A sauna can be an amazing experience. The hot dry heat relaxes you, making you feel so much better than when you first got in. Still, we have to ask, are saunas good for you?
Not surprisingly, spending time at a high temperature does come with risks. Heat exhaustion is a well-known one, particularly if you stay in the sauna for too long or don’t drink enough water. A similar issue can happen with hot yoga. Even hot baths can be risky at times.
Many problems can be easily avoided by making wise decisions. Still, is there more to think about? Could saunas have some hidden risks?
Are Saunas Good For You?
- What Is A Sauna?
- Benefits Of Saunas
- How Having A Sauna Could Be Harmful
- How To Get The Most From Your Sauna
- Saunas Versus Steam Rooms: Which Is Healthier?
- Are Saunas That Powerful?
- Final Thoughts
What Is A Sauna?
First of all, let’s talk a little about saunas themselves. In some senses, it’s a bit like you’re sitting in an oven, as you’re sitting in a very hot room with little humidity. In fact, the heat can be as high as 185°F, which certainly takes some getting used to. Most of the time though, you’re looking at around 160°F.
Saunas come in various styles, with differences in how they are constructed, the amount of heating, and the humidity. Most keep the humidity low, often between 10% or 20%, but the humidity may be increased by splashing water onto hot rocks.
The effects of a sauna are interesting. The temperature of your skin increases dramatically, often getting above 100°F in just a few minutes. You lose a decent amount of liquid in sweat too, often around a pint or perhaps even more.
Your pulse rate increases too, which leads to extra blood flow. For some people, these changes increase blood pressure, while blood pressure decreases for others instead.
Sauna use is often accompanied by other processes, such as periods where users cool off and rehydrate. These influence your health as well.
Benefits Of Saunas
Could Be Good For Your Heart
Sauna use is most often associated with heart improvements. This includes better heart function and a decreased risk of stroke.
Some people find that their blood pressure lowers as well. This is a useful effect and also decreases the risk of heart disease.
While the blood pressure effect of a sauna may be temporary, using a sauna regularly does appear to have long-term benefits.
Helps With Sore Muscles
Warm temperatures, including saunas, are wonderful for aching muscles and you’ll often experience immediate relief. This can be particularly powerful if you experience chronic pain.
Plus, regularly having saunas after exercise may reduce inflammation throughout your body and your overall levels of muscle soreness. Just make sure that you wait at least 10 minutes between exercising and having a sauna, as your body needs the time to adjust.
Can Help Your Lungs
Saunas are fantastic for people with breathing-related problems, often making it easier to breathe and reducing discomfort.
Having a sauna is even relevant when you have a cold. Not only will the hot air reduce your symptoms, but the high temperatures could weaken the virus, giving your body the upper hand for fighting it.
That said, don’t listen to the classic advice that you can sweat out a cold. Infections don’t work that way. Sweating as much as possible won’t do anything for your cold and could cause harm if you end up dehydrated.
Interestingly, having regular saunas may also reduce your risk of getting a cold. Sounds like a win-win.
Many people use saunas as a way to decrease stress. The idea is similar to taking a hot bath or a spa, as being surrounded by warmth helps us to slow down and to feel safe.
Decreasing stress is much more important than it sounds. We tend to live hectic lives, ones where we’re often under some degree of pressure much of the time. Chronic stress has cumulative effects. It can even start to influence our physical and mental health.
Having a sauna is a simple way to knock some of this stress on its head.
Could Protect Your Brain
In theory, saunas could also protect your brain, decreasing the risk of dementia and other related conditions. This is partly due to how saunas can help to reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and heart disease risk. Improvements in these areas could lower the chance of cognitive issues.
The relaxing nature of a sauna may be relevant too, as you’re decreasing your overall levels of stress.
Evidence for this effect is very limited and we don’t know as much about this area as about the heart and stress-related benefits of a sauna. Still, the potential is there and is another reason for giving saunas a try.
How Having A Sauna Could Be Harmful
Can Raise Your Blood Pressure
Saunas are often associated with heart benefits, yet they sometimes have the opposite effect. In particular, some people see a blood pressure increase rather than a decrease.
Because this increase is temporary, it isn’t a big deal for most people. However, there might be additional risks if your blood pressure is already high.
The blood pressure effect means that anyone with a heart problem or previous heart surgery should talk to their doctor before using a sauna regularly.
May Dehydrate You
Sweating is how your body cools itself down. So, not surprisingly, you sweat a lot when you’re having a sauna.
Sweating isn’t a bad thing. It could even be helpful in some situations. However, you do need to replenish any water you lose. Otherwise, you may end up dehydrated.
Even mild dehydration can cause some health issues, while severe dehydration can be dangerous indeed. Thankfully, the risk is easy to avoid. You can bring a water bottle into the sauna with you or make sure that you rehydrate well once your session is over.
May Cause Heat Exhaustion Or Heatstroke
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are more severe issues that can happen with a sauna too.
Heat exhaustion happens when you’re losing too much water and stroke from sweating, while heatstroke means you’re overheating and your body is struggling to cool down.
With heat exhaustion, you’ll get symptoms like a sense of weakness, fainting, lightheadedness, and nausea. You might even throw up. Cooling down, rehydrating, and lying down all help your body to recover.
Heatstroke is more serious. Your body temperature might end up above 104°F, in which case you need to get to a hospital. Other times, you may end up with hot red skin, a rapid pulse, and could even lose consciousness.
Heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke and often does so suddenly. As such, it’s critical to get out of the sauna as soon as you experience any heat exhaustion symptoms, even mild ones.
