July 6, 2021
My heart rate was through the roof from riding a stationary bike for 30 minutes, and I was now lying inside a claustrophobic hyperthermic pod with a rectal probe up my butt, staring at the blank screen of a broken DVD player, drinking water through a sippy cup every few minutes, and sweating absolute buckets.
This lasted for over an hour as my temperature climbed to 102°F until I finally tapped out—the hottest, most uncomfortable, most claustrophobic I’ve ever been.
Was this some sort of sick form of torture? Not exactly…
It was simply a bit of “immersive journalism,” in which I was testing out a cancer treatment protocol at the Swiss Medical Clinic that typically involves a four-hour excursion into a fever-inducing hell (interestingly, this “fever mimicking” is one of the immune-boosting benefits of sauna, which I’ll cover later…).
I’ll admit, this was one of my most sadistic forays into heat therapy to date.
However, these days, as opposed to locking myself in a hyperthermic chamber for hours on end, I much prefer a sauna for my regular heat exposure practice, which—in addition to being more comfortable and pleasant—has its own potent health benefits.
I’ve been using a sauna almost daily for the last several years, and swear by it as one of the most profound tools for enhancing my health. In fact, all the way back in 2015, I confessed my addiction in an article on ten science-backed benefits of sauna.
And while the benefits were fairly well-known even then, dozens of studies have been released in just the last few years that shed even more light on the health effects of sauna, heat therapy, and hyperthermic conditioning, some of which I covered in my recent podcast Fire & Ice: Tips, Tricks & Biohacks To Maximize The Benefits Of Sauna, Hyperthermia, Cryotherapy & Cold Thermogenesis.
In this article, I’m going to dive even deeper into the latest and greatest when it comes to the science-backed benefits of sauna, the best type of sauna to use, and my most up-to-date protocols, tools, and tactics for getting the most out of your sauna experience.
(And don’t worry, none of it involves claustrophobic pods or laser lights up your nose or rectal probes.)
9 Science-Backed Benefits of Sauna
Like many of the ancient healing practices (fasting, yoga, breathwork, etc.), sauna has experienced a modern resurgence as of late, with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga, Elle MacPherson, and Taylor Swift all admitting to regularly using saunas for anti-aging and fat loss benefits.
This hot new sauna trend (pun intended) can be partially attributed to the creation of accessible novel technology like low-EMF infrared saunas, portable “tent” saunas, wickedly cool-looking barrel saunas, and even infrared sauna blankets, which means even the most frugal health connoisseurs can now find a way to get the benefits of sauna in their own home.
But some of the popularity is also due to a rapidly-growing body of research, confirming what the Finnish—who have a long-lasting tradition of sitting in steam saunas buck-naked, whipping themselves with leafy birch twigs to increase circulation, and then cooling off by jumping into freezing, icy water or snow—have always known…
Saunas are powerfully good for you.
The growing list of benefits are incredibly long, and currently include (but are not limited to):
- Enhancing detoxification and skin health
- Boosting athletic performance and endurance
- Increasing muscular hypertrophy and supporting muscle maintenance
- Injury recovery and pain reduction
- Supporting immune system health
- Boosting mood and brain health
- Improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease
- And even enhancing longevity and anti-aging, and reducing all-cause mortality
Now it’s time to put on your nerd cap, because I'm going to dive into each of these areas separately, including the latest scientific studies that showcase the powerful benefits of sauna (if you don’t have a nerd cap, nor want one, you can skip this beefy section for the more practical info at the end).
(By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank one of my previous podcast guests—on the topic of saunas, no less—Dr. Rhonda Patrick for aggregating a large chunk of this research in her incredibly detailed breakdown of saunas on FoundMyFitness.com.)
1. Detoxification & Skin Health
“Better detox” is one of the main reasons many people choose to endure a hot sauna suffer-fest. But unlike those green juice or lemon-maple syrup-cayenne cleanses, the research shows that sauna does in fact support your body’s natural detoxification processes, specifically through enhancing your ability to sweat.
Many environmental toxins you're exposed to—whether through food, breast milk, water, the air, or your surrounding environments—wind up stored in adipose fat tissue, where they can stay for decades and get slowly released over time.
When your body heats up, it helps to mobilize those substances from fat cells, where they can be excreted and eliminated through your skin via sweat (but it’s also vital to have well-functioning kidneys and a liver for this process to work well).
Any type of sweating can help detoxification (e.g. exercise, hot weather), but sauna-induced sweating has been shown to be an especially effective method for eliminating toxins like heavy metals, phthalates, flame retardants, BPAs, PFCs and PCBs, and pesticides.
