Wet or dry, the health benefits of sauna therapy have been sparking conversation in recent years, though the concept of harnessing heat for healing is certainly nothing new. Saunas have been enjoyed for thousands of years for hygienic improvement, to treat health conditions, as a community gathering place, and for spiritual purposes.
“Multiple cultures around the world use heat therapy for its benefits and rejuvenating and recharging qualities,” says Julia Adamian, MD, section chief of general internal medicine and clinical innovation at NYU Langone Tisch Hospital, referencing the saunas of Finland, Turkish hammams, the sweat lodges enjoyed by American Indian, Russian Banya, and hot springs. “In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) heat therapy can help correct imbalances that lead to physical, mental, and even spiritual pain,” says Gudrun Snyder, founder of Moon Rabbit Acupuncture. “Simply being in an isolated warm room can be beneficial for mental health. Who doesn’t love feeling enveloped in warmth, putting the phone away, and closing their eyes?”
The recent fascination with saunas (#sauna currently sits at 1.8 billion views on TikTok) finds fans praising the hot boxes as a primary component of a healthy routine. “It is important to note that everyone may not experience the same benefits, and individual responses can vary as with anything you try,” says Snyder, who adds that more research is needed to solidify the cause and reality of many of sauna’s positive effects. “It is important to balance the cost and benefit to you.” Whether you plan to enjoy your sauna session as a means of mental unwind, to ease muscle tension post-physical activity, or for the overall health benefits, here’s everything you need to know about the time-honored trend.
What Are the Types of Saunas?
Most studies center on traditional Finnish saunas, aka dry saunas. (“Sauna” is a Finnish word.) The temperature of these saunas typically feature a dry heat that sits between 176 to 230°F with 10 to 20 percent humidity, the latter occasionally increased by pouring water over heated rocks to create additional steam.
Infrared saunas are a touch cooler, providing temperatures between 113 to 140°F via infrared wavelengths rather than water. If someone you know has an in-house sauna, it’s likely of the infrared variety. Lastly, wet saunas, aka steam rooms, sit at around 158 to 212°F and over 50 percent humidity with the goal of increasing your thermal load.
What Are the Health Benefits of Sauna?
Sauna time is thought to benefit the physical body in a number of ways. Saunas and the heat that they provide help to activate thermoregulatory pathways, activating the the sympathetic nervous system to positive (and documented) effect. While both Adamian and Snyder note that more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms and establish definitive links, there are a number of ways that sauna and heat therapy in general may bolster your body and mind.
Improved Blood Pressure and Circulation
“Exposure to heat causes blood vessels to widen, which can lead to improved blood circulation,” says Snyder. “This dilation of blood vessels, known as vasodilation, can help reduce blood pressure and increase blood flow to various parts of the body, including the heart.” Time spent in the sauna has also been linked to temporary reductions in blood pressure for some, likely due to a combination of the same vessel dilation and the general relaxation that comes with the practice.
While the sauna may be beneficial for individuals with hypertension (high blood pressure), a risk factor for heart disease, external effects on blood pressure vary widely: blood pressure may increase for some while decreasing for others.
Regular sauna use can lend to cardiovascular health, too. “There is data about repeated thermal therapy (mostly dry sauna) improving vascular function in patients with known heart disease risk factors,” says Adamian. “Dry sauna improves oxygenation and endothelial function which is tied to heart health.” Snyder seconds the notion. “Heat therapy can increase heart rate and cardiac output, which is the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute,” she says. “This may be considered a form of mild cardiovascular exercise and may help improve heart health over time.” Research supports sauna as a lifestyle shift that can promote heart health, but it’s worth noting that the majority of studies have been conducted on men, and even more specifically, Finnish men, so conferring with your doctor and staying mindful are essential.
The mental health benefits of sauna are an easy win. “Incorporating heat therapy into your self-care routine can be a positive addition to promote relaxation and mental well-being,” says Snyder. Regular therapy can also better sleep, endorphin release, and enhance the mind-body connection through sensory experience (namely, focusing in on warmth and stillness). “Taking the time to prioritize self-care activities, such as enjoying a hot bath or sauna session, can promote a sense of self-worth,” says Snyder.