Using a sauna to reduce your stress is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Regular sauna use treats both the physical body and the mind (your thoughts, emotions, and mood). It improves how you feel physically and mentally because a sauna improves how your whole system operates. Here, we’ll explore stress and how saunas reduce the physical and mental effects of stress.
Saunas reduce stress. Because of the profound impact saunas have on body and mind, regular sauna use may be one of the most complete and lasting ways to deal with stress and reduce its negative effects on your physical and mental health.
While it might seem obvious that saunas reduce stress because they help you relax, there’s so much more going on as your body reacts to the heat of the sauna. While you’re relaxing, your brain and body are actively responding to the experience to heal the negative effects of stress.
What Is It About Saunas that Reduces Stress?
To appreciate how saunas reduce stress, it’s helpful to know a bit about what stress is and what it does to our body and mind. Stress itself is simply the body and mind reacting to some type of change. There are different types of stress.
Good stress, called eustress, is energizing and motivating. It increases our alertness and attention and helps us perform well in our daily lives. Bad stress, what we typically think of when we hear the word “stress,” is damaging to our mental and physical health.
Negative stress is linked to illnesses and conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, tension headaches, muscle/joint pain, irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and more.
When we face any type of stressor, positive or negative, our body mobilizes to handle it. The amygdala in the brain (one of our emotion centers) interprets the event or change as helpful or harmful and, either way sets off the fight-or-flight response.
This is a chain reaction involving the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain plus the adrenal glands atop the kidneys. Stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine flood the bloodstream. Heart rate and blood pressure accelerate, muscles tense, vision sharpens, and blood flow is diverted away from core organs.
Also, our breathing becomes quicker and more shallow. Less oxygen flows to the brain, which makes the amygdala think there is an ongoing problem, and this fight-or-flight reaction continues. Our system is designed to work this way, and if stressors are short-term, everything returns to normal functioning. However, in our modern society, stress has become chronic.
Our body stays in fight-or-flight too long, and even when it does calm down, it revs up again quickly. This causes damage over time. This is where saunas come to the rescue. The sauna environment is a positive change for the body to adjust to.
The intense sauna heat causes all sorts of reactions in the body and mind, but these changes are helpful, including for cellulite (our guide on that). Saunas induce eustress and reduce bad stress. Using a sauna regularly can reduce the physical and mental effects of negative stress.
What’s the Physical Side of Sauna/Stress Reduction?
As you relax in the high temperature of a sauna, the body experiences eustress. It undergoes healthy physical changes as it responds to the heat. This is what happens in your body to repair damage and relieve the physical symptoms of stress when you practice sauna bathing:
- Toxin removal. Toxins from the foods we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe accumulate in the body and contribute to illnesses like high blood pressure, heart problems, digestive issues, immune system dysfunction, pain, fatigue, and thyroid disorders. In the sauna, your body heats up, heart rate accelerates, circulation increases, and pores open so toxins that have built up in your body can be released. This helps repair toxic damage in your body.
- Rebuilding of myelin sheaths. Myelin is the coating around nerve cells in the nervous system, including the brain, that allows cells to communicate quickly and efficiently. Sauna heat increases the amount of the hormone prolactin, which is necessary for myelin production. This keeps the brain and nervous system healthy and working right in the face of stress.
- Endorphin boost. Endorphins and beta-endorphins are natural painkillers. The right amount of endorphins circulating in the system help relieve acute and chronic pain, including the pain caused by fibromyalgia. Studies have shown that sauna use boosts endorphins so we feel less pain when stressed.
- Norepinephrine upsurge. Low levels of this hormone can lead to low blood pressure and fatigue, making you feel sluggish, heavy, and weak. As your body responds to the heat of the sauna, it increases norepinephrine production. Not only that, researchers have found that saunas improve your body’s ability to store norepinephrine for later use.
By reducing the harmful effects of stress, regular use promotes physical health in general. Multiple research studies have linked saunas with huge benefits like increased sleep quality (necessary for physical and mental health), more energy, stable blood pressure, fewer tension headaches, and even lowered risk of dementia
What’s the Mental Side Effect of Sauna/Stress Reduction?