And for anyone that’s sat in a hot sauna for more than 20 minutes, you know the buckets of sweat that come pouring down rival any workout you’ve ever done.
P.S.: If you still think detoxing is a “myth” or unnecessary, be sure to read my article How I’m Going To Completely Detox My Body In 2018 (Detox Myths Busted, Detox 101, Advanced Detox Strategies & Much More!).
Sauna is not only good for helping your skin sweat, but it also may enhance the appearance of skin. Regular sauna use has been shown to have a protective effect on skin physiology by increasing the function of the epidermis (skin outer layer) and promoting a more balanced pH. Sauna and sweating can also help prevent skin breakouts by decreasing skin sebum production and removing bacteria and dead skin cells.
Infrared saunas, specifically, have even more benefits on skin health due to their use of infrared radiation, which can increase collagen and elastin production, improve skin texture and color tone, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and photo-aging.
I can personally say that when I’m using my sauna regularly, my skin looks vibrant, glowing, and feels as soft as a baby’s behind.
2. Athletic Performance & Endurance
As a former bodybuilder, tennis player, and Ironman triathlete, I first became interested in heat therapy many years ago because of the potential benefits on performance and endurance. Nowadays, the secret is out, and you can find a sauna in just about every gym, college, or training facility across the world.
The athletic benefits of hyperthermic therapy and sauna are wide and multi-faceted, so I’ll break them down here in terms of each different mechanism. But in a nutshell, they all appear to act together to improve athletic performance and endurance.
Increases Plasma Volume and Red Blood Cell Count
Heat acclimation is known to increase plasma volume, red blood cell (RBC) count, and blood flow to the heart (or stroke volume). These adaptations lead to better oxygen delivery to muscles, less cardiovascular strain, and a lower heart rate for the same output, positively affecting endurance and exercise performance.
A cross-over study on male long-distance runners showed that three weeks of post-exercise sauna use increased running endurance (time to exhaustion) by 32 percent compared to baseline.
In other words, the effects of sauna on plasma volume and red blood cell count are so potent, it may even rival the illegal performance-enhancing drug Erythropoietin.
Improves Thermoregulatory Control
Sauna also improves heat acclimation and thermoregulation, causing you to sweat earlier, at lower temperatures, and for longer—all of which improve your body’s cooling capabilities and resistance to fatigue in hotter temperatures.
A recent, hot-off-the-presses (heh) 2021 study examined a larger cohort of trained athletes to determine the effects of post-exercise sauna bathing on thermoregulation and exercise performance. The results of the study showed that after three weeks of sauna, the athletes had better heat tolerance and improved markers of exercise performance in temperate conditions, compared to endurance training alone.
Another study on ultra-endurance athletes showed 30-minute post-exercise sauna sessions caused a decrease in temperature and heart rate, which led to improved VO2 max and speed compared to baseline. And a small study on female athletes who wore a sauna suit for 20 minutes reported improvements in thermoregulation and cardiovascular endurance compared to a control group.
So if you’re an athlete who regularly competes in hot weather, there’s now a robust amount of research that shows why sauna should be part of your training protocol.
“Bonking” is common among endurance athletes and occurs when liver and muscle glycogen stores are depleted. However, sauna has a “glycogen-sparing effect,” which prevents bonking by allowing you to more efficiently hold on to carbohydrates, reduce your dependence on stored glycogen, and instead burn fat for fuel during exercise.
Studies on hyperthermic conditioning in athletes show that it can reduce muscle glycogen usage by 40-50%, and may be associated with the enhanced ability to perform highly intense exercise following prolonged heat acclimatization.
Increases Lactate Threshold
Regular sauna may also help increase muscle lactate threshold by decreasing the accumulation of lactic acid, which is what causes muscles to become tired and fatigued during exercise.
A case study of a young female tennis player showed improvements in performance outcomes of time-to-exhaustion (TTE), maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), and lactate threshold after 12 post-exercise sauna sessions spread across 3 weeks.
In other words, regular sauna practice can improve your performance in sports or activities that involve any amount of endurance, hot climates, glycolysis, or generation of lactic acid…which is, indeed, almost every sport or activity.
3. Hypertrophy & Muscular Maintenance
Now sauna isn’t just for endurance athletes. Bodybuilders, listen up…
Heat acclimation has also been shown to increase muscle hypertrophy, the enlargement of muscle mass (usually accompanied by an increase in strength, too), as well as help to maintain muscle in the absence of exercise.
