Reader Alex writes:
I’ve heard a lot about the benefits of using a sauna. When I take a sauna bath, is there a recommended amount of time I should spend in the sauna? How many days a week can I safely go in the sauna?
Alex, we’ll start with the easy one first.
The sauna is safe to use every day.
Many people in Finland and Korea use the sauna every day. The safety of the sauna is backed up by many medical studies that have tested different populations, both healthy and ailing. All these studies have found that daily sauna users are at least as healthy as the control group who did not use the sauna. In many cases, the daily sauna users had measurable benefits over the non-sauna using group. These ranged from improved feelings of well-being, to better sleep, to lower chances of catching a cold, even to lower blood pressure and weight loss and lowered blood insulin levels.
These tests have been made in many different types of sauna: From traditional Finnish-style saunas to gently heated steam saunas and even in infrared saunas. All showed a benefit.
There are a few risks in the sauna: If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or are on any type of medicine, you should talk to your doctor first. The sauna can put a strain on your system and can make your body react differently to any medicine. There are reports of lowered sperm counts after a sauna. However, the Finns and Koreans have not gone extinct yet, so this should not be a huge concern for you or your partner. There is also some evidence that recovering from a strength-building workout in a warm environment can inhibit muscle growth.
Now for your second question, which is more difficult to answer:
How long can I stay in the sauna?
There are many different types of saunas out there, and all feel different. You want to stay in long enough that your body starts to really sweat, but not long enough that you begin to feel light headed or uncomfortable.
In my experience, this is about 5-20 minutes per round. It depends on the temperature of the sauna, the air movement inside the sauna, the humidity of the sauna, and even how you are feeling that day. Some people keep their saunas cool, and as long as you stay hydrated, you could spend the whole day in there. Others are blazing hot and spending five minutes inside feels like a lifetime.
A sauna should best be enjoyed in rounds, so you don’t want to just go in the sauna once. You will not get as much benefit from a single sauna session as you will from multiple rounds.
When you leave the sauna, you want to cool down. If your heart is healthy, the best way is to jump into cold water or stand under a cold shower. This contrast from hot to cold really sends your body into overdrive.
If the cold isn’t your thing, you can cool down in a warm shower, take a swim in a pool, or even just sit, relax and drink a cool beverage.
Once your body has stopped sweating, it is time to head back into the sauna or steam room. If you are using a Finnish sauna, the second round is a good time to sprinkle some water on the rocks to generate some steam in the sauna. This increases your feeling of the heat.
Conventional wisdom for many cultures says that you should take no more than three sauna rounds in a day. Any more and the sauna spirits who live behind the stove will think you are greedy. We have not seen any medical studies that explain this. However, like a lot of folktales, we can only assume that there was some basis in fact for these. Three sauna rounds feels better than two or four to us.
Good luck and enjoy the sauna!