A comprehensive guide to the benefits of adding the Sauna to your training regimen
One of the latest (and oldest) trends in athlete recovery has been the use of the sauna to drastically increase your core body temperature. From the ancient Greeks, Romans and Native American sweat lodges; many cultures have perceived the value of extreme heat as a form cleansing or fortifying.
Does this actually hold up? Lets take a look at what modern research has to say about the value of the sauna.
The modern Sauna and "all-cause mortality" rates
The modern sauna today typically takes the form of a small room with a wooden interior. Typically dry Saunas reach temperatures from about 175 to 210° F.
Wet saunas – or steam rooms – have much more moisture and are far less hot.
Most of what occurs in your body during a sauna visit is very similar to an intense workout. Your internal body temperature rises steadily and your heart rate increases drastically.
For this reason, many health practitioners were quick to recommend anyone at risk of heart attacks to avoid the Sauna.
Most of the data collected concerning long term sauna use in Humans was done in Finland. Beginning in 1984 and finally being published in 2015, researchers studied the lives and habits of over 2,000 men of various ages over a 20 year time span.
Surprisingly, the study found that those who frequented the sauna had a lower risk of coronary heart disease and fatal cardiovascular disease overall. More surprisingly, the study associated sauna use with lower all-cause mortality. (1)
Like it sounds; “all-cause mortality” refers to an early death from ANY cause. Taking a deeper look into the 20 year long accumulation of data, the study appeared to suggest that how many visits to the sauna mattered as well.
The participants that visited the sauna 2 to 3 times per week were associated with a 24 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality while the participants that visited 4 to 7 times per week were associated with an astounding 40 percent. (2)
Does the Sauna actually detoxify? Is it possible to sweat out heavy metals through the skin?
It important to separate fact from myth when discussing the benefits and potential downside of exposing your body to extreme heat.
Sweating as a viable means of detoxification is a controversial topic among many health professionals. In the past, many health practitioners have dismissed the notion that your skin facilitates any kind of detoxification.
Sweating is essentially a heat loss mechanism that your body produces when the thermal load on your body reaches high levels. Sweat was traditionally seen as the loss of water, electrolytes and trace minerals and not acknowledged to be a viable excretory route for toxic metals.
However a 2012 review of 50 different studies from around the world found that Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury WERE present and detectable within sweat. (3)
Arsenic, Mercury, Cadmium and Lead are all toxic heavy metals that are highly carcinogenic and may contribute to a myriad of negative health outcomes.
The study found detectable amounts of these heavy metals and the excretion amounts were reported to have matched or even exceed urinary excretion in some cases.
This is of great interest to scientists because its becoming undeniable that our world is becoming more and more toxic. Our liver and kidneys hopefully work to process and eliminate these poisons but having another way to combat these toxins would be powerful tool to implement in your life.
More research is required to fully understand the relationship between sweat and detoxification but its undeniable that sweating is a healthy and essential part of a humans life. Period.
Imagine the people you know that probably never exercise. That never sweat. Do they look healthy? Probably not.
Does the Sauna really prevent you from getting sick?
What about the assertion that sweating in the sauna prevents you from getting sick or catching a cold? Two recent studies have shown promising research to support this premise.
A six-month study done by the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Vienna, Austria found that out of two controlled groups – one who engaged in regular sauna use and one that did not: the group that used the sauna had almost half as many common colds as the group that did not. (4)
This is perhaps due to how a visit to the sauna stimulates the immune system in the human body. White blood cells are your first line of defense against infectious diseases and foreign invaders. A different study found that after only one session in the sauna an increased number of white blood cells and basophil counts were recorded in subjects. (5)
Should you supplement your training with the Sauna?
Most of the research sited in this article involved participants conducting 15 – 30 minutes sessions. We recommend starting off slow and gradually easing your way into sauna practice. Start with a few minutes and see how you feel.
The idea that the sauna is some kind of relaxing “spa experience” is a dangerous and foolish notion. Think of it more in terms of an intense workout.
Remember, that you might find Sauna “relaxing” mentally but in terms of what is going on in your body, you need to understand that sauna is in fact, an extremely unforgiving and harsh environment.
And that is the whole point. By subjecting your body to these harsh and stressful conditions you are forcing your body to adapt, overcome and become stronger.
Just like intense workout, you are breaking down your body so that it becomes tougher and stronger when it repairs itself.
Would you try to bench press 300 lbs with out ever working out your chest or building up to that amount? Of course not.
The same goes for using the sauna. Don’t be foolish and expect you can sauna while dehydrated or never having built up your tolerance or testing how your body responds after short controlled amounts of time in extreme heat.
Use common sense. For whatever reason; if you’re not at a point in your fitness life to complete a hard workout then the sauna isn’t for you.
If you have any specific medical conditions or take medications always consult your doctor before starting a sauna regimen. Remember that headaches, dizziness, nausea and heart palpitations are information your body is sending to your brain. Only fools ignore the data your body is telling you. Leave the sauna immediately if you are feeling any of those negative effects.
That being said, if you are looking for things to supplement your training and you have access to a sauna at your gym or elsewhere, the research conducted in recent years is highly promising.