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Is a sauna the secret to a longer life?

Far more than a five-minute treat at the end of your workout, saunas should take centre stage in your wellbeing routine for myriad mental and physical health benefits almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. From immediate relaxation and muscle recovery for long-term optimisation of heart health and brain function, here’s what you need to know about saunas to live a healthier and longer life

Saunas have been a staple of heat therapy wellness practices for centuries, known for their relaxing and rejuvenating effects. But beyond the immediate comfort of their warm embrace, saunas offer a range of health benefits that can significantly enhance both physical and mental wellbeing.

From enhancing focus, resilience and relaxation to boosting heart health, speeding up muscle recovery and improving circulation, here’s how and why adding regular sauna sessions to your wellbeing routine can boost your immediate health as well as increase how long you live.

What is a sauna?

A sauna is a small enclosed room designed for dry or wet heat sessions with the aim of promoting sweating, for many physical health benefits (see below), and enhancing relaxation and feelings of mental wellbeing.

The traditional sauna originates from Finland and typically features a wood-lined interior heated by a stove with rocks on top. Users pour water over these hot rocks to generate steam, creating a humid environment inside the room, although many modern saunas use electric heaters and remain dry. The temperature inside a sauna typically ranges from about 70°C to 100°C (158°F to 212°F). Sessions usually last between 5 and 20 minutes and can be interspersed with cooling-off periods.

The intense heat and subsequent sweating are believed to have numerous health benefits, including improved blood flow circulation, relaxation of tense muscles, the removal of toxins and aiding better sleep. Saunas have become a cornerstone of various wellness practices around the world, incorporating different traditions and technological enhancements, such as infrared saunas, to enhance the health and wellbeing of users.

Are saunas healthy?

Sauna use promotes health and wellness primarily through the mechanisms of heat stress and hyperthermia. Exposure to high temperatures in a sauna induces a mild stress response, which in turn activates adaptive body reactions beneficial for health. These include the production of heat shock proteins, which help in cellular repair and protection against various stressors.

The high heat also mproves circulation, increasing blood flow to the skin and muscles, which aids nutrient delivery and toxin removal. Regular hyperthermic conditioning through sauna use has been shown to enhance endurance by increasing heat tolerance and decreasing muscle glycogen use, according to the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

How do saunas affect my body?

The primary biological response to sauna use is the activation of the cardiovascular system and the endocrine system. The intense heat causes blood vessels to dilate, leading to increased blood flow. This cardiovascular workout helps strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, and improve arterial compliance, according to the American Journal of Hypertension.

The heat also stimulates sweating, which not only helps cool the body but also promotes detoxification through the excretion of salts and other metabolites. On a hormonal level, saunas increase the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals, which is why users often feel refreshed and in a better mood after a session.

How often should I sauna?

For most people two to four sessions per week are optimal to allow for substantial health benefits while giving the body time to recover and hydrate properly between sessions. Regular users often find that this frequency supports sustained benefits in terms of detoxification, relaxation and cardiovascular health. As always, individual tolerances and health conditions should guide frequency and duration.

When is the best time to have a sauna?

It really depends on your schedule and goal but after exercise or in the evening are considered the ideal time.

Post-exercise sauna sessions can enhance recovery by increasing blood circulation to relax tense muscles and flush out lactic acid (see below for more). Evening sessions, meanwhile, can help promote relaxation and improve sleep quality, thanks to the endorphin release and body temperature changes that facilitate sleep. It’s important to avoid sauna use immediately after eating or when dehydrated, and you should always listen to you body to determine the most beneficial and comfortable time for a sauna.

What is the optimal temperature and duration for an effective sauna session?

An effective sauna session typically involves temperatures between 70°C and 100°C (158°F and 212°F) for a duration between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on individual heat tolerance and the specific type of sauna, such as whether it’s a traditional Finnish sauna or an infrared sauna.

It’s smart to start with shorter durations as you acclimate your body to the heat. Research suggests that a cumulative exposure, such as two 10-minute sessions with a cooling break in between, can maximise benefits while minimising the risks of overheating and dehydration

Do men and women respond differently to sauna?

Research suggests that there are gender differences in how men and women respond to heat stress, including sauna use. Women generally have a higher body fat percentage, which can affect heat conduction and may lead to feeling warmer quicker than men.

Hormonal differences can also influence thermoregulation: for example, during the menstrual cycle, women’s body temperature and heat tolerance can vary. Despite these differences, both sexes can gain significant health benefits from sauna use. Studies indicate that the cardiovascular and detoxification benefits are effectively similar across genders, although individual experiences and tolerances can vary widely.

Body-fat levels and hormonal differences mean men and women have different physiological responses to sauna use but can benefit equally from regular heat therapy sessions

How can I improve my sauna endurance?

Staying in the sauna for longer periods can be beneficial, but it’s important to do so safely to avoid health risks such as dehydration or overheating. Here are some tips to help you gradually increase your sauna endurance:

Hydrate first
Before entering the sauna, make sure you’re well-hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and have a good-sized glass of water before starting your session. It’s also important to replenish fluids after you finish, as you will sweat out a significant amount during the session.

Avoid food
Eating a heavy meal before a sauna can make it harder for your body to handle the heat as it diverts blood to your digestive system. A light snack is fine, but avoid large meals.

