Some say they increase your sex drive, others reckon they render you infertile. Some say they improve cardiovascular health, others worry they cause heart attacks. So what’s the truth about saunas? Are they as beneficial as their sweaty proponents believe? In this article we delve into their real health benefits, and bust a few myths that have been flying around lately.
Saunas have been part of various cultures and societies for centuries. Now they are enjoyed by everyone from stressed out execs, acupuncture gurus, elite athletes, and—of course—hairy old men. If you fall under one (or more) of those categories: here’s everything you need to justify binning your to-do list and getting your sweat on.
It Improves Exercise Recovery
If leg day has you stalling the car and crawling up stairs: saunas can help with that. In a Springerplus study, saunas were found to decrease “delayed onset muscle soreness” and improve exercise recovery. The research also suggests that infrared saunas may be particularly effective at penetrating the neuromuscular system to promote recovery. Go ahead: celebrate. Add that extra 10 kilos to your next leg press. Just remember that if you don’t properly rehydrate; all your hard work will be undone.
It Lowers Your Blood Pressure
Extensive population based studies have shown that frequent sauna bathing improves the function of your inside layer of blood vessels, which in turn lowers your blood pressure. As reported by Science Daily, “The risk of developing elevated blood pressure was nearly 50 percent lower among men who had a sauna 4-7 times a week compared to men who had a sauna only once a week.” This means that if you are reasonably fit and healthy (and not pregnant), the physical stress of a sauna—as with most forms of mild duress—will make you stronger.
It Can Improve Your Cardio
Much like sex, regular sauna sessions won’t have you running a four minute mile. However, one study, conducted in Finland (and which followed 2,315 men ages 42 to 60 over the course of 20 years) found that people who use a sauna may have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
“After adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors, increased sauna use was linked with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular-related diseases.”
That said, saunas should not replace an exercise program to keep your heart and lungs healthy—the physiological response to an ordinary sauna session typically corresponds to a fairly relaxed physical activity such as walking.
It Could Make You Smarter—If You Go Regularly
Sure, saunas are relaxing. But can they really boost your memory? According to the latest research—maybe they can. In one study, men who spent time in a sauna multiple times per week had a 65 percent lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s than those who used them only once a week. This could be due to increased blood flow to the brain—but further research is needed before you go quoting it at your next dinner party.
It Gives You Better Skin (But Worse Eczema)
Although it is (sadly) a myth that sweating gets rid of toxins (true detoxification takes place in the liver and kidneys), sweating is good for your skin in other ways: “Saunas help improve your skin by opening up your pores and allowing built-up wastes to flush out as you sweat,” (LiveStrong).
“Lotions, deodorants, and dead skin cells can clog your pores and lead to acne and painful cysts. The dry heat from a sauna helps your skin avoid infection from these built-up wastes.”
However, you have to weigh up these benefits against the drying out of your skin (which occurs if you don’t drink enough water once you get out), because (steam rooms excepted) saunas dry the skin during use. This means that people with eczema may find saunas worsen their condition.
It Can Alleviate Headaches & Colds
Unless you’re stuck in there with another spluttering optimist, research has suggested saunas alleviate conditions like headaches and flu. In which case—you become the inconsiderate one, as you cough over everyone in your attempt to get better. However doctors say that “sweating it out” makes serious colds worse, so give the sauna a miss if you have the flu; use it only for minor snivels (and be prepared for everyone to hate you).
It Can Ease Pain
Whether it’s the pain of existence or that weird throbbing in your left knee, saunas can help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement, and ease arthritis pain due to the increased blood circulation they provide.