Like its effects on athletic performance, it appears that a number of different cascading factors from sauna use contribute to its benefits on muscle mass…
Increases Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs)
The high temperatures in a sauna cause thermal stress (hormesis) in the body, which triggers the release of free radicals. The body responds by releasing heat shock proteins (HSPs) to “clean up the mess” and the HSPs go to work scavenging free radicals, increasing cellular antioxidant capacity, and enhancing mitochondrial function.
This process actually works to build cellular resilience over time—meaning the more frequently you sauna, the more resistant to stress your cells become.
Studies show that sauna can dramatically increase the expression of heat shock proteins by up to 38-49% (studies here and here). HSPs help to build muscle by assisting in the repair of cellular damage and supporting protein folding, which helps proteins create new muscle cells. HSPs also reduce catabolism by inhibiting protein breakdown.
(HSPs also have wide-ranging benefits on the body outside of muscles, including reducing inflammation, anti-aging, increasing mitochondrial function, and decreasing oxidative stress.) It should be noted that you can also increase HSPs through any activity that induces hormetic stress, such as fasting or exercise. However, I find sauna to be interesting because—if you have access to one—it’s likely one of the “easiest” and most comfortable ways to enhance HSPs.
Or you could simply be a multi-tasking over-achiever and try to 3x your HSP production by exercising in your sauna while in a fasted state. Who, me?…
Releases Growth Hormone (IGF-1)
Sauna also results in a massive release of growth hormone (partially triggered, in fact, by HSPs), specifically the anabolic muscle-building hormone IGF-1.
Studies show that depending on the duration and frequency of sauna use, it can induce a two- to sixteen-fold increase in growth hormone (here, here, and here). The results appear to be linear, as more growth hormone was released after longer sauna sessions (one hour) at a greater frequency (2x/day for three days). When IGF-1 is released, it also activates the mTOR pathway (which increases protein synthesis) and inhibits FOXO activation (which decreases protein degradation).
These effects appear to occur even in the absence of strength training or exercise, making sauna incredibly useful for people that can’t exercise or lift weights but still want to maintain muscle mass. However, when sauna is combined with resistance training, these benefits are even more pronounced.
4. Insulin Sensitivity
Sauna or hyperthermic conditioning can also increase insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that shuttles glucose from the bloodstream into cells and tissues. Having cells that are more “insulin sensitive” (and not “insulin resistant”) is critical for the health of your entire body, including metabolic health, energy production, and preventing blood-sugar-related diseases like diabetes.
Heat therapy has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity by lowering fasting blood glucose, decreasing plasma insulin levels, and increasing the expression of GLUT-4, a gene responsible for transporting glucose into skeletal muscle.
Coincidentally, because it enhances GLUT-4 and insulin sensitivity, this is another way in which sauna contributes to muscle-building efforts. Insulin suppresses muscle protein breakdown and increases protein synthesis, so the more insulin-sensitive your muscle tissue is, the more responsive it will be to strength training and growth.
By improving insulin sensitivity, sauna can also be a potential weight-loss tool when combined with proper diet and exercise.
(If you want to learn more about the importance of maintaining low blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity for your health and waistline, check out this article.)
5. Injury Recovery & Reduced Pain
If I have a client or athlete that’s recovering from an injury or dealing with pain, one of the first things I add to their recovery plan is sauna 4-5 times per week.
When you're injured, most of the time you're given advice to “rest up” and remain immobilized. However, this causes the muscles around the injury to atrophy (become weaker), which is the opposite of what you want for recovery.
It’s actually better to find ways to enhance protein synthesis, hypertrophy, and maintain muscular strength so you can recover faster. Unfortunately, exercising or loading the muscle to allow for regrowth can often be difficult, painful, or practically impossible when you’re injured.
This is why sauna can be so powerful for recovering from an injury, because as you just learned, heat therapy has the ability to enhance protein synthesis and muscle growth, without strength training or exercise.
One small study showed that heat applied locally during immobilization prevented the loss of mitochondrial function, increased HSP levels, and attenuated skeletal muscle atrophy by 37 percent compared to a control group. You can assume the benefits also apply to systemic whole-body heat therapy (and are maybe even more profound).
Sauna can also help by reducing the pain associated with injuries or chronic pain conditions—partially by greatly increasing the release of beta-endorphins, the body’s “natural painkillers.”
Patients in one study on chronic pain were treated with a far-infrared dry sauna every day for four weeks and reported reduced symptoms of pain, depression, and anger. Another study showed that two 15-minute dry sauna sessions daily for five days improved quality of life and reduced low back pain in patients.
6. Immune System Health
Sauna has been used as an immune-boosting strategy since the mid-1900s. During World War II, it was used as the main therapy for preventing typhus fever for Finnish soldiers (no surprise there, right?).
