By Dr. Mercola
Saunas have a longstanding tradition of use. They're common to many Eastern European countries, as well as Asia. In some countries, such as Finland, you can find them in nearly every home.
Far from being just another way to get squeaky clean, saunas may have a number of additional health benefits. According to an observational study from Finland, frequent sauna goers are less likely to die from heart-related events.
While the cause for such benefits could not be ascertained in this study, there may be a number of potential mechanisms that can provide a significant health boost.
For starters, saunas help you detoxify, and in today's polluted world, that can be really important for your health. It also helps improve blood circulation, and tends to relieve stress and promote relaxation, all of which may translate into better health.
Additionally, sauna therapy places stress on your heart and body that is similar to exercise, which may also account for some of its apparent benefits.
Daily Sauna Decreases Risk of Cardiac Death
The featured study1,2,3,4 included more than 2,300 middle-aged men in eastern Finland, who were followed for about two decades. The frequency of sauna use, and length of time spent in the sauna, correlated with a lowered risk for lethal cardiovascular events.
Sauna use was also associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause, and the more they used the sauna, the better. Men who used the sauna seven times per week cut their risk of death from fatal heart problems in half, compared to those who only used it once each week:
- 10 percent of those who used the sauna just once per week suffered sudden cardiac death during the study
- Eight percent of those who used the sauna two or three times week died in cardiac-related events, and
- Only five percent of daily sauna goers suffered a lethal cardiac event
These findings remained stable even when confounding factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol- and triglyceride levels were factored in. With regards to time, the greatest benefits were found among those who sweated it out for 19 minutes or more each session. As reported by Reuters:5
"About 1,500 men reported using a sauna two or three times per week, 600 said they used the sauna once per week and 200 said they visited the sauna four to seven days of the week. Only 12 men reported not using a sauna at all.
Duration ranged from two to 90 minutes at a time, and the temperature ranged from 40 to 100 degrees Celsius, or 104 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, traditionally at low humidity levels...
'There was an inverse relationship between sauna and (cardiovascular disease) risk, meaning that more is better,' Laukkanen told Reuters...
"On the basis of these results, it seems that more than four sauna sessions per week had the lowest risk, but also those with two to three sauna sessions may get some benefits."
Other Cardiovascular Benefits of Heat Stress
As discussed in my previous article, "Are Saunas the Next Big Performance-Enhancing 'Drug'?," heat stress appears to benefit cardiovascular health. The concept of "hyperthermic conditioning," or "acclimating yourself to heat independent of aerobic physical activity through sauna use," can also boost exercise endurance.
It does this by inducing adaptations in your body that make it easier for you to perform when your body temperature is elevated. Stated another way; as your body is subjected to heat stress, it gradually becomes acclimated to the heat, prompting a number of beneficial changes and adaptations.
These adaptations include increased plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles (which increase athletic endurance) along with increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat-shock proteins and human growth hormone (HGH).
Sauna use combined with exercise may lead to even greater, synergistic increases in HGH as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can prompt the generation of new brain cells. I like to use the sauna after doing my high intensity interval exercises for this reason.
The Different Types of Saunas
There are three basic types of saunas to choose from these days:
- The wet Finnish sauna, where steam is created by throwing water on hot rocks (the heat can be generated by either wood burning or electricity)
- The dry Finnish sauna that uses electrical heating, and therefore does not employ water (these stoves are not made to have water poured on them. Doing so can result in short-circuiting)
- Infrared saunas
The difference between an infrared sauna and the traditional Finnish-style saunas is that the latter heats you up from the outside in, like an oven. The infrared sauna heats you from the inside out.
Infrared Sauna Is a Great Detoxification Tool
The saunas used in the featured study were the former two, which provide dry heat (temporarily elevated humidity levels are generated in the wet sauna by adding water to the rocks). The researchers note that it's unknown whether their findings might apply to infrared saunas as well.
That said, infrared saunas are known for their ability to promote detoxification, as discussed in a previous interview with Dr. Brian Clement, medical director of the Hippocrates Health Institute.
By heating your tissues several inches deep, the infrared sauna can enhance your natural metabolic processes and blood circulation. It also helps oxygenate your tissues. Your skin is a major organ of elimination, but many people do not sweat on a regular basis, thereby forgoing the benefits of this natural detoxification process. Repeated use of the sauna slowly restores skin elimination, which can help reduce your toxic load quite significantly.
As discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu, the mobilization of stored toxins can be further enhanced by taking niacin in conjunction with sauna bathing. Saunas will also help kill off viruses and other disease-promoting microbes in your body. As a general rule, viruses and toxin-laden cells are weaker than normal cells and have poor tolerance to heat. As a result, raising your body temperature can help heal infections more quickly.
General Sauna Recommendations
For all its health benefits, exposing your body to high temperatures should be done with commonsense and caution. If you've never taken a sauna before, start out by spending only a few minutes in there. Try a limit of four minutes when first starting out. Then, for each subsequent sauna, add about 30 seconds, and slowly work your way up to somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes. The reason for this is because the detoxification process can, in some cases, be severe, depending on your toxic load. General sauna recommendations are as follows:
- Infrared sauna: 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit, for 15-30 minutes
- Regular (Finnish wet or dry) sauna: 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, for 10-20 minutes
Additionally, consider the following safety tips at all times:
Avoid using a sauna by yourself; always sauna with a buddy
✓ Always listen to your body when deciding how much heat stress you can tolerate. If you're ill or heat sensitive, decrease the temperature, time spent in the sauna, or both
✓ Do not use a sauna if you've been drinking alcohol
✓ Be sure to drink plenty of pure water before and after your sauna session. To replace electrolytes, add a pinch of Himalayan pink salt, which is rich in natural microminerals
✓ Avoid saunas during pregnancy
✓ You may want to rest either sitting or lying down for about 10 minutes afterward
A Word of Caution About Electrical Saunas
While some still favor old-fashioned wood-burning saunas, the more modern electrical versions and the infrared saunas are the most common today. Unfortunately, this has also led to some problems, namely high electromagnetic radiation. Many are using saunas for detoxification, and it would clearly seem counterproductive to use a device that is aiding one aspect of your health while hurting you in another. In fact, depending on your specific health status, detoxing in a high-EMF environment might actually do you more harm than good.
I previously interviewed Steve Benda, who is trained in power systems and nuclear engineering, about this important issue, and I've included that interview above again for your convenience. Benda actually helped develop a safer, low-EMF infrared sauna, which led to the creation of an entire new generation of shielded saunas. Electromagnetic fields (EMF) can have adverse effects on cellular function, and ideally, you want to avoid EMF exposure as much as possible, not just when you're sitting in a sauna. As explained by Benda:
"Volts generate or emit electric fields. We measure that by volts per distance; that's what our meter will tell us. The other part of that force equation would be the electromagnetic part, which is when a charged particle moves in the wire; meaning current (so you have volts and current). This generates a magnetic field around the wire, and that magnetic field will also impart a force on those same charged particles in your body."
Early electrical saunas, going back nearly 20 years, used ceramic panels to create infrared heat. Later, they began using carbon. Unfortunately, this development actually made saunas less safe, because later-generation carbon panels emit very high EMF levels. You can easily test this by using an inexpensive electrical meter, or a more sophisticated EMF meter like Trifield. Fortunately, there are now patented technologies that effectively eliminate electric fields in the sauna, and I would urge you to consider one of those models if you're thinking about adding a sauna to your home.
Sauna Bathing Can Be an Excellent Addition to a Healthy Lifestyle
It's virtually impossible to avoid exposure to heavy metals and toxic chemicals today. Using a sauna—infrared ones in particular—can be a very helpful method to detoxify your body on a regular basis. The dry, warming energy created by infrared saunas is highly compatible with the human body. By heating your tissues several inches deep, it helps enhance metabolic processes and facilitate healing. Just remember that virtually all of these benefits could be effectively cancelled out if your sauna is emitting very high EMFs, so please, do take the time to evaluate your sauna, and make sure to purchase a low-EMF version if you're buying new.
Also remember that saunas work best when integrated into a comprehensive healthy lifestyle program, which includes eating a healthy diet—ideally organic and/or locally grown without pesticides—exercising, and avoiding toxic exposures. Last but not least, if you're having trouble sleeping, using the sauna shortly before bedtime can be enormously beneficial, as it tends to make you drowsy and facilitates falling asleep quickly.