8 Must-Know Facts About Sauna Bathing

Sauna bathing can be a great experience!

From Finland, to the United States, to Russia, and Japan, sauna bathing has gained considerable popularity. The heat in a sauna, often around 180-200 degrees fahrenheit, envelopes the body, causing sweat production to increase. Many sauna bathers will tell you it produces the ultimate “clean” feeling. Others will tell you it enhances their well being. And others will swear it’s their secret to health. While anecdotal testimonies do have some merit, many folks are interested in what the structured research says about sauna bathing, so let’s take a look.

1. Sauna Bathing Promotes Chemical and Toxic Metal Cleansing

Unfortunately, pollution has permeated our entire world and our environment is contaminated with synthetic chemicals. Test nearly any person alive and you’ll find detectable levels of man-made chemicals in their body. Most of this toxic trash is fat-soluble, meaning it stays in the body where it has access to all organs and even the blood-brain and placental barriers.

Sweating, however, promotes cleansing and should absolutely be considered for detoxification of toxins, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, copper, nickel, manganese, sodium, chloride, ammonia, and urea. [1] [2] [3]

In 1978, L. Ron Hubbard (the Scientology guy) constructed a protocol to promote the broad elimination of chemicals from the body. The regimen included exercise, sauna bathing, and nutritional support; it’s been adopted by medical practices in over 20 countries. [4] Additionally, the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe Arizona has reported that regular sauna use helps to mobilize fat-soluble toxins. [5]

For readers who are not content with the assertions of a Scientologist or a bunch of hippies in the desert… Okay, what about the University of Southern California School of Medicine?

Researchers there reported of firemen who had been exposed to PCBs and experienced neurobehavioral impairments as a result. After a three week detoxification protocol that included a dietary regimen, exercise, and sauna, they experienced significant improvement. [6]

Similarly, the St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto reported of a patient who had experienced low-level exposure to toxic solvents for over twenty years. As a complementary therapy, sauna bathing helped to balance the patient’s condition and she was able to discontinue all medications that had been previously prescribed for her symptoms. [7]

2. Sauna Bathing Should Not Be Mixed With Medication or Chemicals

Although sauna bathing has its benefits, sauna heat does exert a stressor effect on your body. It’s best not to mix it with other stressors, such as alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately, this practice is far more common than it should be, and is especially risky.

Certain medications, like blood pressure medication, may cause low blood pressure after bathing. [8] However, most of the time, problems result from combining alcohol consumption with sauna use. That has been linked to high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and sudden death. [9] In that regard, if we need to point fingers, most often the problem is middle aged men who drink in the sauna, pass out, and experience burns or death. [10]

3. Sauna Bathing Promotes Mental Health

Ask most sauna bathers what they like most about the sauna and they’ll tell you how relaxing it is — mentally and physically. Research supports this claim. According to the Tampere University Hospital in Finland, sauna use may help reduce stress. [11] This assertion has been backed by Japanese researchers who found similar results, reporting that sauna bathing improves tension, mood, anger, fatigue, and confusion. [12]

4. Sauna Bathing May Not Boost Athletic Performance

Competing in a desert marathon? Don’t look to the sauna to help you adapt to the hot climate. The Finnish Defense Forces explicitly advise against this practice and recommends that athletes ought not look to the sauna to enhance their performance. However, they do suggest that it’s an excellent way for athletes to cleanse their body, refresh their mind, and relax. [13]

Other research has even shown a negative effect immediately following sauna use. The Department of Physiology at the University of Granada found that sauna-induced dehydration significantly decreases leg strength in women. [14] It doesn’t only affect women. In 2002, researchers at the University of Sydney evaluated ten athletic men and found that their muscular endurance decreased significantly after sauna exposure. [15]

Note that both of these studies indicate that strength reductions were observed after sauna bathing, which itself is very similar to exercise and leads to similar temporary fatigue. Which means that maybe…

5. Sauna Bathing May Boost Athletic Performance

The University of Otago in New Zealand performed a study in which male distance runners partook in three weeks of post-training sauna bathing. They found that the participants’ run time to exhaustion increased and it was likely due to an increase in blood and plasma volume that resulted from sauna bathing. [16]

6. Sauna Bathing May Offer Support for Certain Health Conditions

When the body is subjected to heat, it helps blood vessels to widen and open up. This general effect has been observed as benefitting the indications of more than a few health problems, including chronic fatigue syndrome, congestive heart failure, and fibromyalgia. [17] [18] [19]

7. Sauna Bathing May Offer Nothing to Some Health Issues

Sauna bathing is not beneficial for all ailments, however. In Finland, it was a long held belief that it was best to avoid the sauna after a surgery when sutures were still in place. However, a 2003 Finnish study evaluated 79 patients who had fresh, surgical sutures and found that sauna use had no impact on wound healing. [20]

Additionally, a 1983 German examination of 213 male psoriasis patients reported that, following sauna use, 10% improved, 1% got worse, and the vast majority, 89%, showed no change in their condition. [21]

8. It’s Best to Use the Sauna Sensibly

According to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute Prevention and Rehabilitation Centre, sauna bathing is generally safe and without risks, provided it’s done sensibly. What does sensibly mean? It means don’t stay in the sauna for a ridiculous or uncomfortable amount of time. It also means extreme temperatures ought be avoided. [22]

Do you enjoy sauna bathing? How long has it been part of your life? What benefits or caveats have you noticed? Please weigh in on our discussion and leave a comment below!

