Saunas are popular worldwide, and many people of all ages and backgrounds enjoy spending time in these hot, relaxing environments. They’re much more than just a way to have fun, though. Sauna use comes with many benefits, as well as a few risks. You might be wondering what they are, so here’s a complete guide on the pros and cons of sauna use.
Saunas promote the health of your heart, lungs, and brain while removing toxins and helping with pain relief. Studies have shown that sauna use can both lower stress and improve your immune system, but, overuse can cause dehydration, and improperly maintained saunas may foster mold and bacteria.
So you might be wondering about the specific pros and cons of sauna use. Sauna experience affects your whole body and mind in many ways, and can bring countless benefits. Like almost everything that impacts your body, though, sauna use can also have some drawbacks. We’ll be exploring them all here so you can learn all the pros and cons of saunas to fully maximize your experience.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Using a Sauna?
Saunas offer numerous pros, and even a few cons, because of the extreme way affect the human body. Contrary to what it looks like to an outside observer when you’re kicking back inside, the sauna experience isn’t a passive one. While you’re relaxing, your body is in fact hard at work. From the surface of your skin to deep within you, every system in your body is responding actively to the sauna’s heat.
To better understand the benefits and risks of using a sauna, it’s helpful to know exactly what’s happening to you during the experience. As you settle in and unwind, the sauna’s heat causes your internal body temperature to rise, and your body kicks into gear to cool you off.
The body is a finely tuned machine designed to respond to triggers to keep you balanced and healthy; so when you’re inside the sauna, several changes happen to stop you from overheating:
- Your heart rate increases by about 30% and your blood vessels dilate to boost circulation. (In fact, the amount of blood flowing through your body per minute nearly doubles when you’re in the sauna!)
- All the pores on your skin’s surface open wider.
- There’s a shift in your hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, endorphins, and serotonin.
- Your immune system produces more infection-fighting white blood cells.
All of these changes bring many benefits to your physical and mental health, boosting the functioning of many systems throughout your body. At the same time, these internal reactions to the heat can cause damage, but most of them can luckily be prevented. Let’s dive into what, exactly, you need to know about the pros and cons of sauna use.
Sauna Use Pros
Saunas overall can improve the way our body and mind function to make you feel great and even prevent specific health problems.
Heart Health and Cardiovascular Performance
In people with healthy cardiovascular systems, regular sauna use has been shown through studies to lower the risk of heart and other cardiovascular diseases. Using a sauna several times per week provides stimulating exercise for your heart and blood vessels.
As your heart works harder and your blood vessels dilate to increase circulation to your skin and throughout your body, they become better conditioned. This can lead to improved performance and lower blood pressure outside of the sauna.
Lung and Respiratory Health
Many studies have found that regular sauna use can be very good for the lungs. If your lungs are healthy, spending time in a sauna several times per week can help keep them healthy and prevent disease. Sauna use can do much more than prevent lung disease in the long run, though.
Researchers have found that saunas can improve conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, and asthma. Relaxing in the sauna can even ease respiratory symptoms of colds, flus, and acute bronchitis.
Sauna use often clears congested nasal passageways, to help you breathe better (and feel better overall) when you are sick, experiencing hay fever, or other environmental allergies.
The brain is an organ in your body just like the heart and lungs, and it too can benefit from sauna use. The increased circulation surrounds it with nutrient-rich blood, and the shifts in neurotransmitters and hormones improve the way it functions and responds to stress (more on this below).
A Finnish study conducted across 20 years tracked the health of men who used saunas 4-7 times per week. Researchers found that regular sauna-goers had a lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Spending regular time in a sauna can even improve the way your immune system functions to help you fight off illnesses caused by exposure to viruses, bacteria, and fungi. One of the weapons your body uses to fight illnesses and infections is its white blood cells, and the heat of the sauna kicks production of these cells into high gear.
Also, the sweating you do activates germ-killing substances called macrophages and dermcidin. This sweat is much more than obnoxious moisture dripping off every part of you―it’s evidence of your immune system hard at work.
Using a sauna can help keep your skin healthy and looking great. The increased blood circulation to your pores dilates them to allow sweat to release. Perspiration is actually your body cleansing, and can reduce blemishes and rashes. Sauna use followed by a shower to rinse away excess residue often leaves skin looking and feeling softer, smoother, and far healthier.
Muscle and Joint Recovery, Pain Relief
Increased blood circulation delivers nutrients throughout your body. As a greater-than-normal amount of nutrient-rich blood passes through muscles and joints, many great things happen including damage repair, inflammation reduction, and muscle relaxation.
Formal studies and regular sauna users alike report that saunas help reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after exercise, as well as everyday aches and pains. Sauna use has also been found to reduce pain from serious conditions like fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and sports injuries.
A huge benefit of sauna use is that it improves your overall wellness by removing harmful toxins from your body. Environmental toxins like mercury, copper, and nickel can accumulate in the body and have deleterious effects on health. These get flushed out of your system as you sweat, leaving your body healthier and better able to function; helping you feel better overall.
Spending time in a sauna several times per week has been tied to better sleep patterns. Saunas promote mental and physical relaxation, which is important to get a proper night’s sleep.
As part of your natural circadian rhythm, your body cools down and endorphin levels drop as you approach bedtime. The body’s gradual cooling process and decline in endorphin production that occur after you step out of the sauna mimics this process, helping prepare your body and brain for deeper and more satisfying sleep.
