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Are Saunas Good for You? Understanding the Benefits vs. the Risks

You may have heard that stepping into a hot sauna after a session at the gym can be relaxing and detoxifying for your body.

For hundreds of years, Scandinavians have been using saunas for their alleged benefits of cleansing, relaxation, and weight loss. Sauna use in Scandinavian countries starts in early childhood.

Current research about the benefits of saunas is mixed. If you’re considering adding the sauna to your health and wellness routine, make sure to evaluate your specific health needs first.

You might be wondering what the difference is between a sauna and a steam room. Both types of rooms are used to promote sweating, but they use different types of heat to accomplish it.

Saunas use dry heat produced from a stove or hot rocks to escalate the room’s temperature up to 195°F (90.5°C) with very low humidity.

On the other hand, steam rooms involve moist heat. They operate at lower temperatures, usually around 110 to 120°F (43 to 49°C) and 100 percent relative humidity.

The benefits of saunas
When you enter a sauna, your skin temperature rises, your pulse rate soars, and your blood vessels become more dilated. This happens as your heart begins to pump more blood. Of course, you also begin to sweat. There are a few benefits to this experience.

Relaxation
SaunasTrusted Source have been traditionally used to produce a feeling of relaxation. As your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels dilate, there’s an increase in blood flow to the skin. Saunas may also improve blood circulation.

Your sympathetic nervous system becomes more active in order to maintain a temperature balance in your body. Your endocrine glands begin to get involved in this response.

Your body’s reaction to the heat can make you more alert and less perceptive to pain, and it can possibly give you a feeling of joy. The heat relaxes your muscles, including those in your face and neck. These muscles are often tense after a long day.

This relaxation effect is one of the biggest benefits of using a sauna. To add to the relaxation, you can practice meditation while in the room. When you soothe your body physically, often the mind and the emotions follow suit. The effect is long lasting and may even help you get a better night’s sleep.

Pain relief
Using a dry sauna can leave people feeling energized. Since the blood vessels relax and dilate in a sauna, blood flow increases, and the experience can help reduce tension in the joints and relieve sore muscles.

Saunas might also help those with chronic pain and arthritis.

An older 2008 study in people with chronic musculoskeletal diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, discovered that sauna sessions improved pain, stiffness, and fatigue over the course of 4 weeks.

One 2019 studyTrusted Source found that saunas are beneficial for lower back pain.

While all patients in that study reported some benefits, the improvements were not found to be statistically significant. The authors recommend that patients with these conditions undergo a couple of trial sessions to see whether sauna use improves their symptoms before incorporating it as part of their treatment routine.

Risks of using saunas
Dehydration
Be sure to drink plenty of water before and after using a sauna. Don’t spend long periods of time in the sauna, as prolonged periods increase your risk of dehydration.

Severe dehydration is a medical emergency. You should leave the sauna immediately if you:

feel dizzy or lightheaded
have a headache
get very thirsty
Complications of severe dehydration include:

low blood pressure
heat exhaustion or heat stroke
kidney failure
hypovolemic shock
seizures
unconsciousness
coma
After your sauna session, drink plenty of water to rehydrate your body.

Weight loss
Saunas aren’t effective for weight loss because the only weight lost is fluid weight, and your body will replenish the lost fluid as soon as you eat or drink.

In other words, as soon as you drink water, you’ll gain the weight back. It may be better to try to maintain a moderate weight with a balanced diet and regular physical activity.

Toxins
The liver and kidneys are the primary organs responsible for removing toxins from the body. But some research has demonstrated that sweating during a sauna session may release toxins from the body or skin.

A 2019 reviewTrusted Source found that some toxins present in sweat. However, the amount found did not make it clear that sweat is an effective detoxifier.

Sweating has long been recommendedTrusted Source as a detoxification remedy in traditional Persian medicine, but more research is needed.

Proper hydration is important for your liver and kidneys to function properly. Make sure to drink plenty of water to replenish lost fluids after using the sauna. Let your liver and kidneys do the work.

Fertility
Research has found an association between sauna use and loss of fertility in men. A 2018 studyTrusted Source in Finnish men who underwent two 15-minute sauna sessions per week for 3 months found that the use of saunas had a significant negative effect on their production of sperm.

However, the effect was found to be reversible. More research is needed to understand the impact of saunas on fertility, especially in men who already have low sperm counts or other issues with fertility.

When to avoid saunas
Certain health conditions are not compatible with saunas or steam rooms. Be sure to check with a doctor before using a sauna if you have any of the following conditions:

asthma or other breathing conditions
heart disease
pregnancy
epilepsy
very high or very low blood pressure
people under the influence of alcohol
those taking stimulants, tranquilizers, or other mind-altering drugs
Next steps
Current evidence suggests that there are both benefits and risks of using saunas. Saunas are generally safe for individuals in good overall health. There’s little evidence to show that saunas have health benefits beyond relaxation and a general feeling of well-being.

While many people use saunas as part of a health-promoting lifestyle, what’s best for you may not be what’s best for someone else.

When used in combination with a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and plenty of water, saunas may help you:

relieve minor pain and muscle aches
relax and sleep better
improve blood circulation
If you want to use a sauna to relieve some stress, it’s important to remember that high temperatures for long periods of time can actually put a strain on the body. Aim for 15-minute sessions at first, and work your way up to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time.

Before entering the sauna, remove:

jewelry
eyeglasses
contact lenses
anything metallic
If you feel dizzy, unwell, or develop a headache while in a sauna, leave immediately and cool down. Make sure to rehydrate with a couple of glasses of water after using a sauna.