With commonly used phrases such as “It's like a sauna in here", the general idea of what a sauna actually is can be inferred, but what exactly does sweating in a tiny hot room really do? On our journey of exploring the various modes of self care, new and old, here's what we learned about the sauna and its role in health and wellness.
How it works
A few different options exist but ultimately produce the same effects and offer the same benefits. Dry sauna heats the air around you. Steam saunas heat the air as well but with an added bonus by applying water to a heat source. Infrared uses electromagnetic heat lamps directed towards your body. Operating at a lower temperature of 120-140 degrees Farenheight, the recommended infrared session is up to 30 minutes while a dry or steam sauna is normally limited to 20 minutes.
Research shows that the average skin temperature during a sauna bath reaches 104 degrees within minutes and the pulse rises by 30% or more. With the heart pumping almost double or more per minute, extra blood flows to the skin. A widening of the blood vessels occurs producing improved circulation facilitating many therapeutic benefits all over the body. The intense heat ultimately induces the body’s natural cooling mechanism, sweat.
Anti-Aging and Longevity
Heat is known to stimulate mitochondria or the “the batteries” of our cells, helping the body detoxify and produce more energy. Cell regeneration also slows down the aging process. Heat therapy or hyperthermia has been shown to strengthen the body’s cells and systems in turn improving longevity.
Numerous studies have shown that regular sauna use is linked to cardiovascular health. Even citing that the rise in heart rate during a 30 minute sauna bath is similar to the effects of moderate exercise. Spending time in a sauna regularly can keep the heart healthy by encouraging blood flow, alleviating artery stiffness and lowering blood pressure.
Repeated sauna baths may also improve the performance of athletes or anyone who exercises in general. Studies have shown that heat shock proteins increased by heat therapy help to repair sore muscles after a hard workout mitigating further damage or strains and reducing recovery time.
The feeling of a de-stressed body can lead to the release of endorphins, a feel good hormone, boosting overall mood and emotional health. Frequent sauna users report feeling rejuvenated following their sessions. A feeling that can be attributed to the comforting sensation of heat resulting in improved circulation and the release of endorphins which are known to act as natural painkillers. Both can be connected to the improvement of sleep which in turn reduces stress.
Sauna bathing can also benefit those suffering from rheumatic or inflammation related diseases such as fibromyalgia myalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain or fatigue and ankylosing spondylitis. The body responds to a heated environment in a way similar to physical exercise which elevates heart rate, induces sweat, increases blood flow all resulting in a boost in immune system function and decreased inflammation.
Improves and Relieves Skin Conditions
Patients with certain skin conditions like psoriasis are known to find relief using a sauna. Improved circulation means additional nutrients delivered throughout the skin and body leading to a healthier complexion.
Better Respiratory Function
Another chronic health condition, bronchitis, can be alleviated with the use of heat therapy to help open up airways. It has been shown that sauna bathing can enhance lung capacity to aid in improved breathing functions for adults with respiratory conditions such as asthma.
For its relaxing properties, sauna use has also been linked to healthier brain activity. In fact, several studies have found that frequent sauna bathers have approximately 60% reduced risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
How to Sauna
Hydrate! Seriously, don’t skip this step. The longer you stay in the sauna the more you sweat. According to a Harvard Medical study, the average person expels a pint of sweat during one sauna session. If your body is dehydrated and you start to feel sick or dizzy, don’t hesitate to head for the door. Drink 2-4 glasses of water after your session.
Take a shower before your session to remove any surface contaminants or bacteria. It also protects your body with another layer of hydration.
Depending on your comfort level, it could be a good idea to start in short sessions working your way up to the maximum time. Another option is breaking up a long session with cooling time in between.
Allow your body to gradually cool down after your session. Chill out and enjoy the endorphin rush.
Where can I take a sauna bath?
Check out local day spas, fitness centers or gyms. Some often utilize sauna pre-massage or offer it as part of a package.
A wide range of at home saunas are available for purchase online depending on size and style preferences.
Keep an eye out for mobile saunas popping up in places like Michigan and Moscow. Some are even available as private rentals.
Risks and precautions
It is strongly advised that anyone with uncontrolled HBP, heart disease, abnormal heart rhythm, unstable angina, advanced heart failure or heart valve disease, or if pregnant, please consult with your doctor prior to sauna usage.
Avoid alcohol or any medications before or after your session that may impair sweating.
Be properly hydrated prior to, during and after your session.
Limit 15-20 minutes in a dry or steam room and 30 minutes in the infrared sauna.
After your session, just chill. Cool down gradually.
Another recommendation by physicians: don’t sauna if you’re feeling sick/ill.