There was a particular moment when I finally decided to get myself a sauna.
Even though I have a garage gym, I had gotten a membership at a nearby 10GYM just so I could use its sauna. I had thought about buying a sauna for years, but before pulling the trigger on this relatively large purchase, I wanted to see if I would enjoy sauna-ing as much I imagined I would, and I figured paying $10 a month to run this experiment would be worth it.
I found I did get something out of my sauna sessions, but that was the problem. I liked it, but I liked it so much that I found I wanted more from the experience than I could access at the gym. And this became crystal clear when I walked into the sauna on one particular evening.
The place was packed to the hilt. Perhaps a dozen dudes were crowded into a not-so-large space. Dudes were squished together on the benches; dudes were sprawled out on the floor; dudes were blasting music from their smartphones. Just as soon as I walked in, I walked right back out. I went home and started to earnestly research purchasing a sauna for my home. Not long after, I became the owner of a Finnish-style wooden barrel, which I put together in my backyard.
A year later, I can say the sauna has been one of the best purchases, nay investments, I’ve ever made, with one of the highest ROIs. I’ve enjoyed it even more than I thought I would (and particularly appreciated it over a stressful year where many gym saunas closed all together). Indeed, my sauna has been helping save my body, mind, and spirit.
When I got my sauna, male friends and family members often expressed their excitement for me and their own envy, sharing how they too had long wanted a sauna and had been thinking about getting one for years.
If you fall into that category, below we highlight the research-backed benefits of regular heat exposure that perhaps will persuade you too to pull the trigger on a lifelong sauna dream, or, at the least, to join a gym that has a sauna; nearly all the benefits we’ll outline apply equally well to the non-personal variety, and are still worth pursuing, even if you have to squish in next to some strangers.
The Many Benefits of Sitting in a Sauna
Sauna is one of the world’s many hot bathing traditions. It originated in Finland but has close relatives in the Russian banya, the Turkish hammam, and the sweat lodge traditions of Native American tribes.
This kind of cultural ubiquity usually points to some veritable, time-tested benefits, and indeed, modern research has been confirming what many of the world’s peoples already knew for thousands of years: saunas can strengthen the body, calm the mind, and bolster the spirit.
Saunas Are De-Stressing & Meditative
Getting your sweat on in a sauna may not literally release toxins from the body, but it sure feels like it does. While mercury doesn’t drip out of your pores, your metaphorical stress does. It just feels dang cleansing.
Saunas offer a unique, almost paradoxical, sense of rejuvenation. They’re not relaxing in the traditional sense; in fact, the intense heat acts as a stressor on your body, and can get kind of uncomfortable. Yet it’s a discomfort that feels strangely pleasurable; the physical stress somehow alleviates your mental stress.
That’s partly because it releases a bunch of feel-good endorphins in your brain.
Sitting in a sauna also facilitates introspection and a sense of calming reset, especially if you’re by yourself. While you could bring your phone into the sauna, the heat isn’t good for it, making sauna sessions a great way to regularly disconnect from the anxiety-inducing distractions of your life.
As you first start to warm up, your mind will wander, and it’s a great time to chew on ideas you’ve been mulling over. As your body starts really heating up, you start to lose the ability to do much real thinking. You get into a kind of meditative state, though it’s one you reach without effort; your mind involuntarily starts to go blank. By the end, you feel wrung out, but blissed out.
Saunas May Boost Cardiovascular Health
Sitting in a sauna not only gives you the kind of “runner’s high” you get from moderate exercise, studies show it also provides you with similar benefits to your cardiovascular health — improved blood pressure and cholesterol counts, along with a reduction in your chances of heart disease.
Heat raises your heart rate. In moderate temperature sauna sessions, your heart rate can rise to 100 beats per minute; in hotter sessions, it can hit 150 beats per minute — as high as when you’re running. Along with that higher heart rate comes an increase in calorie burn.
It’s often been thought that blood pressure drops in a sauna because the heat dilates your blood vessels, but in fact, your blood pressure will climb while sitting in the sauna and then drop below baseline levels once you finish your session. Over time, sauna-ing has a healthy effect on your BP; one study found that men who hit the sauna 4-7 times a week were half as likely to have high blood pressure, and that was compared to those who already did one sauna session a week.
Saunas May Reduce Chronic Inflammation
When our bodies become injured or sick, inflammation occurs to help with the healing process. But too much inflammation for too long isn’t healthy. Chronic inflammation makes you feel crappy and can contribute to conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and (as we’ll see below) depression.
One way doctors detect chronic inflammation is by looking at your levels of c-reactive protein (CRP) in your blood. Elevated levels of CRP mean elevated levels of inflammation.
One study of Finnish men found an association between increased sauna use and decreased CRP levels. What’s more, studies suggest that sauna use may increase levels of an anti-inflammatory protein called IL-10 as well.
Saunas May Help Alleviate Depression
In my podcast interview with psychiatrist Charles Raison, he laid out a theory that chronic inflammation in the body may be one (of the many) causes of depression. Besides damaging tissues, chronic inflammation makes us feel sad and down. Studies have shown that many people with severe depression also have high levels of chronic inflammation. It isn’t clear if the inflammation caused their depression, or if their depression caused the inflammation, but if you reduce the inflammation in these individuals, oftentimes their depression starts to alleviate, too.
That may be why several studies have shown that regular sauna sessions, which, as we just discussed, reduce inflammation, also help boost mood.
In my interview with Raison, he was quick to note that saunas are not a panacea for curing depression. Many people with depression don’t have chronic inflammation, so working on the latter won’t address the former.