Your body’s response to the heat in a sauna is active. The increased activity requires energy, so to fuel itself during sauna use, your body increases the number of calories it burns. Your body’s systems are working hard, and it’s estimated that you’d burn about 300 calories in an average 15-20 minute sauna session.
While we’ve investingated in a separate article how this alone won’t cause any significant weight loss (any actual weight you lose because of the sauna is mostly water and will be replaced as you hydrate), it is still good for your body and can be one healthy component of overall weight loss or maintenance plan, that includes healthy eating and regular exercise.
Stress Relief and Mental Health Boost
Saunas are great for relieving stress. Your body responds positively to its time in the sauna, using it as time to repair itself and balance hormones and neurotransmitters to improve your mood and help you handle the stress of everyday life.
While you’re basking in the sauna, your body is repairing its myelin sheaths (the coating surrounding nerve cells) for improved brain and nervous system function. Production of the stress hormone cortisol slows, while feel-good chemicals like serotonin and epinephrine increase and are carried swiftly throughout your system by the increased blood flow.
The relaxing, quiet, calm environment inside the sauna promotes relaxation and helps you quiet your mind. Intentionally relaxing regularly like this helps keep the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, from overreacting to stressors. This mental centering, coupled with decreased cortisol and increased feel-good hormones has been found in studies to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve overall mental well-being.
When you enjoy your sauna time in the company of friends or loved ones, you can deepen your connections and feel closer to others, supported by them, and relish their company in a positive way. Sauna use promotes genuine, uninterrupted, intimate conversations or comfortable silence away from the normal distractions of the outside world (cellphones, music, etc). Positive social connections contribute to resiliency and total well-being.
If you’re feeling sluggish and fatigued and find yourself wishing you had more energy to enjoy life, heading to the sauna several times a week can help a great deal. All of these sauna pros add up to improved energy and heightened vitality.
So using a sauna has many possible life-improving benefits for physical and mental health. It can, though, also carry some cons. Knowing them will allow you to take measures to avoid them.
Sauna Use Cons
Many of the cons associated with sauna use are serious, so it’s important to consider them carefully. Most are completely preventable, however, and when you know what they are, you can take action to avoid them and reap the sauna’s full benefits.
Health Risks for Some Sauna Users
People with existing heart conditions, high blood pressure, or other cardiovascular diseases should avoid sauna use as the heat and the body’s reaction can strain the heart. Likewise, sauna use isn’t recommended for people with certain lung conditions or epilepsy.
Sauna use can also interfere with certain medications, including tranquilizers and stimulants, and it is dangerous when combined with alcohol or recreational drugs. Always check with your doctor before you use the sauna to make sure it’s right for you.
Reproductive Concerns for Men
The high heat of saunas has been linked to a decrease in sperm production. One study found that even two 15-minute sessions per week can negatively affect sperm count. While sperm production does eventually recover, it can take up to five weeks for this to happen. So males who are interested in having children should avoid using saunas while actively trying to do so.
Danger to Unborn Babies
Pregnant women should always check with their doctor before using a sauna. Anything that heats the body temperature, such as saunas and hot tubs, can potentially cause harm to an unborn baby.
If proper sauna use guidelines aren’t followed, it is possible to overheat to the point of developing heat exhaustion or heat stroke, both very dangerous conditions. If you spend too much time in the sauna, your body’s cooling process becomes overworked and eventually will shut down.
You can avoid overheating by ensuring to stay properly hydrated, keeping the sauna temperature within the recommended range, and limiting the time of your sessions.
Stove-heated sauna temperatures should reach no more than 175 degrees Fahrenheit (79 degrees Celsius), while infrared saunas should get to no more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius).
The recommended session time is 15-20 minutes (less for beginners), but up to 30 could be okay for seasoned sauna-goers who stay hydrated and don’t overheat the room.
Saunas make you sweat a lot, and sweating means a loss of important fluids. You can lose up to a pint of sweat in a single session. This risk can be completely prevented by drinking at least six cups of water starting before you step into the sauna, and continuing while inside and after you step out.
Skin Irritation or Burns
While uncommon, burns can occur during sauna use. You can’t get a sunburn from a sauna because saunas don’t produce ultraviolet light, but you can get burned from hot surfaces like the stove or, possibly, the bench. Installing a guard around the stove and sitting on a mat or towel can prevent burns.
Sauna overuse can also dry and irritate your skin. If you notice that your skin is irritated, try cutting back the frequency or length of your sessions. You can further care for your skin by showering before you step in, using a dry brush on your skin while inside, and rinsing off (without soap) afterward.
Illness from Dirty Saunas
Unclean saunas are breeding grounds for all sorts of nasty things that can make you sick. They can harbor bacteria, mold, mildew, and fungi that can cause illness, infections, and skin conditions like athlete’s foot. Cleaning your sauna and wearing sandals in a public sauna can prevent your exposure to these.
While sauna use isn’t recommended for some people and it does carry some risks, almost all of these cons are avoidable. Used properly, saunas can greatly benefit your health, and they will hardly kill you. A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Forensic Science found that deaths from sauna occur in only about 2 in every 100,000 users.
Of these deaths, 51% were of natural causes and 25% were due to heat overexposure. Furthermore, in about half of all deaths, people had been drinking alcohol and most were alone in the sauna.
So overall, while there are some cons that users must be aware of and take certain measures to prevent, there are countless pros to sauna use! With all that considered, why not reap these benefits today and see your health thrive.