Not Suitable For Everyone
The risks of a sauna are higher for some people than others. If you are above 65, are severely overweight, are sensitive to heat changes, have a health condition, or take prescription medications, then you’re likely to be at a higher risk.
Falling into one of these groups may not mean you need to avoid saunas entirely, but you should be cautious. This may involve talking to your doctor first and paying close attention to how you feel during and after your sauna.
Pregnant women need to be ultra cautious too, as the high temperatures can put the fetus at risk. Even if your doctor gives the go ahead for using a sauna, you’ll need to keep your time short and get out the moment you experience any side effects.
How To Get The Most From Your Sauna
While saunas are safe for most people, you do need to take some steps to maximize your benefits and keep your risk low.
Pay Attention To The Time
The first is to watch how long you spend in the sauna. Seriously, even if you’re healthy and enjoying yourself, you shouldn’t be in there any more than 15 to 20 minutes.
This doesn’t mean you need to stay in there for as long as 15 minutes if you don’t want to. Instead, you’ll see the most benefits by listening to your body. If you feel like you’ve had enough after 5 minutes, that’s fine. You’re not going to lose out at all if you leave then rather than staying longer.
If you’re just getting started with saunas, try not to stay in for more than 5 or 10 minutes. Rushing things isn’t going to help matters at all. Your body needs time to get used to the heat.
Staying hydrated is incredibly important too. This may include drinking a few glasses of water after your sauna or perhaps even bringing a bottle of water in with you.
Hydration is crucial, as this is what protects you from serious side effects. After all, you can lose a decent amount of water through sweat, even from a short sauna, so you need to get this water back again.
You might need to go beyond just water too. Electrolyte rich drinks can be even more powerful, as you’re losing some electrolytes when you sweat. These are particularly relevant if you’re also exercising and sweating before your sauna.
Be Careful With Medications And Alcohol
Some types of medications can be a problem before or after a sauna because they reduce your body’s ability to sweat. This isn’t good at all, as not being able to sweat increases the risk of overheating, which can be dangerous.
The same is true for alcohol. You certainly shouldn’t be having a sauna while drinking or even tipsy. Seriously. Alcohol is dehydrating enough on its own. Combining it with a sauna isn’t wise.
Do Your Due Diligence
If you’re taking medication or have an underlying health condition, it’s best to talk to your doctor before turning to saunas.
Don’t worry, most doctors won’t tell you to avoid saunas entirely. They’re more likely to give you advice about how to minimize your risks.
Listen To Your Body
Finally, it’s important to pay attention to yourself. While saunas are a popular tradition and offer many benefits, studies into their effectiveness are still ongoing.
Right now, there are huge gaps in our knowledge.
One problem is that there are multiple types of spas, wood burning, electrically heated, and infrared spas, along with variations in temperature and humidity. Each combination of features could have slightly different impacts on health.
Then there are the endless differences between people.
So, even if saunas are beneficial for most people most of the time, there will be exceptions. The best way to know is to pay attention to your body. Consider how you feel before, during, and after a sauna.
For example, if you regularly feel shaky or light headed, you might need to shorten your sauna session or increase your water intake. If you feel relaxed and content instead, the sauna may be just what you need.
Should You Do A Cold Plunge After?
Conventional advice suggests you should cool down slowly after a sauna, giving your body time to adjust to the temperature change. Or, you could take the complete opposite approach and plunge straight into cold water.
This idea of contrasting hot and cold has become popular in recent years. It’s promoted as a powerful way to energize you, improve circulation, decrease inflammation, and even improve your immune system.
There is some evidence for the proposed benefits, but this is still a fairly new field, so there’s a lot we don’t know.
However, most of the proposed benefits come from the fact that you’re shocking your system with a sudden change in temperature. This approach won’t be suitable for everyone.
For one thing, the sudden change increases your blood pressure, which could be an issue if you already have high blood pressure. There may be other negative effects too.
If you’re healthy, going from a sauna to a cold plunge (and perhaps back again) shouldn’t be a big deal and might even be beneficial. If you are on medication or have a serious health condition, then it’s best to talk to your doctor first.
Pay attention to how your body responds as well. If you start to feel light headed or shaky after the cold plunge, it might be best to step away from the practice.
Saunas Versus Steam Rooms: Which Is Healthier?
Steam rooms are the most common alternative to spas. Both settings give you the chance to relax and sweat it out. The biggest difference is that saunas provide you with dry heat, while the heat from steam rooms is moist instead.
So, which is better?
The benefits are similar in either case. As such, you can choose whichever one you prefer. You can also pay attention to your body and see which of the two makes you feel better (we’ve talked about trusting your body a lot, but honestly, this is the single most powerful way to protect your health).
You can even try having a sauna and a steam in the same session, although it’s best to take a break of at least 10 minutes between one and the other. This allows your body to cool off.
Are Saunas That Powerful?
Using a sauna could improve your health, as long as you stay hydrated and don’t overdo it. Even so, there’s a lot we don’t know.
One problem is that there hasn’t been that much research into saunas and their effects. There have been some studies, but not enough to provide definitive answers. More research is needed to look at exactly how saunas could improve health, along with the best temperature and duration of saunas.
Regardless, saunas aren’t likely to dramatically change your health overnight. Like most practices, they’re likely to have subtle effects instead.
As long as you manage the risks, you’re likely to see some benefits from saunas and few issues. Besides, just like a hot bath, saunas are enjoyable and help you unwind mentally. This may be reason enough to have one regularly.
Even so, let’s be realistic. Most people aren’t going to see dramatic health changes from a sauna. You’re not going to cut your health disease risk in half, lose pounds every week, or anything like that.
Instead, saunas are like any other part of a healthy lifestyle, a practice that can have small cumulative effects that boost your health and help you to feel better.