Stepping inside a sauna to soak up the heat might seem like a fairly modern invention, but humans have been using saunas for thousands of years. Early records show that the Central American Mayans used ‘sweat houses’ over 3,000 years ago to promote good health, while the Romans were fond of relaxing in warm enclosures for therapeutic purposes.
These days, saunas are still popular, where they’re a staple of many gyms, fitness centres and spas. In Scandinavia, in particular, using a sauna is part of everyday life – in Finland alone you’ll find more saunas than cars. Indeed, with the Finnish boasting some of the highest life expectancies in the world, the health benefits of using a sauna could be a key factor in this. Here are just some of the many reasons why using a sauna could be good for your health.
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The warmth of a sauna relaxes the muscles and reduces tension, making it the perfect form of stress relief. Blood pressure can often rise under stress, but studies have found that participants who visited a sauna twice weekly over three months showed a reduction in high blood pressure. Researchers have also revealed that using a sauna can release feel-good hormones into the brain, helping to improve mood.
Muscle repair and recovery
If you’ve been pounding the weights at the gym, hitting the sauna afterwards could aid muscle growth, recovery and repair. This is because the heat from a sauna releases growth hormones that aid these processes. This hormone may even assist with fat loss. One study found that growth hormone increased by 142% after a sauna session.
Improved heart health
A sauna session might seem like a relaxing indulgence, but it could be doing good things for your heart. Studies have confirmed that regular visits to a sauna can protect your body against oxidative stress and atherosclerosis, while improving blood circulation. Your heart also gets a workout, where its rate rises to a similar level as if carrying out aerobic exercise. Researchers have concluded that you can slash your risk of having a heart attack by up to 50% if you frequently visit a sauna.
Lowered dementia risk
One long-term study in Finland consisting of 2,300 participants concluded that those who visit a sauna at least four times per week for 19 minutes experienced a 65% reduced risk of contracting dementia. It’s not completely clear why this is the case, but the fact that heat exposure increases the production of new brain cells and protects existing neurons may both play a part.
High temperatures in a sauna encourage the body to sweat out toxins, which could damage the body if allowed to accumulate. Flushing out toxins, which includes heavy metals absorbed from the atmosphere, reduces the burden on the liver and kidneys, while also improving the appearance of the skin.
Scientists have found that you only need to spend as little as 15 minutes in a sauna to boost your immunity. This is because immune-boosting white blood cells, lymphocytes and neutrophils all increased when exposed to sauna heat, helping the body to fight off infections quicker. Other researchers have found that regular sauna-goers tended to experience fewer colds, but even when they did, sitting in a sauna helped to relieve the symptoms of nasal congestion.
Glucose appears to be shifted from the blood in those who frequent a sauna, which means that regular sauna sessions could improve sensitivity to insulin. This may play a pivotal role in helping with fat loss, especially when combined with the detoxification benefits of using a sauna.