A more recent clinical study aimed to test the effects of sauna on the common cold. In a group of 50 patients, 25 were given sauna sessions over several months, while the other 25 did not. Turns out, the sauna group had their incidence of the common cold cut in half. Other studies report frequent sauna use (at least 4x/week) is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing pneumonia or other respiratory diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, or pneumonia).
Sauna appears to support the immune system in a number of different ways:
Remember my foray into that claustrophobic heat chamber at the Swiss Medical Clinic from earlier? This cancer protocol is based on “fever therapy”—or using heat to simulate a fever—which is the body’s natural first defense against infection.
Sauna causes hyperthermia (a rise in core body temperature), which mimics the effects of a fever, stimulating your body’s immune response and supporting it in fighting off infections or viruses.
Perhaps Hippocrates knew the importance of fever for fighting off infections when he said, “give me a fever and I can cure any disease.” It should be noted that using a sauna is best for preventative measures or early stages of sickness, and not recommended if you already have a fever. Plus, that would be really, really uncomfortable…
Releases Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs)
As you learned, sauna also significantly increases HSPs. Not only are these helpful for hypertrophy and muscle growth, but they also support your immune system in a number of different ways:
- HSPs stimulate both the innate and adaptive immune systems;
- They can inhibit replication of certain viral strands (studies here, here, and here);
- And they can help protect immune and lung cells from cytokine-induced damage (studies here and here).
HSP-70 can also stimulate the release of nitric oxide, which has its own benefits on the immune system…
Boosts Nitric Oxide
By stimulating nitric oxide production, specifically by increasing the expression of the enzyme that makes it (eNOS), sauna also supports the function of the immune system. Nitric oxide functions “as a toxic defense molecule against infectious organisms. It also regulates the functional activity, growth and death of many immune and inflammatory cell types including macrophages, T lymphocytes, antigen-presenting cells, mast cells, neutrophils and NK cells.” A handful of studies also show direct nitric oxide administration has the ability to inhibit the replication of the SARS virus (here, here, and here).
Interestingly enough, infrared sauna therapy appears to stimulate eNOS above and beyond any other thermal therapy, suggesting that infrared saunas may have an advantage over traditional saunas when it comes to nitric oxide and the immune system.
7. Brain & Mental Health
The cognitive, mood-boosting, and brain health benefits of sauna are so robust, they could span an entire 4,000-word article by themselves. However, lest your eyes begin to glaze over, here’s a brief summary.
It’s hard to beat a hot, sweaty sauna session when it comes to boosting your mood. Comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan nicely summed up the feeling of euphoria after sauna in a recent Instagram post:
“Fresh out the hot box and feeling like a slightly better version of who I was when I went in. I think some wild thoughts in there, especially during the last 5 minutes. When those are over that’s when I feel so thankful and appreciative, not just that I didn’t die from heat stroke, but thankful of everything. I wanna call friends I haven’t spoken to in years. I wanna compliment people, and tell them that I love them.”
Throughout sauna studies, many patients regularly report similar effects of improved well-being, pain tolerance, and feelings of relaxation. These mood-boosting benefits from sauna are in part from the release of beta-endorphins and other opioid-like peptides. Interestingly, heat stress also increases the release of peptides called dynorphins, which can be thought of as the opposite of endorphins.
In the short term, dynorphins increase feelings of discomfort (such as when you’re sitting in a hot sauna for a long time), but overall they actually sensitize your entire endogenous opioid system, making your cells more receptive to euphoria-producing endorphins. This feedback loop is also what’s responsible for the “runner’s high” feeling you get during long bouts of exercise.
Dynorphins also have a temperature-regulating effect, helping to increase your heat tolerance over time, as well as your tolerance to intense exercise, especially in hot weather.
The HSPs produced from sauna also lead to increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is well-known to enhance mood, ameliorate depression, and increase resilience to stress. The mood-boosting benefits of sauna can be a nice “side effect” for anyone, but they also appear to make sauna a potential therapeutic for those with mental health concerns.
An RCT trial on 28 patients with mild depression showed that four weeks of sauna resulted in improvements in somatic complaints, mental complaints, hunger, and relaxation scores. Another double-blind RCT studied the effects of whole-body hyperthermia treatment on patients with major depressive disorder. Within one week the researchers found that it was associated with a substantial reduction in depressive symptoms, and concluded that WBH has potential as a “safe, rapid-acting, anti-depressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit.”
In other words, if you’re ever feeling crummy, all you need to do is go sweat your buns off in a sauna.
The effects of sauna are far from just psychological. Heat therapy seems to also have a profound benefit on the physiology of the brain, making it notable as a neuroprotective therapy.
