Some Like It Hot — The Many Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing

sauna health benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • People have been enjoying sauna bathing throughout history and have been experiencing the health benefits as well
  • Research demonstrates saunas may help detoxify your body of heavy metals including cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic
  • Health benefits include longer living, better brain and heart health, increased athletic endurance and reduced pain from fibromyalgia, arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis

By Dr. Mercola

Saunas and sweat lodges have a long history of use in many different societies. From the Nordic countries to Central America, saunas have been used in one form or another for centuries. It's not uncommon for homes in Finland to have built-in saunas, enjoyed by most members of the family on a regular basis.

It should come as no surprise then that this long and illustrious history of heating and sweating also comes with a list of benefits to your health. Heat has a profound effect on your heart, brain and skin, and helps release heavy metal toxins from your body.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body and your sweat glands are one way of cleansing your skin and releasing toxins that build up in your cells. Public infrared saunas are becoming more popular as research continues to uphold benefits to your health.1

Salons catering to sauna bathing are being endorsed by celebrities and enjoyed by athletes. But saunas are not created equally and even the best require strict cleaning protocols between users so you don't absorb toxins from the previous person.

For this reason, I strongly suggest you consider purchasing a sauna for your home to ensure you are not bathing in toxins from the previous user.

Heat, Sweat and Detoxification

Some of the many benefits of intense exercise are also related to the sweat you produce. Sweating in a sauna for an hour can burn almost as many calories as you burn biking for an hour, as the heat increases your metabolic rate.

However, don't count on the sauna to peel off the pounds. You'll also need to adjust your diet and include movement and exercise every day. Besides increasing calorie burning, sweating:

Cleans your pores helping eliminate blackheads and acne

Expels toxins supporting proper immune function and helps prevent diseases related to toxic overload

Kills viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in temperatures above 98.6 F

Helps improve blood circulation

Helps relieve stress and promote mental relaxation

Improves muscle relaxation

Each of these different benefits help to support overall health and wellness. By not sweating on a regular basis you may increase your toxic load over time. Repeated use of a sweat-inducing sauna may slowly restore your skin's ability to eliminate toxins from your body and reduce your toxic load significantly.

 Although downplayed by modern medicine as a means of detoxification, there have been studies demonstrating the value in sweating to increase the excretion of heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury.2 In one such study, sweat generally exceeded plasma or urine concentrations of toxins.

The authors concluded that sweating "deserves consideration for toxic element detoxification,"3 and also determined:4

  • Sweat may be an important route for excretion of cadmium when an individual is exposed to high levels
  • Sweat-inducing sauna use might provide a therapeutic method to increase elimination of toxic trace metals
  • Sweating should be the initial and preferred treatment of patients with elevated mercury urine levels

The Kind of Sauna You Use May Make a Difference

There are different types of saunas on the market today, but they basically fall into two different categories — wet heat and dry heat. A wet sauna heats the air using water and heat, and so it produces steam and humidity. Dry heat saunas don't produce humidity, but either heat the room, or heat your body from the inside out.

A traditional Finnish dry sauna heats the room and therefore your body. An infrared sauna works by penetrating your tissues with infrared rays using lower temperatures. You get hotter, faster and deeper in your tissue than with a traditional dry sauna, but the room does not get as hot.

The sauna you choose will be related to how well you can tolerate the heat of a traditional dry or wet Finnish sauna or if you prefer the lower temperatures of the infrared sauna.

Using an infrared sauna, you may be able to easily work up to 30 to 45 minutes, while a traditional Finnish sauna may be too uncomfortable for that length of time.

There is an emerging amount of science supporting the healing and regenerative capacity of infrared exposure. I am so fascinated with the implications for health that my book for 2018 will be on photobiology. This is the reason why I use my infrared sauna three times a week for 30 minutes at 136 degrees with my detox supplements.

Most all of us could benefit from this practice as even the healthiest of us are regularly exposed to toxins in our existing or previous environments that allowed us to accumulate metabolic poisons and the infrared sauna is the best way I know of to remove them.

Detox supplements likely only need to be used from three to nine months depending on your toxic load.

Sauna Use May Reduce Pain and Increase Longevity

Musculoskeletal System

Individuals suffering from fibromyalgia and Lyme disease have experienced great results from using saunas to reduce discomfort and pain.

In one small study, 13 participants experienced a reduction in pain after the first session and the effect was lasting after 10 treatments with a reported 20 to 78 percent reduction in pain.5

A second study of 44 patients with fibromyalgia found a reduction in pain between 33 and 77 percent. Six months after the study had concluded, the participants continued to report a reduction in pain between 28 and 68 percent.6

Infrared sauna therapy has also demonstrated positive results on patients experiencing rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. After four weeks and eight treatments, pain and stiffness were significantly reduced and improvements were seen in fatigue.7

Compared to traditional saunas, athletes using infrared saunas also report greater recovery from strength and endurance training sessions.8 Athletes report not only acclimating to heat better but also performing better after using an infrared sauna.

