Saunas have been used for centuries in cultures all over the world, and sauna use has recently become more popular in the United States. Due to their long history, however, many potential health claims have also come to light with this trend.
For example, you may have heard that spending time in the sauna has many health benefits, including rapid weight loss and detoxing the body. But is there any truth to these claims? And how do saunas fit in as part of a healthy lifestyle?
We will be diving into some of the myths around sauna use, including its potential as a weight loss tool. Read on to learn more!
What is a Sauna?
The traditional sauna as we know it today originated in Finland over 2,000 years ago. Saunas are still a cornerstone of Finnish culture: there are almost three million saunas in a country of only five and a half million people.
A traditional Finnish sauna is a wood-lined room that is heated to 150 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit. In some types of Finnish saunas, the humidity can be controlled by pouring water onto heated rocks or a stove.
In a typical sauna, the humidity level runs between 20 to 40 percent, depending on how much water is poured onto the rocks. In a “dry” sauna, the humidity level is typically below 10 percent.
Today, you can access public saunas in many spas, gyms, and health clubs like the YMCA. In many countries, saunas are also manufactured for installation in your home.
The Truth Behind Saunas and Weight Loss
You may have heard stories of people using saunas to lose weight. Unfortunately however, there is very little research that points to any weight loss benefits as a result of sauna use.
One study from Binghamton University, for example, claims that people who were exposed to an infrared sauna in 45-minutes sessions three times per week for four months lost up to four percent of their body fat compared to a control group, whose body fat did not change.
However, researchers did not control the participants’ exercise or diet outside of the experiment, so there is no way to tell what really caused their weight loss. Another important consideration is that most of the weight “lost” after using a sauna is actually just water weight lost.
This is weight loss which comes as a result of water being expelled from the body through sweat. Because it is important to rehydrate after significant fluid loss, this is not a long-term weight loss solution.
Following a mix of other weight loss strategies such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise through a mix of cardio and strength training, getting adequate sleep, and reducing stress may be more beneficial if you are someone on a weight loss journey.
Types of Saunas
When you hear the word “sauna,” you may be thinking of a few different things. Here are just some of the different types of saunas:
An infrared sauna room differs from a traditional Finnish sauna. Rather than heating air or stones, the heating element in infrared rooms reflects the heat directly to the user’s body without using water or additional humidity.
Infrared saunas tend to run at lower temperatures than traditional Finnish saunas, around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a wood-burning sauna, a wood stove heats the sauna room and sauna rocks. It is the closest type of sauna to the ancient Finnish sauna.
The majority of stoves used in a wood-burning sauna are continuously heated stoves in which the wood is being burned while the sauna is being used, rather than heated ahead of time.
The majority of saunas today use electric sauna heaters rather than a wood stove. These types of saunas have been available since the 1950s, and often include extra features, like remote controls with temperature displays and timers.
A steam room is technically not a type of sauna because it uses wet heat rather than dry heat. Also called a Turkish-style bath, a steam room is a humidity-sealed room lined with tile, glass, or acrylic.
It typically has a humidity of 100 percent and a temperature of less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Myth or Fact: Assumed Benefits of Using Saunas
Facilities and companies offering sauna bathing often make many claims regarding the health benefits of sauna use. Unfortunately, there is still very limited research on the health benefits of saunas.
Let’s explore and debunk some of the myths surrounding sauna use.
Can Lead to a Better Night's Sleep
Some studies have shown that sauna bathing may improve self-reported relaxation and stress, and research suggests that this can benefit sleep. However, there is very little evidence that suggests saunas can improve sleep across the board.
More long-term, randomized controlled studies are needed to understand if or how saunas may impact sleep.
Muscle and Joint Recovery
Some research suggests there is a small benefit to muscle and joint recovery for certain groups. For example, sauna bathing may benefit the neuromuscular systems of men who participate in strength and endurance training, as well as male endurance runners.
Other studies indicate that saunas may help dilate your blood vessels and increase blood flow, which can improve circulation. However, it is unclear whether this research can be broadly applied at this time.
Helps Boost Your Metabolic Rate
Unfortunately, research does not suggest that saunas increase metabolic rate in any meaningful way. Exposure to high temperatures may include some small metabolic changes, including the production of heat shock proteins, reduced oxidative stress, increased insulin sensitivity, increased nitric oxide bioavailability, among others.
However, more research is needed to illuminate whether these metabolic changes induced by sauna use can lead to any meaningful long-term health effects.
Detoxification Through Sweating
Our modern world is full of chemicals and we are exposed to them all the time through food, the environment, and all kinds of products. You may have heard that you can rid your body of some of these toxins through sweat, but this is largely a myth.
Very few toxins are released by sweat, and far more are actually excreted via our kidneys and gastrointestinal system.
Reduction of Water Weight in the Body
However, it’s important to replenish fluids after losing them so you reduce the risk of dehydration. As a result, the water weight “lost” will likely be replenished after rehydration.
Potential Health Risks of Saunas
Extreme heat can have many different effects on the body, and some of them may be negative. If you aren’t sure if sauna use is safe for you, always check with your doctor or a qualified health professional before sauna bathing.
Here are a few things to be wary of when using saunas:
Can Cause Dehydration
As we mentioned earlier, it is true that time in a sauna causes you to sweat, which can lead to a reduction of water weight in the body. However, this loss of water can have consequences for your body.
Too much fluid loss can lead to dehydration, which occurs when your body loses more fluid than it takes in. After leaving the sauna, it’s important to drink sufficient water and electrolytes to rehydrate your body.
Blood Pressure Risks (if Jumping in a Cold Plunge After)
Some studies have actually shown that saunas may benefit heart health by lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. However, according to the American Heart Association, you may want to avoid plunging straight into cool water after using a sauna.
This is because moving quickly between hot and cold temperatures can raise your blood pressure. Sauna use raises your body temperature, and plunging directly into a cooler body of water afterward can trigger your body’s cold shock response.
A cold shock can trigger a sudden rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. If you have any heart issues, or are on heart medications, always check with a qualified healthcare provider before using a sauna.
These stress levels caused by heat can be very harmful to the body and lead to several heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat rash, and heat stroke.
Symptoms of these illnesses can range from dizziness to loss of consciousness. People with certain conditions, like heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, are particularly susceptible to heat stress and problems regulating internal temperature.
The elderly and children are also more at risk for heat stress. If you’re unsure if using a sauna is safe for you, always consult with your doctor first.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.