As mentioned, sauna increases the production of BDNF, which not only boosts mood but also promotes neurogenesis—or the growth of new brain cells—decreasing the risk of cognitive decline. It also enhances blood flow to the brain, helping prevent amyloid-beta plaque buildup, which has been associated with neurodegenerative diseases.
In fact, in a large study of middle-aged Finnish men, researchers found that a moderate to high frequency of sauna bathing (4-7x/week) was associated with a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Another 2020 study associated sauna bathing frequency with a reduced risk of dementia, concluding it as an effective protective therapy against dementia.
8. Cardiovascular Health
Still with me? I'm not done yet…because the effects of sauna on the heart are about as robust as the brain.
A review from 2018 reported that sauna appears to work on similar pathways and have similar effects to exercise, including:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood flow and circulation
- Improved endothelial function
- Improved blood pressure
- Reduced oxidative stress and inflammation
- Reduced arterial stiffness
The authors of the review also go on to say:
“Emerging evidence suggests that sauna bathing has several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, and neurocognitive diseases; nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases including common flu; mortality; treatment of specific skin conditions; as well as pain in conditions such as rheumatic diseases and headache.”
In her “Sauna and Heart” presentation from 2019, Dr. Rhonda Patrick quotes several studies that report frequent sauna bathing (4-7x/week, 174°F for 20 min) is associated with:
- 50% lower risk for fatal heart disease
- 60% lower risk for sudden cardiac death
- 51% lower risk for stroke
- 46% lower risk for hypertension
Another very recent mechanistic review from 2021 analyzed the cardiometabolic benefits of sauna on individuals with high-stress occupations and found that sauna may help to reduce metabolic risk factors, serving as a potential treatment approach for combatting cardiometabolic disease in high-risk populations.
Recently, I talked about sauna and heart health in-depth with Dr. Stephen Hussey in a two-part series (you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here). Dr. Hussey said that he doesn't understand why there isn't a sauna in every cardiac rehab lab in the world considering the clear cardiac benefits backed by scientific literature—sauna helps the heart go back to normal size or smaller, injection fractions and nitric oxide to increase, and blood pressure to go down. Sauna is one of Dr. Hussey's top recommended practices for maintaining heart health, and he's in his own sauna five or six times each week (which should tell you something, right?).
9. Longevity & Disease Prevention
Whew. I warned you the list of benefits that come with a regular sauna practice was hefty!
I hope you’re still following along with your nerd cap on tight… Because we’ve finally come to the grand finale of health benefits associated with sauna: Its potential ability to help you live a longer, healthier, disease-free life.
Having spent a few hours myself sitting buck-naked in a traditional smoke sauna next to a couple of old Finnish men, who definitely seemed more ripped and vibrant than their fat Western counterparts, I can certainly attest to the fact that there’s something special going on with this Finnish tradition.
But does the scientific research agree with my anecdotal observations?
It appears so.
According to a recent 2018 systematic review titled “Clinical Effects of Dry Sauna Bathing”:
“Finnish sauna bathing is associated with improved outcomes such as reduced overall mortality and reduced incidence of cardiovascular events and dementia, at least in men. This is further supported by the two large observational studies that found striking risk reductions for sudden cardiac death (63%) and all-cause mortality (40%) as well as for dementia (66%) and Alzheimer’s disease (65%), in men who used a sauna 4−7 times per week compared to only once per week.”
A 2015 cohort study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that regular sauna use reduces fatal cardiac events and may extend life. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland tracked 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years. They found that the more sessions per week men spent in the sauna, the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death and fatal coronary heart disease. Men who had four to seven sauna sessions of at least 20 minutes each, had the greatest benefits. The sauna also extended the life of participants with other illnesses, including cancer.
Like many other health benefits, the effects of sauna on longevity and disease prevention are multi-faceted. While the research is young, it is clear that hormetic stress and HSPs play a role, as evidenced by a study on flies, in which heat treatment increased their lifespan by up to 15%, mostly by acting on these HSPs.
FOXO3 proteins—which regulate cellular aging, inflammation, energy metabolism, autophagy, and stem cells—are also triggered by heat, and therefore likely responsible for many of the healthy aging effects of sauna. FOXO3 is known as a “master regulator of many different genes,” and when it’s activated, it can increase the expression of several other genes that make your cells more resilient to stressors that cause aging, such as DNA damage or the growth of cancerous cells. For example, sauna use can also encourage FOXO3 to activate SIRT genes, which regulate sirtuins.
