Saunas have been used for thousands of years and are still popular today. A sauna can help people to unwind and relax, and it may have other health benefits.
Sweating has long been used as a therapy. The Mayans used sweat houses 3,000 years ago, according to Harvard Health Publications. In Finland, saunas have been used for thousands of years, and 1 in 3 Finns still use them. In the United States, there are thought to be over a million saunas. The main benefits proposed for saunas are for relaxation and cardiovascular health.
In recent years though, they have become a hot wellness trend, reportedly offering a laundry list of benefits related to weight loss and detoxification. You can now easily find saunas in several gyms and community centers. In fact, you can even buy one for home use. However, a sauna may not be suitable for everyone.
What Is A Sauna and How Different Types Work?
A sauna is defined as a room that’s heated to temperatures between 65.6ºC and 90.6ºC. Finnish-style saunas are considered “dry,” while Turkish style saunas have lots of steam. People typically spend around 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna.
The most common types of saunas are:
Wood-burning stoves are used to heat sauna rocks. Temperatures are high and humidity is low.
Electrically Heated Sauna
An electric heater mounted on the floor or wall is used to heat the room. Temperatures are high and humidity is low.
You might also know these as “Turkish bathhouses.” Temperatures are low and humidity is high, at 100 percent.
Infrared saunas differ from regular saunas in that they aim to raise your body’s core temperature via light waves, whereas traditional saunas work by heating the room you’re in.
As the body absorbs the infrared heat, it boosts your cardiovascular and lymphatic temperature.
Theoretically, infrared saunas are meant to penetrate the skin and burn fat, heating you up so that your body has to work harder to cool off. By increasing metabolic demands, you’re going to burn more calories.
How Does Sauna Help You Lose Weight?
1. Water Weight Loss
The most immediate benefit of a sauna is water weight loss. Because the intense heat makes you sweat, you’ll lose excess water stored in your body. You can lose up to five pounds in a single session but, as you rehydrate, most of the weight will come back. However, if you need to shed a couple of pounds quickly, a sauna can help. For instance, if you need to drop a couple of pounds for a job, insurance or sports weigh-in or if you need to fit into a snug dress for an event, a sauna offers a quick trim down.
The heat of the sauna makes you sweat more, which helps you get rid of toxins easily (1). But, for most people, our everyday activities don’t generate enough sweat to seriously purge out these unhealthy substances. Sweating helps flush out heavy metals such as lead, zinc, copper, nickel, and mercury that can be absorbed through foods or environmental factors (2).
Detoxification clears out the lymphatic system and helps your body burn fat more effectively, gives you more energy for exercise and can speed up weight loss.
3. Increased Metabolism
Reduced stress, inflammation, and toxins help improve your metabolic rate (3, 4). When you’re exposed to intense heat or cold, your body has to work harder and your heart rate will increase by up to 30%. This boosts your metabolism – the rate at which you burn calories. Experts estimate that the high heat of a sauna, around 150 degrees, will boost your metabolic rate by roughly 20%. This effect will last while you are in the sauna and for a couple of hours afterward. To keep the fat burning effects going, try to work up to a 30-minute sauna every day.
4. Stress Reduction
Stress is a known cause of weight gain and a barrier to weight loss. Tension not only encourages you to eat but increases the production of cortisol which makes your body crave calories and makes it tougher to shed pounds. A sauna can be described as the most relaxing bath. Basking in it helps you get into a meditative state, reduce stress and can release endorphins – the happy hormones that counteract cortisol (5). Those with lower stress levels are less likely to overeat and more likely to engage in healthy activities.
5. Aids Muscle Recovery
Many athletes rely on sauna to help their muscles recover from a strenuous workout or exertion. A study confirms that sauna before exercise helps improve muscle function and reduces sensory impairment (6).
6. Increased Exercise Capacity
One of the barriers to effective exercise is your breathing capacity. Time spent in the sauna can help reduce the effects of respiratory problems, increase respiratory function and can increase the production of the vasodilator nitric oxide. Vasodilators dilate blood vessels which increases blood flow. This can improve your exercise capacity meaning you can work out more intensely or for longer which, naturally, leads to increased weight loss.
A study found that sauna bathing helped runners improve running time or endurance or stamina by 32% (7).
Other Health Benefits of Using Sauna
1. Improves Heart Function And Circulation
The high temperatures in the sauna allow your heart rate to increase. This, in turn, improves blood circulation, skin health, sleep, and immunity (5).
The reduction in stress levels when using a sauna may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.
One study, conducted in Finland, followed 2,315 men ages 42 to 60 over the course of 20 years. Findings suggested that people who use a sauna may have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (8).
Of the participants in the study, a total of 878 died from cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, or sudden cardiac death. Participants were categorized by how often they used a sauna, including once a week, two to three times a week, and four to seven times weekly.
After adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors, increased sauna use was linked with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular-related diseases.
Participants who used the sauna two to three times a week were 22 percent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those who only used it once a week. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 63 percent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death and 50 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who only used a sauna once a week.
More research is needed to find out if there is a definite link between sauna use and a decrease in deaths from heart disease.
Sauna use may also be associated with lower blood pressure and enhanced heart function.
While studies may be promising, sauna use should not replace an exercise program to keep the heart-healthy. There is more evidence to support the benefits of regular exercise.
2. Helps with Skin Problems and Asthma
A dry sauna dries the skin during use. Some people with psoriasis may find that their symptoms reduce while using a sauna, but those with atopic dermatitis may find that it worsens.
People with asthma may find relief from some symptoms as a result of using a sauna. A sauna may help open airways, loosen phlegm, and reduce stress.
3. Eases Pain
Increased circulation may help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement, and ease arthritis pain.
4. Lowers Blood Pressure
Sauna also helps lower hypertension or high blood pressure (9). But people with low BP and arrhythmia should avoid sauna bathing.
5. Lowers Risk of Alzheimer’s
In 2016, researchers from Finland published findings of a 20-year study that linked sauna use with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (10). The study involved 2,315 healthy men aged 42 to 60 years.
Those who used a sauna 2 to 3 times per week were 22 percent less likely to get dementia and 20 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than those who did not use a sauna. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to get dementia and 65 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than those who used a sauna once a week.
However, the results do not prove that a sauna causes a reduction in risk. It may be that people with dementia do not use a sauna. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
How Many Calories Are Burned In A Sauna?
Here’s an equation you can use to estimate out how many you’re burning:
Number of calories burned in 30 minutes of sitting (specific to your body weight) x 1.5 (possibly x 2) = calories burned
For example, a healthy male of 185 pounds burns 42 calories in 30 minutes of sitting. To find the number that this same individual burns while sitting in a sauna, multiply those calories by 1.5 and 2 in order to get an estimate. In this case, the individual would burn roughly 63 to 84 calories. That’s a huge difference from the 300 to 1000 estimate!
Are There Any Risks Involved?
Extreme heat makes your body sweat. When you sweat, you lose fluids. If you lose more fluid than what you’re taking in, you can become dehydrated. There is a risk of getting dehydrated from being in a sauna.
Evidence showed that the average person loses about 1 pint of fluid during a short time in the sauna (11). However, if you drink enough water before, during, and after your time in the sauna, you will replace fluids lost by sweating. Also, add a pinch of salt to your drinking water before or after your sauna bath to rebalance the electrolytes (12).
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. It’s important to pay attention to your body and drink plenty of fluids if you use a sauna.
Be aware of these signs of mild to moderate dehydration:
- Dryness in the mouth
- Extreme thirst
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Not urinating as frequently as normal
Older adults and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and heart failure, or those who are pregnant, are at a higher risk of becoming dehydrated.
The following precautions are also advised:
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol increases the risk of dehydration, hypotension, arrhythmia, and sudden death (13). A year-long study of people in Finland who experienced sudden death showed that in 1.8 percent of cases, the person had had a sauna within the last 3 hours, and in 1.7 percent of cases, they had done so in the last 24 hours. Many of these had consumed alcohol (11).
- Limit time spent in a sauna. Do not spend more than 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. First-time users should spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes. As they get used to the heat, they can slowly increase the time to about 20 minutes.
- Avoid sauna use if ill. People who are ill should also wait until they recover before using a sauna. Women who are pregnant or those with certain medical conditions, such as low blood pressure, should ask their doctor before sauna use.
- Supervise children. Children aged 6 and above are safe to use a sauna but should be supervised when doing so. They should spend no longer than 15 minutes in there at one time.
How To Make Sauna Work For Weight Loss?
Sauna is an effective weight-loss method. However, it’s not magic. To make the most of the weight loss benefits associated with a sauna, you should start with 15 to 20-minute sessions a couple of times a week and build up to daily sessions.
The easiest way to do this is to invest in a sauna for your home. That way you can bask after a stressful day, first thing in the morning to purge toxins before you start your day or any time you want to flush out some sweat, recharge your batteries and boost your health and mood.
While the sauna helps you burn fat but does nothing about the muscles. To tone the muscles and prevent sagging, you must gradually incorporate strength training into your workout routine. Since sauna will help improve your stamina, cardio or strength training will not cause as much exertion as it would have without the sauna.
Studies from different countries have found health benefits to regular sauna use. For healthy adults, sitting in a sauna at temperatures around 87.8ºC is considered safe. However, if you are pregnant or have other medical conditions, it is best to consult your doctor first.