Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Using a Sauna
The use of heat and sweat for health, well-being, and ceremony goes back thousands of years in many cultures across the globe.
Recent research is putting scientific backing behind these traditional practices and the modern use of saunas for reducing stress and improving health and mood.
What's in This Article
|1. Origins of the Word Sauna|
|2. Different Types of Saunas|
|3. What Are Saunas Good For?|
|4. Physical Health Benefits of Using a Sauna|
|5. Physical Health Benefits of Using a Sauna Research|
|6. Detoxifying Health Benefits of Sweating|
|7. Exercise vs. Sauna Use|
|8. Mental Health Benefits of Using a Sauna|
|9. Mental Health Benefits of Using a Sauna Research|
|10. When to Avoid Saunas|
|11. How Long to Sit in a Sauna|
|12.Precautions When Using Saunas|
|13. More Resources to Improve Your Mood|
|14. References for Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Saunas|
This article is a summary of research. It is in no way intended to be medical advice. You should always consult with your own doctors and medical care professionals before starting to use saunas.
I may receive a small commission from sales made through links on this page, but it does not impact your cost or my recommendations.
1. Origins of the Word Sauna
Sauna is a Finnish word that has been absorbed into the English language. In fact, it is the only Finnish word commonly used in English.
Saunas are supper common in Finland. Basically, everyone has access to saunas in Finland. For Finns, it’s not so much a question of whether you use a sauna but rather how many times per week you use it.
“The sauna is the poor man’s pharmacy.”
2. Different Types of Saunas
There are 4 types of saunas in common use:
1. Wood Burning Sauna
2. Electrically Heated Sauna
3. Steam Room (Steam Bath)
4. Infrared Sauna
I own an infrared sauna by Sunlighten that I purchased several years ago when I realized that I needed to detoxify from heavy metal exposure. In an upcoming post, I’ll get into more details about infrared saunas, what to look for in an infrared sauna, why I chose a Sunlighten Infrared sauna, and why I’m still impressed with this particular sauna company. For now, if you want to check out Sunlighten, click here.
3. What Are Saunas Good For?
“Research shows what countless cultures already know:
The heating of your body during a sauna session has the obvious benefit of relaxing your muscles and soothing pain.
Your cardiovascular system experiences a work-out similar to moderate exercise while in the sauna. This burns calories and has many potential health benefits.
It appears that sauna use reduces inflammation and oxidative stress. Both of which contribute to many physical and mental health issues.
It may boost the immune system and even give you younger-looking skin.
There are also many potential benefits from sauna-induced sweating. These benefits include detoxifying chemicals and heavy metals.
4. Physical Health Benefits of Using a Sauna
5. Physical Health Benefits of Using a Sauna Research
A 2018 project that was published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reviewed accumulated research on the health benefits of sauna use. The researchers mentioned these physical benefits in their summary of findings (1):
Better health-related quality of life
Muscle pain reduction including in cases of arthritis and fibromyalgia
Increased immunity, i.e. decreased incidence of colds
Heart and vascular health promotion
Reduction of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risk
Reduced headache intensity of chronic tension-headache sufferers
Blood pressure balance
Improved lung function and asthma relief
Improved skin health
For those interested, the Mayo Clinic article also dives into the mechanisms behind sauna benefits. (1)
6. Detoxifying Health Benefits of Sweating
Our bodies are bombarded with exposure to toxic chemicals and heavy metals that negatively impact us physically and have the potential of contributing to depression and anxiety.
Ridding your body of these toxins can improve both your physical and mental health.
There is evidence that sweating is helpful for detoxification of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, for example, here are excerpts from the conclusions of three studies by Canadian researchers:
- A review of 24 articles about the excretion of heavy metals in sweat led to the conclusion: “sweating deserves consideration for toxic element detoxification.”(2)
- An examination of relative levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs, (such as flame retardants) in blood, urine, and sweat “provides important baseline evidence suggesting that regular sessions of induced perspiration may facilitate the therapeutic elimination of PBDEs.” (3)
- “Induced perspiration may be useful to facilitate elimination of some potentially toxic phthalate compounds [plasticizers].” (4)
7. Exercise versus Sauna Use
Exercising is good for your health and saunas are good for your health.
If you are not physically able to exercise, using a sauna regularly might offer a substitute for exercise, as it has been shown to have cardiovascular and calorie-burning results similar to moderate exercise. Though if you are weak or dizzy, you are likely not a candidate for sauna use.
If you are physically able to exercise, then it’s not really a question of should you exercise or sauna: ideally do both. They can be done one right after the other or separately.
From the Mayo Clinic Proceedings review of research article (1):
“Our recent research evidence suggests that a combination of regular physical activity and sauna baths is associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events compared with each modality alone.”
8. Mental Health Benefits of Using a Sauna
The physical improvements experienced because of using a sauna that I mentioned earlier can also help with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Your body impacts your mind and your mind impacts your body.
“Saunas have been traditionally used to produce a feeling of relaxation. The heat helps to relieve physical and emotional tension in your muscles, including your face and neck muscles, by triggering the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxation effect is one of the biggest benefits to using a sauna. When you are relaxed, your energy levels increase, and you sleep better at night — thus, increasing your sense of well-being.”
─Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D.
9. Mental Health Benefits of Using a Sauna Research
As with all natural remedies for mental health issues, there is limited research into the mental health benefits of saunas, but I found a few studies worth noting.
Reduced Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
There is evidence that regular use of saunas reduces both inflammation (5) and oxidative stress (6) within your body. Research has associated high levels of each of these with many physical ailments and also with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression─so it is fair to conclude that reducing inflammation and oxidative stress has the potential of reducing anxiety and depression.