A sauna’s stress-relieving benefits don’t stop with the physical body. Saunas help mental effects of stress, too. They offer a welcome break from a hectic life, intense deadlines, multiple demands, and stimulating sights and sounds.
Your mind gets a much-needed chance to rest and decompress when you relax in a sauna. The sauna environment invites you to quiet your mental chatter and simply be present in the comforting heat. Numerous studies have revealed that sauna use can decrease depression and anxiety, soothe mood, and improve concentration.
Like physical benefits, the mental health benefits of sauna use are related to eustress—the body’s internal response to a change, in this case, the increased heat and peaceful, soothing environment. These are some of the things that happen inside of you when you’re in the sauna to help your mental health:
- Amygdala training. As you give yourself a chance to relax and unwind while your body is responding to the sauna environment, you are teaching your brain’s emotional center that not all changes are bad. You help your amygdala learn how to stay calm in response to increased heart rate, blood flow, and hormones. Your mind is learning to be less reactive to external stressors that also increase heart rate, blood flow, and stress hormones.
- BDNF bolstering. Brain-derived neurotrophic hormone (BDNF) is a molecule in your brain, nervous system, and gut that plays a key role in memory and learning. It also keeps neurotransmitter activity optimal. Many mental illnesses are associated with low BDNF. Sauna use has been shown in research to increase BDNF in your system to promote healthy mental functioning.
- Cortisol regulation. When you’re in the sauna, the production of the notorious stress hormone cortisol slows down. Regular use can keep cortisol levels in check, and, in case you didn’t know, the stress hormone causes many problems in the body when it’s consistently elevated. In fact, it’s also one of the reasons why loneliness is hard on one’s health.
- Norepinephrine boost. Just as this neurotransmitter is necessary for physical health, it’s key in mental health, too. As levels rise in the sauna, you can experience a boost in mood, alertness, and attention. Low levels of norepinephrine are tied to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression, and regular sauna bathing can improve symptoms of both.
- Toxin removal. Removing toxins helps mental health as much as it does physical health. Toxicity can contribute to many mental illnesses, general mood, and brain fog. As the sauna clears your body, it clears your mind, too.
Regular sauna use improves body and mind. Lots of things happen beneath the surface of your skin while you kick back and enjoy the experience. While you don’t have to do anything to make these reactions happen, there are things you can do to enhance stress reduction even more while sitting in the sauna.
How to Get the Most Stress Reduction from Sauna Use
Saunas reduce stress from the inside out. You can help by working on stress from the outside in. How you approach your sauna time makes a big difference in how you will feel while inside and long after you step out.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to what you’re doing rather than being distracted by other things, including mental chatter. Multitasking in the sauna isn’t stress relieving. Leave work, cell phones, and other distractions outside.
Use your time to notice the warmth. Feel your muscles relax. Watch the sweat form and roll off your skin. When your mind wanders to stressful thoughts, gently return your attention to the physical experience of the sauna.
Breath Deeply and Meditate
Deep breathing contributes to stress relief by resetting the nervous system and increasing the flow of oxygen to your brain. Taking slow, deep breaths can enhance stress reduction. Meditation, concentrating on one thing for a set length of time, also helps quiet mental chatter and reduces stress. Combine the two by closing your eyes and focusing on taking slow, deep breaths while you’re in the sauna.
Aromatherapy is a proven stress-reduction technique that can make your sauna experience even more pleasant and effective. It can enhance mindfulness, too, because you can concentrate on the scent of the oils wafting through the hot air. Use a simple sauna aromatherapy kit (on Amazon) with a stress-relieving essential oil (on Amazon) for a great experience.
Develop Healthy Habits
Stay hydrated before, during, and after sauna use so the body can do its important stress-reducing work. Eating nutritious foods and avoiding processed/junk foods, fast food, and unhealthy drinks will help your body deal with stress and repair damage.
Also, having a good post-sauna routine will help keep the positive, stress-relieving effects of the sauna going long after your sauna session ends. Using a sauna to reduce your stress is a great way to stay physically and mentally healthy.
Your entire body heals, optimizes its overall functioning, and conditions itself to handle negative stressors while you relax and enjoy your sauna experience. And as you should know by now, these effects are seen all throughout the body.