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The Health Benefits of Sauna

Written by Dr. Daniela Steyn

Women in sauna

At my Lifestyle Medicine Clinic patients often ask me to develop an individualized plan for them to help optimize their health and longevity. The benefits of a sauna often come up for discussion. Saunas have been utilized for centuries in various cultures around the world for health and well-being.


What is a Sauna?

A sauna is a small room or space designed to produce dry or wet heat, typically using a stove or an infrared heating system. The practice of using saunas involves sitting in the heated environment for a specified period, allowing the body to experience a range of therapeutic effects.


1. Detoxification

One of the primary benefits associated with sauna use is its ability to facilitate detoxification. Detoxification is one of the key principles of Functional Medicine. Sweating is a natural process through which the body eliminates toxins. Saunas induce sweating, promoting the release of toxins such as heavy metals, environmental pollutants, and metabolic waste products. The deep sweating experienced during a sauna session can aid in cleansing the skin and supporting the body's natural detoxification processes.


2. Cardiovascular Health

Healthy heart

Regular sauna use has shown promising effects on cardiovascular health. The heat from the sauna causes blood vessels to dilate, leading to increased circulation. This improved blood flow can enhance heart function, lower blood pressure, and improve overall cardiovascular health. Sauna use has also been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular-related events such as heart attacks and strokes. Patients often come to me to get medically cleared for using a sauna. For my patients that do have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure, I always take their unique health history, current health and current medication into account before I advise how often and for how long they can use a sauna. I recommend you do the same and discuss your unique health situation with your primary health care provider.


3. Pain Relief and Muscle Recovery

Saunas have been utilized for centuries to alleviate pain and promote muscle recovery. The heat from saunas helps relax muscles, relieve tension, and reduce muscle soreness. Additionally, the increase in circulation during a sauna session can aid in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, facilitating their repair and recovery after exercise or injury. I am a marathon runner and have competed at the International Triathlon World Championships for Canada. I help many athletes optimize their health during race preparation and optimize recovery after a race. Saunas and cold water immersion plays a key role, combined with adequate electrolyte and fluid replacement.


4. Stress Reduction and Mental Health

Saunas provide a serene and tranquil environment, which can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. The heat stimulates the release of endorphins, the body's natural "feel-good" chemicals, leading to a sense of calm and well-being. For some of my patients at Wellness MD regular sauna use has also been associated with improvements in symptoms of anxiety and depression, along with all the other lifestyle medicine principles we follow (healthy diet, movement, restorative sleep, avoiding toxins and supportive social connections).


5. Immune System Support

Saunas have been shown to have positive effects on the immune system. The increase in body temperature during a sauna session can stimulate the production of white blood cells, enhancing the body's defense against infections and illnesses. Sauna use may also help reduce the frequency and severity of respiratory infections, such as the common cold. (Cold water immersion have the same benefits, perhaps I will write a cold water therapy blog next, email me if you are interested at info@wellnessmdhealth.com).


Boost your immune system

Considerations and Precautions

Like I always say, in every talk I give, social media post or blog.  Everyone is different. Consult with your healthcare provider before using a sauna, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions. I don't recommend saunas for my patients with unstable angina, a recent heart attack, aorta stenosis, orthostatic hypotension or POTS.  I also do not recommend for kids to use a sauna or the use of a sauna during pregnancy.


Here are a few considerations and precautions to keep in mind to use a sauna safely:

  1. Drink plenty of water before and after a sauna session to stay well hydrated.

  2. Make sure to replace electrolytes after a sauna session.

  3. Limit your sauna sessions to a reasonable duration (usually 10-20 minutes) and avoid excessively high temperatures to prevent overheating. When I clear a patient medically to use a sauna, I recommend a low temperature for four minutes, then over time you can slowly increase the frequency and duration.


Conclusion

Saunas have a long history of use in promoting health and well-being. From detoxification and cardiovascular support to pain relief and stress reduction, the benefits of sauna use extend to various aspects of our physical and mental health. Integrative and functional medicine approaches recognize the value of incorporating traditional practices like saunas into our modern lifestyles. As with any wellness practice, it is essential to use saunas safely and consult with a healthcare professional when necessary. Embracing the health benefits of saunas can be a valuable addition to our journey toward optimal well-being.


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