Beneficial to health, or a load of hot air? We take a look.
By Annie Hayes
Unwinding in the dry heat of a sauna after an invigorating swim is one of life’s little luxuries, and it’s also said to be great for your health. So-called heat therapies have long been seen as healing and restorative – the oldest Finnish saunas date back around 2,000 years – and are associated with all manner of health claims.
But is the experience actually good for you, or are sauna health benefits just a load of hot air? We examined the existing sauna health benefits and asked Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director for Bupa UK, to share tips for a safe and comfortable sauna experience:
Are saunas good for you?
There are a few different types of saunas: dry saunas, which use hot stones to heat the air in the room; steam saunas, which generate steam by applying water to the heating element, and infrared saunas, which use infrared light to heat your body from within.
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When you step into a sauna, the sudden temperature increase kicks your circulatory, respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems into gear. Some physiological reactions are obvious – e.g. you’ll begin to sweat – while other effects are more subtle, such as your blood vessels dilating.
The changes that take place in the human body during and after having a sauna are thought to be responsible for their associated health benefits.
When you step into a sauna, the sudden temperature increase kicks your circulatory, respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune systems into gear.
Regular sauna bathing stabilises the autonomic nervous system – responsible for bodily functions such as digestion, breathing and heart rate – and stimulates hormonal changes, boosting production of endorphins, which relieve stress and pain, according to researchers from University of Eastern Finland.
Other effects include a reduction in blood pressure, inflammation, oxidative stress, and the circulation of ‘bad’ cholesterol. Incidentally, entering a sauna prompts the same physiological responses as going for a brisk walk (though the two aren’t interchangable!).
Sauna health benefits
There are a variety of health benefits associated with using a sauna regularly. Some relate to everyday occurrences – for example, boosting the recovery process after a workout. ‘The heat encourages your muscles to relax and calms your nerve endings,’ Dr Powles says.‘This can help to reduce joint pain and increase muscle flexibility, which can lead to quicker muscle growth.’
Using a sauna before you go to bed may also help you sleep better, since the heat will prompt your body to reduce your core temperature. It can also have a calming, soothing effect. ‘The heat from saunas can bring on the release of endorphins,’ says Dr Powles. ‘These are feel-good hormones that leave us feeling less stressed and more relaxed.’
Other sauna health benefits refer to the prevention and treatment of diseases and serious conditions. According to a comprehensive literature review on the effects of traditional Finnish saunas, regularly spending time in a sauna has been linked to:
- Reduced risk of high blood pressure
- Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
- Reduced susceptibility to common colds and prevent infections in healthy individuals
- Improved pain and symptoms associated with musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia
- Reduced risk of neurocognitive diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s
- Reduced risk of respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and pneumonia
- Reduced risk of nonvascular conditions, fr0m pulmonary diseases to common flu
- Reduced risk of sudden cardiac death
- Improved headache disorders
- Improved skin conditions, such as psoriasis
- Associated with better health-related quality of life
While the scientific analysis is promising, it’s far too early to say whether these sauna health benefits are as potent as they appear. Many of the studies are observational, so it could be that healthier people are the most likely to use a sauna. Others are very small in scale. Far more research is needed before we can draw any robust conclusions, so don’t go converting your spare room just yet.
‘Further research work in the form of well-designed intervention studies is crucially needed to understand the pathophysiological mechanisms that underlie the associations between sauna bathing and its health benefits, and to establish any causal relevance to the associations and whether these could be translated into clinical benefits,’ the review authors wrote.
How to use a sauna safely
Before entering a sauna, there are a few important things to consider, says Dr Powles. Firstly, you should only ever enter a sauna if you’re feeling fit and well. ‘Listen to your body – if you start to feel unwell at any point, make sure you leave the sauna to safely get some cooler air,’ he says. ‘Don’t use the sauna if you’ve been drinking alcohol, or if you’re taking any medications that affect how you sweat.’
Saunas can reach temperatures up to 85°C, so being sensible about the amount of time you spend in them and keeping hydrated is crucial to reap their health benefits, Dr Powles continues. First-time users should spend no more than five to 10 minutes in the sauna, and build up gradually to around 20 minutes from there.
‘Keep yourself topped up with water to replenish the water you lose through sweating.’
‘Keep yourself topped up with water to replenish the water you lose through sweating – drinking between two and four glasses of cool water each time you visit a sauna can help to rebalance your water levels,’ he says. ‘Only stay in there for a maximum of twenty minutes, and let your body temperature gradually cool down afterwards.’
If you are pregnant, recently suffered a heart attack, have hypertension or low blood pressure, it is advised you avoid using saunas. If you have a medical condition and are concerned about the use of saunas, it is always advised that you speak to your doctor.