resources

 

https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(18)30275-1/fulltext

https://saunainternational.net/the-emerging-science-of-saunas/

https://www.foundmyfitness.com/episodes/medcram-sauna

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0531556521002916

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