Sirtuins are well known to play a critical role in longevity and telomere function. One study found that if yeast had an extra copy of the gene, SIRT1, they lived 30% longer than average. If they lost a copy (they would normally have 2), their lifespans would be shorter. In fact, sirtuins are one of the reasons why I make sure to get sirtuin-rich foods (now known by the trendy name “sirtfoods”) like red wine, dark chocolate, green tea, and turmeric into my regular diet.
Of course, sauna isn’t the only way to activate longevity-enhancing genes like FOXO3 and SIRT (fasting, calorie restriction, exercise, antioxidant-rich foods, and cold therapy also do the trick)—but it sure is one of my personal favorite ways to live a little bit longer.
Alright, alright, I’ll admit that was a lot of research to digest in one article. In summary: sauna is beneficial from just about everything to athletic performance, detoxification, immune function, brain health, heart health, and much, much more.
So now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty, practical application of sauna use.
How to Use a Sauna, Plus 5 Tips to Enhance The Benefits
Now that you’ve read (or perhaps skimmed) through thousands of words relating to the health benefits of sauna, you’re probably wondering exactly how to use a sauna, and likely have questions like:
How long do I sauna? At what temperature? How often? What type of sauna should I use? Should I take any supplements before or after? Should I follow it with a cold shower?
These are all valid questions, and I’ll attempt to answer many of them in the following sections. However, I should mention one thing…
Among all the studies I previously referenced, there does not appear to be one specific temperature, duration, frequency, technique, or even type of sauna that’s correlated with the most health benefits.
Sure, there are certain things you can do to tweak your experience toward some benefits more than others, which I’ll cover below, but your main takeaway should simply be to use whatever sauna you have access to, as often as you can, whenever you can, for anywhere from 15-60 minutes at a time.
With that being said, after scouring the research, there appear to be a few methods for enhancing the benefits of your sauna experience.
Now, you certainly don’t have to do all of these at one time (I definitely don’t). I would suggest just picking a few depending on the specific benefits you’re looking for (e.g. detoxification, athletic performance, muscle growth, etc.).
1. Enhance Sweating
As you learned, many of the benefits of sauna, including detoxification, skin health, and immune system health, come from its ability to make you sweat. Therefore, if you can find ways to increase sweating in a sauna, you can potentially enhance those benefits even more.
Some of my favorite ways to enhance sweating in a sauna include:
- Getting in a sauna post-workout, in which I’m already quite sweaty, or doing some light movement while I’m in my sauna versus sitting
- Drinking black pepper tea (simply ground pepper in hot water) before a sauna session, which helps to increase body heat and sweating
- Zen Nasal Spray, which has a similar effect to black pepper tea (discussed in-depth in my podcast with Dr. John Lieurance)
- Install a halotherapy (salt therapy) unit in your sauna, which releases micro-crystallized salt into the air, helping you breathe better and sweat more
- Using “warming” essential oils on my skin, such as peppermint, tobacco, or cinnamon (just make sure to dilute before using)
- Using topical muscle warming (also called embrocation creams) in a sauna, such as Prototype 8 or topical capsaicin, which brings blood flow to the skin and helps you sweat more. WARNING: Avoid wiping your butt or touching your junk after using these. Learned that one the hard way…
2. Support Detoxification
Not surprisingly, some of the tips above for increasing sweating will also help with detoxification, which, as you learned, sauna can support via releasing toxic materials through sweat. In fact, a combination of exercise, sauna, niacin, and essential oils has been used since the 1980s to support detoxification, called the “Hubbard Protocol.”
In a randomized controlled trial on first responders at the World Trade Center and Gulf War veterans, the Hubbard Protocol helped to improve detoxification, quality of life, pain, and fatigue measures in those with Gulf War Illness (exposure to environmental toxins through exposure to oil-well fires). It’s also been shown to reduce withdrawal symptoms associated with substance abuse.
While the Hubbard Protocol can be pretty intense (it involves 2.5 hours in a sauna!) and isn’t necessary for everyone just looking for a little bit of enhanced detox, I do like to incorporate some of the tactics used in it, including:
- Using one or more of the sweat-enhancing methods listed prior
- Taking niacin 30-60 minutes before a sauna session, which causes flushing, increases blood flow to the liver and kidneys, and helps flush toxins more easily
- Taking activated charcoal with a glass of water right before sauna to bind and excrete toxins that wind up in the gut
If you’re really an over-achiever, you can also fix up a nice coffee enema immediately after your sauna session to support liver detoxification even more.
3. Exercise In Your Sauna
Another method for enhancing the benefits of your sauna session—namely for sweating, increasing blood flow, athletic performance, endurance, muscle hypertrophy, and cardiovascular health—is to, instead of sitting still, do a bit of light movement or exercise.