But even if sauna-ing doesn’t work on depression via the inflammation pathway, it may still enhance mood via the aforementioned release of endorphins, or simply by giving you a half hour of silence and solitude; many people with depression simply need more time-outs from the stress that besieges minds that are overly reactive to negativity. If you regularly battle the black dog, consider adding sauna sessions to your multifaceted approach to leashing it.
Be sure to listen to our podcast interview with Charles Raison about depression, inflammation, and saunas:
Saunas May Help Boost Immune Function
When you get sick, your body becomes inflamed to help kill the bacteria or virus that’s causing the disease. One of the things that helps your body’s immune system destroy these bodily invaders is a fever. While fevers are uncomfortable, they kickstart cellular mechanisms that ensure our immune systems are running full steam ahead. White blood cells, T-cell antibodies, and phagocytes start increasing and perform best when our internal body temperature is between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you sit in a hot sauna, you give yourself an artificial fever and get the immune-boosting benefits that come with it without actually getting sick.
For example, one study showed that individuals who sat in a 204-degree sauna for 15 minutes, and then followed that session with a 2-minute cooldown shower, had a marked increase in white blood cells.
The immune-boosting effects may (partly) explain why regular sauna users experience fewer colds and less severe pneumonia cases than non-sauna users.
Saunas May Boost Human Growth Hormone
Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is what causes children to, well, grow.
As adults, we still need HGH for our bodies to stay in tip-top shape. Decreases in HGH result in declining muscle mass, increasing body fat, tiredness, problems sleeping, and diminished libido.
In addition to regular strength training and eating a healthy diet, sitting in a sauna can help keep HGH levels optimized throughout adulthood.
Research shows that people who sit in a moderately hot sauna experience an increase in this hormone afterward. For example, one study found that individuals who sat in a 176-degree sauna for two 20-minute sessions separated by a 30-minute break experienced a fivefold increase in HGH levels immediately afterward.
Couple regular sauna sessions with regular strength training and you’ve got yourself a potent, healthy, and legal HGH cocktail.
Saunas May Increase Insulin Sensitivity
If you struggle with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, saunas may be another weapon in your arsenal to keep elevated blood sugars in check.
The research here is pretty speculative and has only been done on mice. However, it does suggest that whole-body hyperthermia can help increase insulin sensitivity in your muscles. More research is needed to confirm this finding.
Saunas Can Increase Athletic Endurance
If you’re an endurance athlete — a runner, biker, or swimmer — regular sauna sessions may increase your endurance.
One study found that athletes who took part in 30-minute sauna sessions twice a week could run longer before reaching exhaustion compared to athletes who didn’t do the sauna sessions.
This benefit may be particularly pronounced if you run in a location with hot weather (or plan to travel to and compete in an event in a hot climate). A few studies have shown that regular sauna sessions can boost your body’s heat tolerance and help you acclimate to exercising in hot conditions.
Saunas May Help in Maintaining and Increasing Muscle Mass
Several studies have shown that individuals who regularly use a sauna have less muscle loss and, in some cases, increased muscle growth compared to individuals who don’t use a sauna. Why would this be?
As noted above, saunas can boost HGH levels, which play a significant role in protein synthesis, which our bodies use to create and maintain muscle tissue.
Another way sauna-ing can help maintain and increase muscle mass is by increasing heat shock protein (HSP) in our system. Breaking Muscle has a deep dive into how HSPs work. The TLDR version is that when our muscles experience stress, HSP helps reduce muscle loss by assisting muscle damage repair and protein folding during protein synthesis.
Exercising can boost HSP levels, but so can sitting in a sauna.
To be clear, sauna sessions won’t magically turn you into the Hulk. You still have to train hard and be disciplined with your nutrition, and you can get big and strong by simply doing those things alone. Think of the sauna as just another good supplement in your pursuit of the gainz.
Saunas Provide a Retreat and a Third Space
One of things I’ve appreciated the most about my sauna is the kind of external retreat it provides, that’s right outside my house. In a time when we’ve been cooped up at home a lot, doing a session in the sauna feels like I’ve gone somewhere, and done something, even though I haven’t left my property. It offers a change of scene and pace.
My sauna feels like a private sanctum sanctorum, and at the same time, also acts as a communal “third space.” A space outside the home and the office (which for me, like many, is the same!), where I can meet up with other people:
Saunas Offer Social Therapy
Most guys wouldn’t ever call up their dude friends and say, “Hey, who wants to come over and talk?” And most dude friends wouldn’t be too receptive to that invitation.
But ask your buddies, “Who wants to come over and sauna?” and everybody jumps at the opportunity. Even though you pretty much just invited them to come over and talk.
Men like to socialize around some activity, and a sauna session, even if it’s not actually so active, provides a focal point to gather around.
As soon as I got my sauna (which holds 6 grown men comfortably) built, I invited several good friends over for a session. We started off with a low temperature so we could talk and catch up and not be too distracted by the heat. As the evening progressed, we’d slowly ratchet up the heat, and we finished the session off by cranking things up 215 degrees and splashing water on the hot rocks for a burst of steam.
We all slept like babies that night.
The socializing probably did us more good than the heat, though. Getting stripped down (to our swimsuits; as prudish Americans, no, we don’t get naked) and sweating in a small space facilitates intimate bonding and discussion, and our conversation went all over the place. We talked about what’s happening in our lives, discussed philosophy, theology, and current events, and quoted movies from our teenage years. And interspersed between all of this, we shared what we were each struggling with and provided each other support.
Subsequent sessions unfolded in the same way, and for me, this kind of social therapy has been perhaps the biggest and most enjoyable benefit of getting a sauna.
Inspired to make sauna-ing a regular ritual in your own life? Next week we’ll talk about all the what’s, where’s, and how’s of getting the most out of this practice.