Sauna Benefits: Three Surprising Research Findings

Sauna Benefits: Three Surprising Research Findings

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​​Disclaimer: None of the information in this article constitutes medical advice. All statements are merely the opinion of the writer(s). We recommend that patients follow their doctor’s guidance in regard to sauna use.

Sauna use is becoming a popular health trend in the U.S., with many gyms including saunas as a part of their membership benefits, and more infrared saunas becoming available for home use.

But does sauna use have proven health benefits in medical studies? Are traditional saunas or infrared saunas more likely to be effective? Can saunas cause weight loss? And are there any side effects to sauna use?

In this article we’ll answer all of these questions and more as we review three clinically proven benefits of sauna use, share our thoughts on whether infrared saunas are healthier than traditional saunas, and document potential side effects of sauna use. We'll also explain if saunas can help with weight loss.

Proven Health Benefits of Sauna Use

Reduced Blood Pressure

Saunas have been traditionally considered to be beneficial for the cardiovascular system, and recently we’re seeing these benefits proven in medical research.

clinical trial published in the American Journal of Hypertension tracked men for nearly 25 years and found that those who used the sauna were significantly less likely to develop high blood pressure, even when controlling for factors like obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption and family history of high blood pressure.

A 2018 meta-study examined clinical trials on sauna use and cardiovascular health. The study authors found that long-term sauna use reduced the risk of high blood pressure, but suggested more research was needed.

The proposed mechanism by which saunas reduce blood pressure is an improvement in endothelial function. The endothelium lines the inside of blood vessels, and its dysfunction is associated with chronic disease.

Sauna use also reduces arterial stiffness, cholesterol levels and other inflammatory markers.

Pain Relief

Using the sauna may help relieve chronic pain, which is one of the most debilitating and increasingly common conditions in the modern world.

A 2018 medical review analyzed results from seven clinical trials on sauna bathing for pain relief. In all seven trials, pain scores were reduced on average.

The reason saunas were effective for pain wasn’t explored in this review, but we’d suggest it may be explained in two ways: a hormetic response and the anti-inflammatory effects of sauna use.

Hormesis is the process of biological adaptations to short-term stressors. Humans generally respond favorably to certain short-term stressors like the extreme heat of a sauna. It makes the body more resilient and influences metabolism in a favorable way.

Saunas have also been shown to have a generally anti-inflammatory effect. Since chronic pain is mediated by long-term inflammation, as we discussed in our Relief Factor review, this could directly benefit those with chronic pain.

Improved Airway Function

There is less research on this topic, but early studies have found sauna use to be potentially effective in improving airway and lung health.

A 2013 clinical trial found that sauna use improved airflow in patients with allergic rhinitis, and another study found similar airway benefits in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients. The second study also found that patients had improved exercise tolerance after sauna treatments.

These studies suggest that sauna use may improve lung function, which is impressive since very few treatments (outside of regular exercise) have been found to have such an effect.

A famous Stanford researcher named Andrew Huberman discusses some other interesting health benefits of a sauna on Lex Fridman's podcast:

Are Infrared Saunas Healthier?

Consumers are often curious about whether infrared saunas are healthier than regular saunas.

A traditional sauna heats the body by simply heating the room. Most saunas are called “dry saunas” which indicates the room has high heat and low humidity. Steam rooms, often called “wet saunas,” have high heat and high humidity. Most saunas at commercial gyms are dry saunas.

Infrared saunas work by using specific wavelengths of light to heat the body directly. The room doesn't heat up at all.

For the most part, both types of saunas exert a beneficial effect by putting stress on the body and drastically increasing sweating, which has cardiovascular and detoxification benefits.

One area where infrared saunas may provide additional health benefits is the exposure to certain wavelengths of light, but research in this field is still emerging. We know from medical studies that far infrared light (FIR) can penetrate the skin up to 1.5 inches, and directly impacts biological processes and cellular signaling.

Most of the studies proving benefits of red light therapy involve longer wavelengths than those used in infrared saunas. A medical review on red light therapy (which is also called Low Level Light Therapy) found that it was effective for skin improvements as well as some inflammatory conditions, but the wavelengths used were lower than nearly all commercial infrared saunas would use.

Overall, there may be some additional health benefits to infrared sauna use over traditional sauna use, but it's too early to say so conclusively in our opinion.

Traditional saunas tend to be more cost effective than infrared saunas, because many are included in a standard gym membership so come at no extra cost at all, while infrared saunas can cost thousands.

A popular health influencer and scientific researcher named Dr. Rhonda Patrick suggests that traditional sauna use has a more favorable effect on blood pressure levels than infrared sauna use:

@foundmyfitness #sauna #hotbath #hypertension #dementia ♬ original sound - Dr. Rhonda Patrick

We Tried Saunas Ourselves

traditional sauna UGC

As one of the authors of this article (Calloway), I wanted to try saunas myself over the course of a few months to share benefits I experienced.

I primarily used traditional saunas (at my gym) although I tried a red light sauna once.

The main benefit I noted from sauna use was improved mood. I didn't note any specific physical benefits, although I'm sure it's been good for my health, because I'm already in relatively healthy physical condition.

Particularly in the winter, going in the hot sauna for 20 or more minutes in the morning set me up for a great mood all day. It's very relaxing and peaceful, and you feel like you completed a cardio workout afterwards.

The red light sauna took too long for me.

I also found sauna use to be beneficial health-wise for detoxing, because I don't sweat very much during exercise.

If I weightlift, I don't sweat at all, and even during cardio I sweat somewhat minimally. Sauna use helped me sweat excessively to a degree I couldn't achieve during cardio.

Can Saunas Help With Weight Loss?

Saunas may be effective for weight loss because they increase metabolic rate and burn calories, similar to physical exercise.

For people averse to exercise and who are highly sedentary, sauna use may be a useful way to "mimic" the favorable biological effects of physical exercise. A clinical trial published in The Scientific World Journal tested the effects of sauna use in sedentary men and women and found that the practice provides heat stress to the body that can cause weight loss and favorable metabolic changes.

Another clinical trial found that four sauna sessions of 10 minutes each caused an average of 1.43 pounds of weight loss in overweight men. The majority of this was likely water loss.

We cannot identify any clinical trials over longer time periods on sauna use for weight loss, but it seems logical that any practice that drastically increases calories burned can help to promote weight loss. 

Do Saunas Cause Side Effects?

Saunas generally have low risks and have been used by humans for thousands of years. Saunas have even been used medicinally in high-risk populations. A meta-study published in the Clinical Cardiology journal found that sauna use caused favorable changes in cardiac function in patients with heart failure.

One often neglected side effect of saunas is they can cause negative changes in male fertility parameters like sperm count and motility.

The testicles are extremely sensitive to heat, and exposure to extremely high heat negatively impacts sperm function. These changes are usually reversible, but it may be advisable for men seeking to have children in the near future to avoid saunas.

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Saunas have a number of clinically-proven health benefits. Three of the most well-studied are favorable effects on blood pressure, pain relief and improved airway function.

Saunas may be an effective weight loss aid, but we haven't come across any long-term clinical trials testing this (there typically isn't much money to fund trials on general health practices like sauna use because no one specific company benefits).

We haven't come across any convincing medical research suggesting that infrared sauna use is more effective than traditional dry sauna use. Many commercial gyms already have a sauna, so the health benefits can be obtained for no added cost for some individuals.

While sauna use is relatively low-risk and can be a healthy practice for the average individual, it may not be appropriate for everyone, so it's important to speak with a doctor prior to incorporating this practice.