If you’re new to using a sauna or are looking to extend your stay, begin with shorter sessions and gradually increase the duration. This could mean starting with 5-10 minute sessions and adding a few minutes each time as your body becomes accustomed to the heat.

Go low
Heat rises, so sitting on a lower bench can be a strategy to experience a less intense heat, which might make it easier to stay longer.

Breathe deep
Practicing deep, calm breathing can help manage the sensation of the heat and improve your ability to stay in the sauna longer. This also aids in relaxation and enhances the stress-relief benefits of sauna use.

Chill out
Incorporate a cool down interval between sessions. Step out of the sauna, take a cool shower or sit in a cooler area, and then return for another session. This method allows your body to handle more heat without the risk of overheating.

Do saunas really help my body detoxify by sweating out toxins?

The concept of detoxification through sweating in saunas is hotly debated. While sweating helps eliminate substances like electrolytes and water, the elimination of significant toxins through sweat is limited. The primary organs of detoxification are the liver and kidneys, which filter harmful substances from the blood.

However, saunas can indirectly support the function of these organs by improving circulation and promoting the efficient removal of waste products through the skin and urinary system. Trace amounts of heavy metals can be excreted through sweat, according to the Environmental Science & Technology journal, suggesting saunas play a supplementary role in detoxification.

Does a sauna speed up recovery from lifting weights?

Sauna use after weight lifting can accelerate muscle recovery by increasing blood flow to strained muscle tissues, which helps in the removal of lactic acid and other metabolic wastes. The heat from the sauna also promotes the release of growth hormones, which are crucial for muscle repair and growth.

A post-lifting sauna can increase the production of heat shock proteins, which protect cells and aid in muscle regeneration, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology. This process not only reduces recovery time but also enhances the overall gains from weight training by improving muscle adaptability.

Does a sauna speed up recovery from running and other cardio exercise?

Similar to its effects after weight training, sauna use following cardiovascular exercise can enhance recovery by improving circulation and facilitating the flushing out of toxins that build up during intense physical activity.

The elevated heart rate experienced in a sauna is comparable to light cardio exercise, which helps in maintaining cardiovascular fitness on recovery days. The heat can also induce a higher volume of blood to flow through the heart, effectively training the heart muscles and improving cardiac output. This can lead to better endurance and performance over time, according to the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

How does sauna use impact my cardiovascular system?

Sauna use has a profound impact on the cardiovascular system. The heat causes blood vessels to dilate, which decreases vascular resistance and allows blood to flow more freely, reducing blood pressure and increasing cardiac output. This effect helps to train the cardiovascular system, making it more efficient and resilient.

Long-term sauna use has been associated with a lower risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases, including coronary artery disease and sudden cardiac death, and there’s a strong correlation between regular sauna use and improved heart health, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

What are the long-term physical health benefits of sauna?

Long-term regular sauna can improve cardiovascular health, enhance immune function and reduced risks of high blood pressure and heart disease, the leading cause of death globally.

Saunas mimic the effects of mild exercise by elevating heart rate and increasing blood circulation, which can improve overall cardiovascular fitness as shown in longitudinal studies published in BMC Medicine.

Regular use also stimulates the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells, which fight off illness. Saunas can also help reduce chronic pain and stiffness associated with conditions like arthritis, enhancing mobility and quality of life.

What are the mental health benefits of sauna use?

In the short term, saunas can significantly reduce stress and promote relaxation, primarily through the release of feel-good endorphins that naturally elevate mood and provide a feeling of well-being. This effect can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, providing a calming and rejuvenating experience.

Over the long term, regular sauna sessions can contribute to improved mental health by enhancing stress resilience. This is facilitated through the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which governs stress responses. Regular thermal therapy can reduce the incidence of depressive symptoms and improve emotional wellness, according to the Psychosomatic Medicine journal.

Can saunas help with chronic pain or inflammation conditions?

Saunas can be beneficial in managing chronic pain and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. The heat from saunas helps to decrease inflammation, relieve pain and increase mobility by warming the tissues, which reduces stiffness and promotes relaxation.

Patients with arthritis and fibromyalgia experienced noticeable pain relief and reduced symptoms of stiffness and fatigue after regular sauna therapy, according to a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, suggesting saunas can be a valuable adjunct therapy for chronic pain management.

Are saunas dangerous?

While saunas are generally safe for most people, there are inherent risks, especially if used improperly. The primary concerns include dehydration, overheating and blood pressure issues. To minimise these risks, it is important to stay hydrated before and after sauna use. Drinking water before entering a sauna can help prevent dehydration, and replenishing fluids afterwards is crucial.

Individuals with cardiovascular conditions should consult a doctor before starting sauna therapy, as the high temperatures can induce significant circulatory system demands. It is also advisable to limit sauna sessions to no more than 20 minute and to exit the sauna if feelings of dizziness or discomfort occur.

Who should avoid saunas?

People with unstable heart conditions, such as recent heart attack survivors or those with severe heart failure, should consult their healthcare provider before using a sauna. Pregnant women are generally advised to avoid saunas due to the risk of overheating, dehydration and fainting, which could be detrimental to foetal health.

You should also avoid saunas if you’re under the influence because alcohol can impair the body’s natural thermoregulatory responses, increasing the risk of hyperthermia and dehydration. Children should also avoid saunas became their thermoregulatory systems are not fully developed.

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