Sauna Health Benefits: Get The Most Out Of Your Sauna Time
In Scandinavia, saunas have been used for centuries to promote wellness, and it turns out that the Russians and Finns may have understood something about sauna's health benefits that the rest of us didn’t.
In this post:
- What is a Sauna?
- Sauna Health Benefits
- Why Saunas Work: The Science
- How I Use My Sauna
- Home Sauna for Everyday Benefits
What is a Sauna?
Saunas are historically small rooms used as hot-air or steam baths, or, an exciting modern variation with many additional health benefits, an infrared sauna uses penetrating healing rays to heat not just the skin, but organs and tissues as well.
A growing body of evidence shows saunas to be a powerful force for health that can trigger our body’s healing and anti-aging mechanisms, as well as fight feelings of anxiety and depression.
How could a hot room do that? It's a pretty amazing process.
Sauna Health Benefits
Relieves Anxiety and Depression
While sitting in the sauna, your body releases endorphins as well as a brain chemical called dynorphin, which counteracts the endorphins and cools your body down, and makes you feel uncomfortable with the heat.
Here’s where things start to get interesting.
The dynorphins create a chemical response that actually makes you more sensitive to endorphins. As you know, endorphins are the body’s natural “happy chemical” that combat pain, increase feelings of wellbeing and security, and improve the immune response.
Think about that. Sweating it out for a bit can help upgrade your emotional state and reduce anxiety and depression.
Most folks think of stress as an absolute negative, but there is such a thing as good stress, or “hormesis.” Exercise is a good example of that: we get our hearts pounding, we raise our blood pressure, we create micro-tears in our muscles, and eventually, we rebuild and get stronger. It’s a short-term stressor that does us good.
Another example of helpful stressors are the body exposed to toxins or bacteria triggers an immune response, which creates a “memory” and an organization of factors that make your immune system stronger against future threats.
Heat can be the same way, causing a “healthy” type of stress on the body, and controlled exposure to high heat can have a host of health benefits.
Speeds Muscle Repair
Reduces Cardiovascular Risk
A Finnish study¹ followed a group of sauna-using men for 20 years and took into account everything that could affect the outcome of the data like lifestyle, body fat percentage, socioeconomic status, etc., and made some exciting determinations.
Men who used the sauna 2-3 times per week were 27% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than men who took a sauna once a week. Men who used it 4-7 times per week were 50% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. That’s a significant difference.
But it doesn’t stop there.
This study also found that non-accidental deaths in sauna users were lowered overall, meaning other causes of death like cancer, autoimmune disease, and stroke were impacted favorably. The 2-3 times per week users had a 24% lower mortality rate than the once-weekly users, and 4-7 times per week users were 40% less likely to die of non-accidental death.
The study carefully controlled for other factors, and ruled out that these were correlations rather than causation. Saunas can help you live longer!
Why Saunas Work: The Science
How does this happen? As Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., explained in her presentation at the Biohacker Summit in 2016, there are a few key processes happening here.
The first is that the body’s Heat Shock Proteins (HSP) are activated. HSP repairs damage and makes proteins return to their normal structure, which can help prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease as well as cardiovascular diseases.
She explained that the heat also causes activity in the FOXO3 gene, which is a master regulator gene. It’s like the manager of other genes, telling them what to do and when. FOXO3 tells your body to create more white blood cells and stem cells, and tells your cancer-protective and antioxidant genes to get to work, detoxing your body at a cellular level.
FOXO3 is also linked to longevity. So when you're exposed to heat in a healthy way, your FOXO3 gene gets a jolt of energy and tells your other genes to work harder at making you healthier.
How I Use My Sauna
Saunas just feel good. My sauna calms me like nothing else can--perfect at the end of the day, and especially perfect in the winter.
I use my skin brush at the beginning of my session, stretch out on a towel, listen to the CD player that came in my sauna, and read a book.
Passive Cardio Exercise
I get passive cardio exercise, since my heart rate goes up from 50 to 90 just sitting for half an hour. This is great for when the day gets away from me and I didn’t get out for a run. Research shows that the calorie burn of a 30-minute sauna session is the equivalent of a 30-minute slow jog!
After-Sauna Cold Plunge for Endorphins and Immunity
Lately, I’ve been adding an additional benefit, that might sound a bit crazy to you. And that is, I increase the cardiovascular, immune function, and “feel-good” endorphin benefits, by jumping in the bathtub full of ice in cold water, at the end of my sauna time! When I have time, I do a second cycle: another 15-minute session, followed by another cold plunge.
For a long time, I was scared of the ice bath--and thought about doing it, rather than actually doing it. On a research tour, many years ago, I studied at a clinic in Michigan that had a Russian sauna next to an icy-cold stream. We’d sauna for as long as we could stand it, then jump in the cold stream, we’d all scream, and then run back in the sauna. It’s momentarily terrifying, and also the most invigorating thing I’ve ever done!
I felt equally amazing starting to do this at home recently (now I’m a daily addict and keep 20-pound bags of ice in my freezer). Turns out, you don’t have to have a stream in your backyard, or a cryogenic chamber--you can do this with a bathtub and bag of ice.
My skin looks so good after this process, and I’ve been doing it in the early morning after a workout, every day. It makes me ready to tackle the day. The endorphin rush is incredible!
Home Sauna For Everyday Benefits
The evidence is pretty clear that the benefits of sauna use (and cold plunges, too) are more than folklore. It’s why I have my own sauna at home, and why I arrange a wholesale Group Buy of saunas every year.
Robyn Openshaw, MSW, is the bestselling author of The Green Smoothies Diet, 12 Steps to Whole Foods, and 2017’s #1 Amazon Bestseller and USA Today Bestseller, Vibe. Learn more about how to make the journey painless, from the nutrient-scarce Standard American Diet, to a whole-foods diet, in her free video masterclass 12 Steps to Whole Foods.
This blog post is a digest of Rhonda Patrick, PhD’s YouTube video, which you can watch here.
- Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. (2015) Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. JAMA Intern Med.
- Lammintausta R, Syvälahti E, Pekkarinen A. (1976) Change in hormones reflecting sympathetic activity in the Finnish sauna. Ann Clin Res.
Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links, which allow you to support our mission without costing you extra.