Longevity

Sauna therapy has demonstrated benefits for patients with asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).9 Other studies have demonstrated that sauna use reduces the risk of death from any cause, including cardiovascular disease.10

How Your Thyroid, Heart and Head Benefit From Sauna Bathing

Thyroid

Detoxification may benefit thyroid issues. A lack of sweating may indicate an underactive thyroid condition, called hypothyroidism. Symptoms also include constipation, lethargy and dry skin. Your condition may be exacerbated by halides found in baked goods, soft drinks, pesticides, fire retardants and other products.

These halides bind to the same receptors in your thyroid used to capture iodine, necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. This results in a low production of thyroid hormone and symptoms of hypothyroidism. The more you can excrete the halides, and reduce your exposure, the more iodine your body can use to produce thyroid hormones.

Heart

Heat has a profound effect on your circulatory system as well. In one study, researchers found men who used a sauna two to three times each week had a 27 percent lower risk of death from heart disease.11 They also found an inverse relationship between the number of times men visited the sauna and their risk of death. In other words, more was better.

The benefits to your cardiovascular system from sauna use may be related to your body's response to heat including an increased heart rate, dilated blood vessels and relaxation of the smooth muscle lining your blood vessels.

In this study, researchers used a traditional dry Finnish sauna for an average of 20 minutes. Temperatures averaged 79 C (174 F), extremely hot by most standards. Infrared saunas and steam rooms operate at lower temperatures, so outcomes may not be identical, although lower heat may provide similar benefits.

Brain

Scientist Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., has done extensive research on aging, cancer and nutrition. In her work she has studied the effect of stress on the body. Patrick says:12

"When you heat stress, or elevate your core body temperature, it causes a stress response. It activates genes inside your cell so they are doing the best they can and that's really important because proteins get damaged with time and this leads to plaques and things like that in your brain and vascular system. Heat stress helps your proteins stop aggregating in your arteries and your brain."

In response to the heat, your body begins to cool itself down by increasing production of dynorphin. Although it has the opposite effect of endorphins, it sensitizes your brain to endorphins. Exposure to heat also increases production of growth factors, which in turn promote the growth of brain neurons. Using a sauna may be an important strategy to slow or prevent brain aging.

Beware of EMF From Your Infrared Sauna

Unfortunately, many of the newer electronic saunas emit high levels of electromagnetic radiation. You can test the sauna you're using with an inexpensive electrical meter or a more sophisticated Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) meter. In this video, Steve Benda, trained in nuclear engineering and power systems, explains the importance of reducing electromagnetic radiation from your sauna.

Exposure to electromagnetic radiation is a problem, as we are fundamentally electrical beings. In other words, the cells in your body, your heart and your brain communicate with each other through electrical impulses. This is the basis for how an electrocardiogram (EKG) of your heart works. The machine measures the electrical impulses from your heart muscle.

Exposure to an external electrical field may interfere with communication between cells and trigger health issues. Depending upon your current health condition, using a high-EMF sauna may actually do you more harm than good. EMF may have an adverse effect on cellular function, so I would urge you to consider testing the sauna you are currently using or purchasing a sauna with low EMF rating.

Consider These Precautions Before Using a Sauna

Before you jump into the first sauna you can find, there are a few safety factors you'll want to consider:

Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Heat stress or heat stroke are real possibilities from excessive fluid loss. The potential for the effects of significant dehydration are higher when you use a sauna after a hard workout. Carry a water bottle with you and drink frequently. Do not drink alcohol in a sauna as the alcohol and heat may trigger a cardiovascular event.

If you experience a headache after using a sauna or hot tub, you may want to use a cool rag over your head so your body will cool more easily. Your core temperature will still rise, but the experience may be more pleasant for you.13

If you and your wife are trying to have a baby, you'll want to steer clear of the sauna. As your body heat rises, so does the temperature of your testicles, reducing your fertility. This reduces your sperm count and motility (how well sperm swim). The effect is reversible, but can take up to five weeks.14 You'll also want to avoid the sauna during pregnancy as it may cause fetal abnormalities.15

A sauna is supposed to be relaxing and not a torture chamber. Your body is designed to function optimally at 98.6 F (37 C). Raising your core temperature above 104.8 F (40.4 C) is a medical emergency. Staying in a sauna longer than you should, or becoming severely dehydrated, can lead to death. Avoid using a sauna by yourself, always sauna with a buddy.

Steer clear of public saunas that are not thoroughly and carefully cleaned between clients. Remember, saunas detoxify your body of heavy metals, which are released in your sweat. When you enter a sauna that hasn't been cleaned you can potentially absorb the heavy metals and toxins from the previous client through your skin.

Health centers offering sauna therapy have rigorous cleansing protocols in place between each patient, which is something you likely will not find in your local gym or other places offering saunas for public use. Ideally, consider purchasing your own for use at home.

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