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Sauna - Is the hot box healthy?

Saunas have been around for hundreds of years and are found in every country in the world. They can be a wonderful place to relax and unwind in. No country takes their saunas more seriously than Finland. With five million inhabitants and over two million saunas, Finns average one per household.

With that kind of devotion, it seems only appropriate that the most comprehensive look at the potential health benefits and drawbacks of saunas would come from there. Finnish researchers went through 130 published studies and compiled the results into a comprehensive review. There was good and bad news for everybody.

First, the good news.

The most immediate benefit of a sauna is the release of tension many people experience. Sitting in a sauna, you're removed from the noise and stresses of life and the only requirement is that you relax. Even if heat wasn't involved, just the few minutes of escape to a solitary environment is beneficial.

Saunas have also been shown to help soothe sore muscles and relieve tight muscles around arthritic joints.

Dry saunas may improve blood vessel and heart function of people with chronic heart failure. In a "thermal therapy" experiment, subjects sat in a sauna set at 140º F (60º C) for 15 minutes a day, three to five times a week. Afterward, the subjects rested under blankets for 30 minutes. In just two weeks, 40% of the participants who had coronary risk factors had significantly improved blood vessel function.

Two important things should be noted. First, the study showed no improvement or benefit for people who were not already at risk of heart disease. Second, the heat in the sauna was set lower than what is typical in hotels and gyms. (Saunas in hotels and gyms are generally set at 170-210º F or 80-100º C.)

Now the bad news.

Sitting in the sauna is not an effective way to "warm-up" your muscles before working out. The heat does increase circulation (and sweating as your body temperature rises), but it doesn't draw significantly more blood into the muscles, which is the whole point of a warm-up.

The heat from a sauna doesn't melt away fat, help lose weight or increase cardiac capacity. The only weight loss experienced in a sauna is from dehydration and you put that right back on the moment you drink fluids again.

Saunas aren't an effective way to clean your pores. Washing your skin with a washcloth is more effective than sitting in a sauna for 30 minutes.

Men trying to have children should stay out of the sauna. A man's testicles are outside his body to keep them several degrees cooler and protect his sperm. Anything that heats the testes can drop sperm count and motility for 70-75 days. If you're a man who wants to become a father, avoid hot baths, hot showers, Jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms.

Women who are pregnant should avoid the sauna as well. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who experienced elevated body temperatures (100º F or more) during their first trimester had an increased risk of birth defects.

Saunas don't help eliminate "toxins" or "impurities" from your body. They do increase fluid loss, can lead to dehydration, and if taken for too long, can seriously stress your body's cooling systems. (For more information on "toxins," CLICK HERE see our article Detox Fads Debunked.)

If you are already dehydrated after a workout, don't head for the sauna. Your body temperature rises, causing further dehydration and dilation of your blood vessels. The combination of dehydration and blood vessel dilation can lead to a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, weakness, fainting and even death.

The risks are real. From 1979 to 1997, the Centers for Disease Control reported 327 people died from "excessive heat exposure...of man-made origin." If you have cardiac risk factors, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoke or take regular medications, you should definitely talk to a doctor before taking time in a sauna.

UPDATE: 8/19/2010

When we looked into newer studies since we originally released this article in 2006, we found virtually identical results. There are small studies (24 to 150 people) that show limited benefits for people taking 2-4 saunas a week, but none of them stood up to scrutiny when expanded to larger populations.

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Updated 8/19/19