Now, this can be easier said than done, as some saunas are so small you can barely stand up in them, let alone do a few jumping jacks or sun salutations. If that’s the case for you, there’s nothing to say that you couldn’t, say, every 5 minutes or so, get out of your sauna to do a few movements, and repeat.
Being able to work out in my sauna and kill two birds with one stone is one of the reasons, however, that I invested in a large, six-person sauna that I can not only do quite a bit of movement in but also throw little “sauna parties” when friends come to visit.
There’s no end to the ways you can exercise in your sauna, including yoga, bodyweight movements, or a bit of resistance training using kettlebells or bands.
However, if you’re simply out of ideas, you can use one of my favorite sauna workouts, as detailed in the article Ben Greenfield’s Sauna Workout (The Exact Sauna Workout I Do Every Morning).
4. Combine Sauna With Cold Contrast
The traditional Finnish sauna practice actually involves alternating sauna bathing with jumping in a cold river or lying in the snow. While I’ve yet to see a study that compares the benefits of 1) just sauna with 2) sauna PLUS cold therapy, I would assume that combining the two is actually responsible for some of the robust health that the sauna-loving Finns experience.
There is, however, quite a bit of research proving general hot-cold contrast therapy can be beneficial for everything from cardiovascular health to athletic performance, muscle recovery, sleep, and metabolic health—much of which I covered in my recent podcast Fire & Ice: Tips, Tricks & Biohacks To Maximize The Benefits Of Sauna, Hyperthermia, Cryotherapy & Cold Thermogenesis.
So if you’re looking to enhance those benefits of your sauna practice, you could try combining it with cold exposure.
The variety of hot-cold contrast methods used in studies vary greatly, but generally alternating through a few minutes of hot sauna (anything above 100°F), with a few minutes of cold exposure via shower, plunge, snow, etc. (anywhere around 50-some-odd °F), at a ratio between 1:1 to 5:1 will do the trick.
For example, you could do:
- 10 minutes in a hot sauna
- 2 minutes in a cold shower or plunge
- Repeat 3-5 times through, finishing with cold
You can also listen to my Q&A Podcast Episode #406 for more examples of hot-cold contrast therapy protocols to try.
5. Hydrate & Re-mineralize Afterwards
And finally, especially if you’re using any of the sweat-enhancing methods, you’ll want to make sure you properly hydrate, re-mineralize, and replace lost electrolytes after your sauna session. This will especially help with the sometimes “draining” feeling that longer, more intense sauna use can result in, often caused by dehydration or mineral imbalance.
My personal go-to is to take a shot or two of Quinton from Quicksilver Scientific or Water and Wellness. It’s a hypertonic plasma made from sea salt and contains 78 minerals and trace elements, making it one of the best electrolyte rehydration substances money can buy.
However, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, you can simply add a bit of Celtic sea salt, which is naturally high in minerals, to your water on the days you use your sauna. I also like the refreshing lemon and raspberry flavors of an electrolyte complex called Protekt (use code BEN for 15% off), which I discuss in my recent podcast with Nick Norris.
What Type of Sauna Is Best?
So finally, to cap off what is becoming a very long post, we’ll cover the most burning (pun intended) question regarding this topic…
What type of sauna is best?
Currently, most of the research that has been conducted on saunas involves four specific types:
- Traditional Finnish sauna: Uses gas/electric/wood and steam to heat the ambient air temperature (~160-200°F, relative humidity of ~20-40%)
- Dry sauna: Basically a traditional sauna without the steam (~150-195°F, relative humidity of ~10%)
- Steam sauna (Turkish bath)*: Heated purely by hot steam (~100-120°F, relative humidity of ~100%)
- Infrared (FIR) sauna: Uses electric/infrared light to create radiant heat waves, which is absorbed by the surface of the skin (~125-160°F, no humidity control).
*Generally, I do not recommend steam saunas, as the quality of the water used is hard to control (unless you don’t mind inhaling chlorine and fluoride).
Because of its long-standing tradition, and its ability to conveniently provide a large, healthy population as research subjects, the bulk of the scientific studies on sauna bathing—and thus, the associated health benefits—have been conducted using traditional Finnish saunas.
Traditional saunas can also reach the highest temperatures, which some researchers believe are what lead to the most health benefits. So based on the long history, larger body of research, and higher temperatures, many people will claim that traditional saunas are “the best type of sauna to use.” However, while I have nothing against using a traditional sauna, I actually went a different route when it came to choosing the sauna that I would use on an almost daily basis in my home: an infrared sauna.
Despite much of the research being done on traditional saunas, there’s still a large, growing body of evidence supporting the unique benefits of infrared saunas—which use not only heat therapy but also far-infrared light therapy, which comes with its own long list of potent benefits (many of which I covered in a previous article Three Ways To Biohack A Sauna For More Heat, A Better Detox & Enhanced Fitness.).
