For years, saunas have been relaxation staples at spas and gyms for good reason: The wet heat feels good.
Now, researchers are discovering that the ancient Scandinavian tradition also confers a variety of health benefits, from removing toxins to promoting better circulation, which is why more doctors are recommending it for their patients.
In particular, a type called far infrared saunas is proving to be especially beneficial for improving cardiovascular health, pain conditions, fatigue, chronic respiratory ailments, and sports performance.
Unlike conventional steam baths, which use radiant heat from sauna rocks, far infrared (FIR) saunas use infrared light rays to penetrate the body more deeply.
“Swedish saunas function at a heat level of about 160-200 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem is , a person cannot stand that kind of heat for much more than 20 minutes,” explains Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., head of The Morrison Center, which specializes in integrative medicine and nutrition in New York City.
“An infrared sauna runs at a temperature of around 120-140 degrees and people are able to stay in longer— anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes.”
A 2012 study at the University of Montreal in Canada found that after people with untreated hypertension used a sauna, their blood pressure improved for 24 hours afterward.
A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that after patients with chronic heart failure spent time in a sauna five times a week for three weeks, they were able to walk farther and experienced improvements in aerobic capacity. What’s more, research from the Netherlands found that eight sessions of infrared sauna therapy over four weeks led to a decrease in pain, stiffness, and fatigue among people with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (another type of arthritis).
How can it help with so many different conditions? For starters, “through the sweating process, toxins like heavy metals and organic pollutants are removed from the body through the skin, (which helps) the body work better,” Dr. Morrison explains.
“Also, by heating the body, using a sauna improves circulation, ” which allows blood to flow to the tissues more easily; this, in turn, helps your body feel and function better.
Meanwhile, other research suggest that using an FIR sauna may help improve athletic performance by enhancing flexibility. With FIR, “the deeper heat reaches the muscles and connective tissues, increases circulation and decreases friction, which is what makes muscles and tendons tight, ” explains Michele Olson, professor of exercise kinesiology at Auburn University. Performing stretching exercises when a muscle is deeply heated allows the muscle to “elongate farther and more readily.” she adds, which “can help an athlete maintain and/or develop (greater) range of motion.”
Experts say that while many people are good candidates for sauna therapy, it is wise to get clearance from your doctor before spending time in this super-heated environment. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking a liter of water while you are in a sauna, Dr. Morrison says.
Keep in mind; “If a person stays in a sauna too long, dehydration, mineral depletion, heat exhaustion, and hypotension (low blood pressure) can all occur,” Dr. Morrison warns. So exercise caution with saunas.
Skip the Snow
In a traditional Finnish sauna, people jump into snow or a cold lake afterward. There is no evidence that this bracing cold is beneficial to health, and it may be dangerous to people with heart conditions. Better to cool off slowly afterward or take a normal-temperature shower.
Most health clubs have conventional hot-rock saunas, but FIR saunas are gaining in popularity at fitness centers. You can look at websites or call around to see an if FIR sauna is near you. FIR units are also available for home installment if you want your own private steam bath.
This article was written by Stacey Colino – Health Radar Vol. 4, Issue 7/ July 14