Sauna for Your Heart, Health, and Happiness

02/16/2023 | 6 min. read

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For the past five years, Finland has ranked #1 in the World Happiness Report, an annual survey of people in more than 150 countries sponsored by the United Nations.

Finland has abundant natural beauty, low levels of crime, excellent education and healthcare systems, long life expectancy, and widespread trust in government. It also has a lot of saunas—an estimated 2.5–3 million for a population of 5.5 million—and most Finns reportedly enjoy a sauna at least once a week.

It may be a stretch to include Finland’s sauna culture as a factor in their happiness. But ask any sauna fan, myself included, and we’ll tell you that sitting in a sauna is an excellent way to wind down, relax, clear your mind, and reduce stress. And if it’s a communal experience, as it often is in Finland, sauna also strengthens social bonds and friendships.

Better yet, the benefits of sauna go beyond enhancing your sense of well-being. Regular use of a sauna also improves many aspects of your health.

Sauna and Heart Health

Sauna is great for your cardiovascular system. In fact, it mimics some of the effects of mild-to-moderate exercise. Exposure to heat increases your heart rate and cardiac output (the volume of blood your heart pumps). It dilates your blood vessels and improves blood flow throughout your body.

What’s really exciting is that these short-term effects can, over time, provide lasting cardiovascular benefits. Here’s a smattering of research findings:

  • Lower blood pressure: Regular sauna use is linked with a reduced risk of hypertension.

  • Better endothelial function: Repeated sauna sessions enhance the function of the endothelium, the lining of the arteries that protects the blood vessels and plays a key role in regulating blood pressure.
  • Improvements in heart failure: A small study of patients with serious congestive heart failure found that four weeks of daily saunas improved blood pressure and ejection fraction (a measure of the heart’s pumping ability). Another study reported improvements in exercise capacity and endothelial function.
  • Increased heart rate variability: Sauna has been shown to improve this often-overlooked marker of both heart health and resilience to stress.
  • Reduced risk of death: In a large, long-term study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Finnish researchers found that men who used a sauna two or three times a week had a 27% lower risk of death compared to those who used them only once a week. More frequent use conferred even greater protection.

Sauna Enhances Detoxification

Sitting in a hot sauna obviously makes you sweat, and sweating has long been recognized as a safe and effective means of detoxification. Sweating also stimulates the lymphatic system, a part of the immune system that transports and removes toxins and waste products from the body.

Arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and nickel—which we all harbor in our bodies to some degree—are among the toxins that can be released through sweat. Studies have also shown that sauna, along with other therapies, resulted in significant improvements in patients with multiple chemical sensitivities, mold exposure, or a history of alcohol or substance abuse.

Sauna Relieves Muscle Soreness, Speeds Recovery

Although home saunas are increasingly popular in the US, they have long been a standard in health clubs and gyms.

Athletes like saunas because heat loosens up tight muscles and improves recovery time after strenuous workouts. Like exercise, it triggers the release of endorphins, which are sometimes referred to as the body’s natural painkillers, so it helps relieve muscle soreness as well.

As for other types of pain, small studies suggest improvements in low back pain and pain related to fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.

Even More Benefits of Sauna

A comprehensive review of scientific studies by Finnish researchers published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports that repeated use of sauna has been shown to benefit the following conditions:

  • Dementia: Regular sauna use has been linked with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.
  • Lung problems: Sauna improved breathing in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and chronic bronchitis. One study suggested a decreased risk of pneumonia.
  • Headaches: Chronic tension headaches substantially improved after a course of sauna sessions.
  • Skin conditions: Sauna was shown to stabilize the skin barrier and increase hydration. Evidence also pointed to potential improvements in psoriasis and other skin diseases.

Which Is Better: Traditional or Infrared Sauna?

Saunas are small structures or rooms with wooden walls and benches and a heat source. There are two main types.

Traditional or Finnish saunas use wood-burning or, more often these days, electric stoves to heat stones, which retain and radiate heat. The temperature in traditional saunas averages 150–190 degrees F, and you can increase the humidity by pouring water over the hot stones. Some claim that these are the only “authentic” saunas.

Infrared saunas employ lamps that emit wavelengths of light that penetrate and heat your body rather than the ambient air, so the temperatures are lower, 110–130 degrees, with minimal humidity. Infrared saunas are increasingly popular in the US because they are less expensive, easier to install, use less electricity, and many people find them more comfortable because the air is cooler and easier to breathe.

Is one type better than the other? Although traditional saunas are backed by more research, I believe that the bulk of the benefits apply to both types. It’s really a matter of preference.

Are There Any Safety Concerns with Sauna?

Saunas are safe, well-tolerated, and beneficial for most people. However, there are some contraindications including pregnancy, so check in with your doctor before starting sauna therapy. Also ask about your medications, as some drugs affect the way your body handles heat.

Aside from these precautions, just use common sense.

  • Although typical sauna sessions can last up to 30 minutes, we all have different levels of heat tolerance. Children and older people should start at lower temperatures and limit sessions to 15 minutes. If it feels like you’re overheating, get out.
  • You sweat out about 16 ounces of fluids during a session, so it is essential to rehydrate by drinking 16–32 ounces of water. If you use a sauna several times a week, you may need to replace electrolytes, which are lost in sweat. Extreme fatigue, muscle cramps, or an irregular heartbeat are signs that you may need supplemental electrolytes.
  • Don’t drink alcohol prior to or during a sauna session.

In Closing

As you can see, there are many reasons why I’m a sauna fan—and why I recommend a couple of sauna sessions a week for many of my patients.

If all these health benefits aren’t enough to pique your interest, take a cue from the Finns and simply enjoy sauna’s relaxing, stress-reducing, mind-clearing effects. Who knows? It might even make you happier!

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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