Saunas: Types, health benefits, risks, precautions

Saunas: Types, health benefits, risks, precautions

  • December 31, 2020
  • The traditional Finnish sauna, which takes place in a heated and enclosed wooden room, is the most popular sauna experience worldwide and therefore is what many studies are based on regarding sauna’s health benefits.
  • Sauna use may have a variety of health benefits, including helping the body release toxins, improving the cardiovascular system, and building up the immune system.
  • Frequent sauna use is linked to a decreased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

The first saunas were built 10,000 years ago in Finland. In fact, the word sauna means bath or bathhouse in Finnish. 

Today, saunas are a part of everyday life in Finland and throughout Scandinavia, as well as Russia, South Korea, and other European countries. The practice has been embraced by Americans, too.

Read on to learn more about sauna and its many health and social benefits.

What is a sauna?

There are four types of saunas, according to the North American Sauna Society:

  1. Traditional Finnish sauna: This is what most people think of as a typical sauna experience. It takes place in an enclosed wooden room heated to about 176 to 195 °F (80–110 °C). Water is ladled on rocks to create humidity, at levels between 20-40% for 5 to 10 minutes for beginners and up to 20 minutes for those who are more experienced. 
  2. Dry sauna: A dry sauna is a traditional Finnish sauna without water sprinkled on stones. This keeps the humidity at a low level, usually less than 10%.
  3. Steam bath: Also known as a Turkish bath or hammam, it’s built of glass, tile, or acrylic to seal in humidity. As the humidity is approximately 100%, the space feels warmer, but the thermostat-controlled temperature is usually less than 120 ºF.
  4. Infrared sauna: While infrared sauna also takes place in a wooden room, it uses infrared heat lamps that radiate at lower temperatures, generally between 100 °F – 150 °F, says Shayna Peter, NMD, CNS, LDN, a functional medicine doctor and author of the book It’s Not Just Acne. Infrared saunas are useful for people who have trouble handling higher temperatures.   

All saunas are warm environments, so most people enjoy sitting in them in the nude. You can also wear a bathing suit or towel. 

Sauna benefits

Most science-backed health benefits from saunas are largely based on the Finnish sauna experience, which is the most popular type worldwide. Researchers have found that a Finnish sauna may offer the following benefits:

Flushing toxins: “Sauna sessions induce sweating and increase the excretion of numerous toxins including heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, BPA, flame retardants, phthalates, and more,” says James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, a cardiovascular research scientist and author of several best-selling books, including The Immunity Fix

Improving cardiovascular system: Many studies address this benefit, including a 2015 study showing that frequent sauna use led to fewer cardiovascular-related deaths (CVD). Specifically, CVD death was 27 percent lower for men who used saunas two to three times per week and 50 percent lower for men who took sauna four to seven times a week compared with men who used a sauna once a week. 

Sports endurance: A small 2020 study concluded that 3 weeks of intermittent post-exercise sauna sessions improved sports endurance. Participants increased oxygen utilization by 8%, running speed by 4%, and time to exhaustion by 12%. The study also supported heat tolerance as an avenue of bolstering exercise performance in temperate conditions.

Boosting the immune system: Our body increases the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs) when we go into a sauna. HSPs prevent our bodies from becoming overheated and also stimulate our immune system. The HSPs that are increased during sauna has led to many health benefits. “Studies have shown that sauna bathing has been associated with lower risks of pneumonia, influenza, and the common cold,” says DiNicolantonio.  

Decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: Sauna use can even help brain function. A 2017 study of Finnish men aged 42-60 concluded that using a sauna four to seven times per week reduced the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 65% – 66%.

Improving relaxation: Saunas are well-known for providing relaxation, and the research appears to confirm this effect. One example: In a 2019 global survey, 83.5% of respondents reported sleep benefits after sauna use one to two times per week, as well as increased levels of mental wellbeing.

Sauna risks and precautions

While saunas offer many health benefits, Peter suggests paying attention to the following risks:

  • Dehydration: Hydrate before and after each sauna session. “That’s always a concern due to the increase in sweat production,” says Peter.
  • Time limits: Five to 10 minutes is best for beginners, while experienced sauna users may be able to go up to 15 or 20 minutes. “Start small, spending no more than a few minutes in the sauna, and working up to no more than 20 minutes,” says Peter. 
  • Alcohol use: “Saunas and alcohol do not mix,” Peter tells Insider. Drinking alcohol while using a sauna can lower blood pressure and cause fainting and accidents.
  • Pregnancy: While a 2019 review of studies shows that sauna use in moderation is safe during pregnancy, Peter cautions that those who are pregnant should check with their doctors before using a sauna.
  • Children: Most advice says to limit a child’s exposure to sauna by age. It is generally advised that children aged 6 and above are safe to use a sauna, but should spend no more than 15 minutes at a time and always be accompanied by an adult. “Children have less of an ability to regulate body temperature than adults, so they may need to spend less time in the sauna,” says Peter. 

Insider’s takeaway 

Saunas are known around the world as a great way to relax and spend quality time with friends and family. 

Sauna use may have a variety of health benefits, including helping the body release toxins, improving the cardiovascular system, increasing sports endurance, building up the immune system, and decreasing the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

With the proper precautions, adding sauna sessions to your weekly routine can provide an overall health boost.

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