A Unique Activity That Provides Mind and Body Comfort: Benefits of Sauna
When you’re staying at a resort for a ski weekend or booking a rental in the mountains, having a hot tub and a sauna feels like the ultimate luxury. After putting your body to work crisscrossing down the slopes or hiking for miles, there’s no denying that saunas make us all feel good. The heat releases tension, soothes muscles, and helps you sweat out any lingering stress.
But do saunas offer real health benefits, or are they a relaxing (sometimes expensive) treat that most of us don’t get to experience regularly in our daily lives?
We asked Mahmud Kara, M.D., internal medicine doctor, functional medicine specialist, and founder of KaraMD about the health benefits of saunas, different types of saunas available, and more.
What exactly is a sauna?
When you imagine a sauna, you might instantly picture yourself sweating it out in a wooden enclosure, surrounded by snow outside—ideally in Finalnd. And you would be right—generally speaking, Dr. Kara says saunas are enclosed rooms that use dry heat from sources like hot rocks to raise the temperature without raising the humidity.
Saunas vary in size and set-up and can be found in multiple locations, including gyms, spas, or even personal saunas for at-home use. Dr. Kara says there are a variety of sauna types.
Types of Saunas
Electric: Electric saunas typically use an electric heat source, like a stove top, to raise the temperature of large rocks or stones. They then retain heat without lifting the humidity of a room.
Wood-burning: Dr. Kara says a wood-burning sauna is similar to an electric sauna, but more of the traditional version of a sauna that uses wood to heat the stones or rocks. These often omit the fragrance of a fireplace, creating an even more cozy, sensory experience.
Infrared: Dr. Kara says this tech-focused type of sauna is a more modern approach that uses infrared waves to heat the body directly rather than an entire room. Many infrared saunas look like an old-school tanning bed or a sleeping bag to lock in the heat.
Steam: Also called ‘steam rooms,’ steam saunas typically use a generator or machine that boils water, turns it into steam, and releases it into an enclosed room.
Smoke: This type of sauna functions like a wood sauna, except there is no chimney, so the smoke fills an enclosed area, Dr. Kara explains. Then, once the room reaches the desired temperature and comfort level, the fire that produces the smoke is put out.
Sauna Health Benefits
Whether you go the classic wood-burning sauna or the modern infatuated sauna route, is this luxury experience truly beneficial for our health? Or are they merely a high-end way to chill out?
A little bit of both, actually, according to Dr. Kara. Saunas have been studied and found to impact our health in many ways. A huge factor: Saunas make you sweat, and normal sweating is extremely healthy for everything from natural detoxification, skin health and hydration, heart health, and boosting happiness hormones.
Saunas promote relaxation and help relieve stress
With chaotic, overbooked, busy work and personal schedules, most people feel pushed to their limits and close (if not at) to burnout levels. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies internally and externally, and saunas have been shown to reduce stress build-up by helping us relax.
Saunas benefit cardiovascular health.
Finnish research found that subjects who frequented saunas four to seven times per week had lower sudden cardiac death, lower fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality, compared to those who took saunas one, two, or three times per week. Results from another prospective cohort study out of in Eastern Finland suggested that regular sauna bathing was associated with reduced risk of hypertension.
Saunas may help reduce chronic inflammation.
If you’re wondering how to lower chronic inflammation in your system and get back to feeling like your best self, you might want to hit the sauna. A growing body of research shows promising effects of frequent sauna-bathing on several markers of acute and systemic inflammation, including helping to lower something called C-reactive protein, a leading biomarker of systemic inflammation.
Saunas can ease joint and muscle tension.
One of the reasons ski resorts have hot tubs, saunas, and/or steam rooms is purely based on science: heat plays a factor in helping our bodies release muscle tension and the aches and pains that come with fitness-related exertion. Furthermore, Dr. Kara says saunas help relax the blood vessels and dilate them, which is essential for increasing blood flow and can help with recovery after exercise and cardiovascular health.
Saunas may help remove toxins from the body.
Dr. Kara says research also suggests that saunas may be effective for toxin removal as one of the ways the liver and kidneys excrete toxins is through sweat.
When and how often should you be in a sauna?
Before using a sauna, Dr. Kara says it is always best to consult your medical professional because everyone’s body is different, and certain medical conditions may make saunas ineffective or hazardous.
Once your physician clears you, use a sauna in small increments and work your way up as your body becomes more comfortable with the heat. Generally speaking, The American College of Sports Medicine and the North American Sauna Society recommends five to ten minutes for beginners and 15 to 20 minutes at maximum for regular users.
Dr. Kara says the best time to use a sauna ultimately depends on the specific health goals or needs. For example, some people may choose to use a sauna in the morning to wake up and prepare for the day, and some anecdotal reports show that this may even help with improved mental clarity and reduced stress during the day. However, since saunas have been linked to improved muscle recovery and circulation, others may choose to use a sauna directly after exercise or physical exertion.
“Ultimately, it comes down to what you are using the sauna for to determine the best time to use it,” he says. “If you are looking for muscle recovery, then using a sauna directly after a workout is a great option, but if you’re looking to reduce stress and prepare for the day, it might be better to use a sauna right when you wake up.”
You don't have to like saunas to get similar benefits elsewhere.
According to Dr. Kara, saunas are beneficial for our health, but only if you enjoy the experience. There are often two schools of people when it comes to a spa-like experience: those who indulge every second, and those who feel a little bit trapped or claustrophobic. If you’re in the latter group, there are other ways to reap sauna benefits without literally breaking a sweat.
If you want to relieve tension and muscle fatigue, consider using a foam roller, booking a massage or implementing a stretching routine into your workout plan. If you’re hoping to relieve stress and tension, a hot bath with soothing herbs like lavender or chamomile-infused salts can help.
Sauna Safety and Tips
Dr. Kara says dehydration is one of the more significant risks of using a sauna. Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after using one. “Saunas may also trigger or worsen symptoms of certain conditions like asthma or other breathing conditions because of the dry heat,” he adds.
If you’re pregnant, many OB/GYNs also advise against using a sauna, hot tub, or steam room since it raises your body temperature and amniotic fluid to the degree that could be dangerous for the developing fetus.
Beyond general safety advice for using a sauna, like staying hydrated and limiting your time, Dr. Kara recommends following these general safety tips to ensure the best experience possible:
- Cool down beforehand: Jumping right into a sauna the minute you finish a workout may be tempting, but Dr. Kara recommends giving your body a few minutes to cool down so you don’t feel overheated and end your session early due to discomfort.
- Hydrate before, during, and after: As mentioned, replenish lost fluids and electrolytes (minerals that help your body regulate, circulate, and balance fluids) from all that good sweating.
- Add a cold element to your sauna experience: Pairing your sauna session with a cold treatment like a cold shower can be a great way to enhance your experience.
- Eat before the sauna session: While you want to avoid a big, rich meal before your sauna experience because the heat could cause discomfort, Dr. Kara says a small snack could help you fight potential dizziness from the heat.
- Take a shower: If possible, hop in the shower before using the sauna, so your pores are clear of any dirt and germs when it's time to sweat.
- Forget your phone: Dr. Kara says one of the greatest benefits of saunas is stress reduction during the 10 to 15 minutes of quiet relaxation. This is an ideal time to sit and think peacefully, meditate, try some
- Easy breathing exercises, or strecth lightly (all of which mah-jor stress-busters). So enhance your stress-relieving sauna experience by leaving electronics out of the sauna room.