– Dr. Edward F. Group III, DC, ND, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM

References:

  1. Sears ME, Kerr KJ, Bray RI. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012;2012:184745. doi: 10.1155/2012/184745. Epub 2012 Feb 22.
  2. Cohn JR, Emmett EA. The excretion of trace metals in human sweat. Ann Clin Lab Sci. 1978 Jul-Aug;8(4):270-5.
  3. Czarnowski D, Górski J. [Excretion of nitrogen compounds in sweat during a sauna]. Pol Tyg Lek. 1991 Feb 18-Mar 4;46(8-10):186-7.
  4. Cecchini M, LoPresti V. Drug residues store in the body following cessation of use: impacts on neuroendocrine balance and behavior–use of the Hubbard sauna regimen to remove toxins and restore health. Med Hypotheses. 2007;68(4):868-79. Epub 2006 Oct 12.
  5. Crinnion W. Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant- induced and other chronic health problems. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Sep;16(3):215-25.
  6. Kilburn KH, Warsaw RH, Shields MG. Neurobehavioral dysfunction in firemen exposed to polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs): possible improvement after detoxification. Arch Environ Health. 1989 Nov-Dec;44(6):345-50.
  7. Krop J. Chemical sensitivity after intoxication at work with solvents: response to sauna therapy. J Altern Complement Med. 1998 Spring;4(1):77-86.
  8. Kukkonen-Harjula K, Kauppinen K. How the sauna affects the endocrine system. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):262-6.
  9. Hannuksela ML, Ellahham S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. Am J Med. 2001 Feb 1;110(2):118-26.
  10. Rodhe A, Eriksson A. Sauna deaths in Sweden, 1992-2003. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2008 Mar;29(1):27-31. doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e318145ae05.
  11. Sorri P. The sauna and sauna bathing habits–a psychoanalytic point of view. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):236-9.
  12. Hayasaka S, Nakamura Y, Kajii E, Ide M, Shibata Y, Noda T, Murata C, Nagata K, Ojima T. Effects of charcoal kiln saunas (Jjimjilbang) on psychological states. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2008 May;14(2):143-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2007.12.004. Epub 2008 Mar 4.
  13. Rehunen S. The sauna and sports. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):292-4.
  14. Gutiérrez A, Mesa JL, Ruiz JR, Chirosa LJ, Castillo MJ. Sauna-induced rapid weight loss decreases explosive power in women but not in men. Int J Sports Med. 2003 Oct;24(7):518-22.
  15. Hedley AM, Climstein M, Hansen R. The effects of acute heat exposure on muscular strength, muscular endurance, and muscular power in the euhydrated athlete. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Aug;16(3):353-8.
  16. Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, Cotter JD. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Aug;10(4):259-62. Epub 2006 Jul 31.
  17. Masuda A, Munemoto T, Tei C. [A new treatment: thermal therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome]. Nihon Rinsho. 2007 Jun;65(6):1093-8.
  18. Kihara T, Biro S, Ikeda Y, Fukudome T, Shinsato T, Masuda A, Miyata M, Hamasaki S, Otsuji Y, Minagoe S, Akiba S, Tei C. Effects of repeated sauna treatment on ventricular arrhythmias in patients with chronic heart failure. Circ J. 2004 Dec;68(12):1146-51.
  19. Matsumoto S, Shimodozono M, Etoh S, Miyata R, Kawahira K. Effects of thermal therapy combining sauna therapy and underwater exercise in patients with fibromyalgia. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Aug;17(3):162-6. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.08.004. Epub 2010 Sep 25.
  20. Papp AA, Alhava EM. Sauna-bathing with sutures. A prospective and randomised study. Scand J Surg. 2003;92(2):175-7.
  21. Ständer M, Steinsland B. [Psoriasis patients in the sauna]. Hautarzt. 1983 Oct;34(10):512-4.
  22. Keast ML, Adamo KB. The Finnish sauna bath and its use in patients with cardiovascular disease. J Cardiopulm Rehabil. 2000 Jul-Aug;20(4):225-30.

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  • James

    I’ve been using the sauna about twice per week for about six months. I swim about 1000m and then sit in the sauna for 10 to 20 minutes. I have had fewer cold/flu type viruses this year. I hope it’s also helping to reduce any potential ill-effects of spending about an hour a week in a chlorinated pool.

  • ghc_health

    Thanks for commenting, James. I’ve been doing a similar protocol for quite some time and have noticed the same benefits. Additionally, if I feel a cold coming on, spending some time in the sauna is another part of my defense protocol.
    -Dr. Edward Group

  • mneedes

    Exercising outside in Phoenix when it is 105 degrees out (of couse with adequate hydration and sun protection) doesn’t require a gym membership ! Just doing work in the garage also works too.

  • ghc_health

    I hear you, it’s been similar in Houston lately. I went in to the attic crawl space the other day with a dry shirt and came out with a drenched one.
    -Dr. Edward Group

  • Almost Heaven Group

    While traditional saunas do have real health benefits (these benefits can not be extended to infrared “saunas”, which are a totally different environment), without conclusive evidence we don’t believe detoxification can be counted among these. If you notice in the studies you noted above, the sauna was combined with other lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, etc). Unless you have a study in which the only change made was adding sauna bathing, there is no way to attribute any detoxification to the sauna and not to the other changes that participants made.

  • Karen

    Dr. Group, and others ….so would you recommend a traditional sauna over an infrared sauna? Also, any thoughts on safe pool chemicals, or does a sauna following a swim detox the body pretty well?

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