What could be more relaxing than sitting in a sauna after a workout or simply to unwind? Sitting in a sauna certainly feels good, but doing so could actually slow the aging process or help you live longer? It’s an intriguing idea but one that has some science behind it.
One country where sitting in a sauna is common is in Finland. The Finnish realize that sitting in a sauna is a way to ease stress and the residents believe doing so is good for the health – and they may be right. Here’s what science says, so far, about sauna bathing.
What Science Says about Saunas
Are the health benefits of saunas scientifically proven? Let’s look at what research shows. In one study, researchers followed 2,300 healthy Finnish men for twenty years, they found some surprises. Those who bathed in a sauna regularly were less likely to die over the two decades they were tracked and the reduction in death was proportional to how often they sat in a sauna. For example, 49% of the guys who sauna bathed once weekly died while only 31% of those who sat in a sauna 4 to 7 times weekly died over that period. Although this doesn’t necessarily show cause and effect, there are some reasons to believe that relaxing in a sauna does, indeed, have health benefits.
Beyond the relaxational benefits of sitting in a sauna, the heat your body feels in a sauna may be beneficial for your heart. Studies have linked sitting in a sauna with a reduction in blood pressure. For example, a study published in American Journal of Hypertension found that Finnish men who spent 4 to 7 days per week in a sauna had blood pressure that was 50% lower than those who only sauna bathed once per week.
Plus, time spent in a sauna seems to improve endothelial function, the ability of a blood vessel to dilate. When a blood vessel relaxes more easily, it lowers blood pressure and the heart doesn’t have to work as hard. In fact, some research links sauna bathing with a drop in the risk of dying from any type of cardiovascular event. That’s a compelling reason to sit in a sauna, especially if it relaxes you.
What about steam rooms, hot tubs, or even a hot bath? It’s not clear whether these have the same benefits as a Finnish sauna. Residents of Finland often have a sauna in their home. They’re typically wood-lined rooms heated by a stove with stones on top. They deliver dry heat in the range of 176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s common for a Finnish individual to sit in a sauna at least once per week.
Other Health Benefits of Saunas
We should all be concerned about our metabolic health and our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Can sitting in a sauna make a difference? An interesting study showed that exposing your body to heat, including a sauna or hot bath, helps improve insulin sensitivity, making it easier for cells to take up glucose. In turn, this may help with blood sugar control.
In mice, exposure to conditions comparable to sitting in a sauna increased the number of receptors, called GLUT4 receptors, that take up glucose. Therefore, saunas, or even hot baths, may have benefits for people with diabetes. However, if you have diabetes talk to your doctor before spending time in a sauna or hot bath.
Controlled exposure to heat itself may have benefits, based on research. Heat exposure creates enough stress to activate heat shock proteins. Activation of these proteins may enhance the body’s ability to repair cellular damage that contributes to aging. We call this a “hormetic” response, meaning mild stress causes the body to adapt in a way that makes it more resilient to further stress. It’s an example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That’s one reason exercise has such profound health benefits. It places the body under controlled stress and it adapts and becomes stronger and more capable of handling future stress.
Sitting in a Sauna After a Workout
Hitting a sauna after a workout is soothing to the muscles you just worked, but there’s also some evidence that sauna bathing helps with muscle hypertrophy. A 1976 study that looked at healthy, Finnish individuals found that sitting in a sauna boosted growth hormone levels. In fact, the subjects had growth hormone levels that were 140% higher after a sauna session as opposed to before. Plus, improvements in insulin sensitivity may help with muscle hypertrophy and control of body weight as well.
Sitting in a sauna might boost your mood as well since some studies suggest that sauna bathing boosts the release of beta-endorphins, the same chemicals that researchers believe cause runner’s high. At the very least, the warmth of a sauna is relaxing and can help ease stress. The heat is particularly beneficial for sore, stiff muscles and there’s some evidence that regular sauna bathing reduces other types of pain, including the discomfort of fibromyalgia. One study found that saunas may reduce the intensity of chronic headaches.
Types of Saunas
Traditional saunas use hot rocks or heating elements, while infrared saunas use wavelengths of light that aren’t visible to the eye to directly heat your body when you sit in a sauna. As a result, the heat penetrates deeper. Some people believe that infrared saunas are better, but the studies discussed above were carried out on people who sat in traditional saunas that use hot rocks or heating elements.
The Bottom Line
If you have access to a sauna, give sauna bathing a try, but don’t do too much too quickly. Start with only a few minutes and gradually increase the amount of time as your body adapts to the heat. Twenty minutes a few times a week is enough to offer health benefits. If you have medical conditions or take medications, talk to your doctor first – and don’t forget to stay well hydrated!
Harvard Health Publishing. “Sauna use linked to longer life, fewer fatal heart problems”
Science Daily. “Frequent Sauna Bathing Keeps Blood Pressure in Check”
American Journal of Hypertension, Volume 30, Issue 11, 1 November 2017, Pages 1120–1125.
Med Hypotheses. 2009 Jul;73(1):103-5. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.12.020.
Ann Clin Res. 1976 Aug;8(4):266-71.
J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Feb;21(2):103-9.