Improved Depression Symptoms and Relaxation after 4 Weeks of Infrared Saunas
A Japanese study of 28 subjects divided into treated and control groups found that 4 weeks of 15-minute 5-times/week treatment in a far-infrared sauna resulted in an improvement in appetite, pain levels, and relaxation in mildly depressed subjects compared to a control group. (7)
6 Weeks of Depression Improvement from Single Infrared Therapy Session
Thirty people with Major Depression not on anti-depressant medication were randomly assigned to 2 groups in a University of Wisconsin-Madison study. The test group received treatment of exposure to far-infrared sauna heat until their core temperature reached 38.5°C (the upper limit temperature for mild-intensity Whole-Body Hyperthermia). The control group experienced a sham “treatment” with conditions that mimicked the test conditions but with only a small amount of heat and no infrared exposure.
Follow-up assessments were conducted on post-sauna days 1, 2, and 3, and weeks 1, 2, 4, and 6.
Compared to the control group, those in the infrared group showed significant reduction in depression throughout the entire follow up period of 6 weeks. (8)
Decreased Pain and Anger in Hospital Patients With 4 Weeks of Daily Infrared Saunas
Half of approximately 40 chronic pain patients receiving cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation, and exercise therapy were also treated with daily far-infrared saunas. Compared to the control group who got all the other treatments but not the saunas, the sauna group had slightly better pain reduction and significantly lower anger scores. The sauna group also had better return-to-work rates than the control group. (9)
Reduction of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk
A long-term study that followed about 2000 healthy Finnish men for 20 years showed that more regular saunas improved their chances of avoiding dementia and Alzheimer’s. The men who had 15-minute sauna sessions 4 to 7 times per week had a 66% and 65% reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease, respectively compared with those who had 1 sauna session/wk. (10)
Global Sauna Survey Results
An online survey of 500 sauna users from around the world that asked 71 questions pertaining to sauna use and perceived health outcomes found that “sauna-bathing participants, particularly those from Finland, Australia and the United States, are motivated to use saunas predominantly for relaxation, reporting health benefits especially around mental well-being and sleep.” (11)
10. When to Avoid Saunas
While it’s always advisable to consult with your doctor before undertaking preventative treatments and natural remedies for physical and mental health, the following conditions are of particular concern regarding the use of saunas:
- acute infections or illness
- breathing conditions
- heart disease
- very high or very low blood pressure
- ingestion of stimulants, tranquilizers, or other mind-altering drugs
11. How Long to Sit in a Sauna
A typical sauna session is 15-20 minutes long. You may have noticed that the study that showed such impressive results in dementia and Alzheimer’s reduction from regular sauna use noted 15-minute sessions.
Listen to your body. Don’t stay in long enough to get dizzy and if you do begin to feel light-headed, safely get out of the sauna.
Start out with relatively low heat and short sessions to get used to it. You can increase both temperature and time during subsequent sessions.
12. Precautions When Using Saunas
When you use a sauna:
• Drink lots of water before, during, and after your sauna session.
• Never consume alcohol before, during, or shortly after sauna sessions.
13. More Resources to Improve Your Mood
You may also enjoy this post about natural ways to relieve anxiety and lift mood: 15 Ways to Manage Stress and Reduce Anxiety.
I've also written a book explaining what happens in your body when you are stressed, and how to use food and supplements to relieve anxiety and increase stress resilience, Feed Your Calm: Anti-Anxiety Anti-Stress Diet and Supplement Tips for Stress Resilience.
No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other medical professionals.
1) Laukkanen, J. A., Laukkanen, T., & Kunutsor, S. K. (2018). Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 93(8), 1111–1121. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.04.008 https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(18)30275-1/fulltext
2) Sears, M. E., Kerr, K. J., & Bray, R. I. (2012). Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. Journal of environmental and public health, 2012, 184745. doi:10.1155/2012/184745 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312275/
3) Genuis, S. K., Birkholz, D., & Genuis, S. J. (2017). Human Excretion of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether Flame Retardants: Blood, Urine, and Sweat Study. BioMed research international, 2017, 3676089. doi:10.1155/2017/3676089 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5360950/
4) “Induced perspiration may be useful to facilitate elimination of some potentially toxic phthalate compounds” Genuis, S. J., Beesoon, S., Lobo, R. A., & Birkholz, D. (2012). Human elimination of phthalate compounds: blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study. TheScientificWorldJournal, 2012, 615068. doi:10.1100/2012/615068 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3504417/
5) Inflammation: Laukkanen, J. A., & Laukkanen, T. (2017). Sauna bathing and systemic inflammation. European Journal of Epidemiology, 33(3), 351–353. doi: 10.1007/s10654-017-0335-y
6) Oxidative stress: Fujita, S., Ikeda, Y., Miyata, M., Shinsato, T., Kubozono, T., Kuwahata, S., … Tei, C. (2011). Effect of Waon Therapy on Oxidative Stress in Chronic Heart Failure. Circulation Journal, 75(2), 348–356. doi: 10.1253/circj.cj-10-0630
7) Masuda, A., Nakazato, M., Kihara, T., Minagoe, S., & Tei, C. (2005). Repeated Thermal Therapy Diminishes Appetite Loss and Subjective Complaints in Mildly Depressed Patients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(4), 643–647. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000171812.67767.8f
8) Clemens W. Janssen et al. Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder, JAMA Psychiatry (2016). DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1031
9) The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. (2005). Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 58(6), 16–17. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2005.06.018
10) Laukkanen, T., Kunutsor, S., Kauhanen, J., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2016). Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimers disease in middle-aged Finnish men. Age and Ageing, 46(2), 245–249. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afw212 https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/46/2/245/2654230
11) Hussain, J. N., Greaves, R. F., & Cohen, M. M. (2019). A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 44, 223–234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.03.012
- Ann Silvers