Real Talk: What Do Saunas Really Do?

Updated 01/27/18
Sauna benefits: woman by a curtain
Free People

Question: What do saunas actually do? Sure, they make you sweat, but what are the health benefits? As a starting point, it's worth noting that saunas originated in Finland, and a 20-year-long study published in 2015 found that the more saunas Finnish men took per week, the longer they lived. While women weren't included in this study, the simple fact that Finland has one of the highest life expectancies in the world can't be a coincidence.

Before I delved into the science behind sauna benefits, I wanted to know more about the origins of the practice. So I turned to a couple of Finnish friends who gave me an insight into why it's such an important part of the culture. First off, I wanted to know if all Finnish people take saunas, and the answer from both was a definite yes. "There is no one in Finland who dislikes saunas," I was told. I also wanted to know how often people took them again both said that it was at least once per week.

Interestingly enough, both friends talked about how ingrained the sauna is in Finnish culture, from taking one every day instead of showering when you spend time in your summer house (it's a thing in Finland) to it being a special thing to do before you get married. Basically, saunas are a big deal, and life and death revolve around it. We're clearly missing out over here. And after doing more research and speaking to experts, I've discovered that there are plenty of benefits to be gained from taking a sauna.

Keep scrolling for our guide to sauna benefits, which include everything from losing weight to aiding mental health.

1. It's good for your skin

With all that sweating you'd be forgiven for worrying it might clog up your pores but that's not the case. Leading skincare and celebrity facialist expert Renée Rouleau has spoken a great deal about saunas.

"A benefit is that of increased circulation that comes with heat. It is through the blood that oxygen and nutrients feed the cells in both our skin and body which are absolutely essential for keeping the metabolism of the cells acting young and making the repair processes function efficiently".

However, she warns that for people with already slightly redder skin that avoiding a sauna altogether is advised. Also, it's important to note that you will lose water from the skin (as you sweat) so it's important to add moisturiser the moment you get out.

As for skin conditions, a study from 2001, "Benefits and Risks of Sauna Bathing" stated that "although sauna bathing does not cause drying of the skin—and may even benefit patients with psoriasis—sweating may increase itching in patients with atopic dermatitis."

As always, if you're concerned that this might affect a pre-existing condition, do speak to your doctor first.

2. It's good for your circulation

There are many different studies out there but first we spoke to Rick Seah, MD, a medical consultant in sport and exercise, who revealed that there's evidence to suggest it helps your circulation.

"What we think happens [when you're in a sauna] is that your veins vasodilate (where blood vessels widen), which can help with lowering your blood pressure. From a muscular-skeletal side of things, it increases the blood flow around the body, which can help with problems such as joint pain and arthritis."

Another study, "Beneficial Effects of Sauna Bathing for Heart-Failure Patients," advises that in general, it's not recommended to take a sauna if you're experiencing chronic heart failure, however, other studies have demonstrated that those who suffer from high blood pressure and other coronary problems can benefit from the heat therapy of a sauna.

3. It's good for your mind

Perhaps one sauna benefit we weren't expecting was the mental health aspect. When we spoke to Seah on the matter he said that the reason why is that it enables you to relax. Which, in hindsight, we should have realised (a "well, duh" moment if there ever was one).

The reason? Says Seah, "It makes you feel nice, you get more relaxed, and as a result will likely sleep better" all of which is conducive to feeling better in yourself and a great way to help your mental health.

But it can even go further than that, with some reports proving a link between taking saunas and alleviating depression. In one study, "Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder," researchers found that when treating people with depression that exposure to heat therapy (hyperthermia), "holds promise as a safe, rapid-acting, antidepressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit."

4. It's good for period pain

As period pain is the result of your womb muscles contracting it makes sense that a sauna will help. For anyone who's bored of reaching for the hot water bottle every month, this could be a more relaxing solution, but we found loads of other cures here.

5. It's good for weight loss

Well, this is definitely an idea we can get on board with. Thanks to the heat, your metabolic rate is raised aiding with weight loss, says Seah. There are studies that back this up too. A study titled "Sauna-Induced Body Mass Loss in Young Sedentary Women and Men" looked at 674 sedentary participants aged 19-20, with 326 women and 348 men. The study found that those who had a higher BMI (body mass index) lost the most amount of weight. Those who had a "healthy" BMI (between 18 and 25), found that they lost between 0.2-0.6 kg after 20 minutes in a sauna.

Of course, the results will vary from person to person, and we must stress that it's highly important to stay well hydrated too, but this is yet another reason for us to take a trip to the sauna post-gym. Or we could just move to Finland. 

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