Because an infrared sauna instead relies upon light, it can heat your body directly without significantly warming the air around you. The light waves from the infrared sauna also penetrate your skin directly—reaching as far as 3-4 cm into fat and muscle tissue—for a heating effect that allows more activation of your sweat glands when compared to a dry sauna.
So, even though an infrared sauna doesn't feel as hot as a dry sauna (which actually makes it a much more comfortable experience), research shows infrared can cause you to sweat more vigorously.
Due to the ability to penetrate cells and tissues and increase sweating, infrared saunas may have an even more profound benefit on detoxification, fat loss, mitochondrial function, and muscle recovery than traditional saunas.
Along with those additional benefits, I also like infrared saunas better for their logistic simplicity:
- Easier to assemble and disassemble
- Ease of use compared to other types of sauna (just plug it in and turn it on)
- Heats up faster (10-15 minutes compared to 30-40)
However, I didn’t choose just any infrared sauna, as many of them come with their own issues such as producing “dirty electricity” from EMFs (electromagnetic frequencies) and ELFs (extremely low frequencies), using toxic chemical-laden wood, not using full-spectrum infrared light, and simply not producing enough heat.
All of these reasons are why I use a Clearlight Infrared Sauna, which is the cream-of-the-crop when it comes to infrared home saunas:
- They use True Wave™ far infrared heaters, which are specifically designed to heat the human body and deliver more near-infrared, mid-infrared, and far-infrared than any other infrared sauna on the market.
- They are the industry pioneer of low-EMF carbon-based infrared heaters and offer the only low-EMF, full-spectrum infrared sauna on the market.
- They’re the first company to offer a low-ELF infrared sauna.
- Their saunas are beautifully designed with glass and Western Red Canadian Cedar (WRCC) wood, which is durable, antifungal, antiviral, and release therapeutic aromatic oils when heated.
- They offer a limited lifetime warranty, which is pretty unheard of, as most companies only offer warranties up to 7 years. Over several years, every experience I’ve had with their customer service has been incredible, and they’ve graciously replaced a handful of parts, no questions asked.
Clearlight has literally cut no corners when it comes to designing the most effective, safe, innovative, and beautiful infrared saunas on the market. I personally get giddy when I walk downstairs to sit in mine, immediately smelling the fresh cedar and feeling its warm comfort.
Anyways, I’ve just teamed up with Clearlight to offer a special discount plus a free gift for BGF readers (use code BENGREENFIELD).
Well folks, there’s really no other way to put it… Sauna is just really dang good for you, for a variety of reasons you’ve just discovered:
- It induces sweating, which enhances detoxification and skin health
- Enhances athletic performance via increasing plasma volume, red blood cell count, thermoregulatory control, glycogen-sparing, and lactate threshold
- Releases heat shock proteins (HSPs) and growth hormone, which enhance muscular hypertrophy
- Improves insulin sensitivity via GLUT-4 activation
- Supports injury recovery and reduces pain by releasing beta-endorphins
- Boosts immune function by inducing hyperthermia, releasing HSPs, and increasing nitric oxide production
- Releases endorphins and dynorphins, HSPs, and BDNF to enhance mood
- Protects the brain from neurodegenerative disease via BDNF and enhanced cerebral blood flow
- Improves cardiovascular health and greatly reduces the risk of CVD
- Enhances longevity and reduces all-cause mortality by activating protective genes like FOXO3 and SIRT1
I can say over the past few years of using my sauna regularly, that I’ve personally experienced many of these benefits, and have never felt healthier, fitter, or happier than I do when I finish up a sauna session.
Additionally, you can also “enhance” some of the benefits of your sauna session by:
- Using tactics to increase sweating, such as black pepper tea, warming essential oils, or topical creams
- Supporting detoxification with niacin and activated charcoal
- Alternating sauna with cold exposure
- Exercising in your sauna by doing yoga, bodyweight, or resistance with bands or kettlebells
- Hydrating and re-mineralizing with water and Quinton or Celtic sea salt afterward
And finally, while many “sauna purists” will hail the traditional saunas superior, I’m firmly committed to my Clearlight Infrared Sauna, which gives me not only the long list of benefits of heat therapy but also the potent, unique health effects of infrared light.
Click here to get your hands on your very own Clearlight Sauna today, and receive a special discount and a free gift when you use the code BENGREENFIELD at checkout.
What about you? Do you have access to a sauna and use it regularly? If not, what’s stopping you? Leave your comments and feedback below. I read them all!