In Pursuit of Wellness

Exploring the health benefits of saunas

Though saunas have been part of wellness routines, particularly in Scandinavia, for at least 2,000 years, the modern sauna is enjoying a resurgence thanks to its purported health benefits. The most popular types are traditional Finnish saunas and infrared saunas, though variations exist in cultures around the world. While many of the health benefits are backed by anecdotal evidence, there are several studies supporting these claims.

One study from the National Institutes of Health titled “Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing” found regular use can be beneficial for athletes as well as people with cardiovascular-related and rheumatological disease, chronic fatigue and obstructive pulmonary diseases, and allergic rhinitis. 

The study also found sauna use could reduce overall mortality and incidences of cardiovascular events and dementia (at least in men, the primary demographic studied).

There is also evidence sauna use can provide pain relief. In her book “Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat,” Emma O’Kelly explains that blood vessels relax and dilate in a sauna, which increases blood flow to muscles and joints. Citing a 2019 study from South Korea, O’Kelly says this increased blood flow can alleviate pain and stiffness, and sauna use can also cause levels of beta-endorphins — which act as pain relievers — to rise. As a bonus, this same process of vasodilation also results in lowered blood pressure. 

Additionally, it’s hypothesized that sauna use can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive diseases. The Alzheimer’s Association states breaking a sweat through cardiovascular exercise that elevates the heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain reduces the risk of cognitive decline. Sweating in a sauna mimics the reaction your body has during exercise, so it could present cognitive and cardiovascular benefits, as well as stimulate the immune system. 

Caring for your mental health through stress reduction is another place where Alzheimer’s prevention and saunas may intersect. Some studies link a history of depression with an increased risk of cognitive decline, so the association recommends reducing stress where possible to protect mental health. Saunas can provide stress relief and a mental health boost to help alleviate some of this risk. 

There is also evidence that heat itself helps reduce symptoms of depression. In O’Kelly’s book, Charles Raison, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states, “The pathways that control our ability to cool off overlap with pathways that regulate our mood … Heat has the same effect as anti-depressants; the chemicals all tie together but we don’t yet know how.”

Another way saunas provide stress relief is simply by being a tech-free zone. As O’Kelly puts it, “Where else are we free from the ping of the iPhone, or spared the pressure of the selfie? It can be a moment to focus wholly on ourselves.” 

O’Kelly goes on to describe how sauna-goers in Japan refer to the sauna as a “third space” — somewhere between work and home where they can reset. 

Norm Coburn, owner and president of New England Spas, incorporates sauna use into his routine and partners it with other wellness practices. The first part of his day is a mix of working out, enjoying his hot tub and hopping in the sauna; in the summer, he even takes a dip in the pool.

Finnleo saunas at Ohio Pools & Spas

“It’s an hour and a half into the day before I’m looking at emails, which is really nice,” he says.

Coburn’s personal as well as professional experience with the product — he has been selling saunas since 1985 — helps him work with customers in a world that’s becoming more committed to wellness. 

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“We’ve seen quite a surge in interest in [saunas] over the decades, which is very pleasing to me,” he says. “During the pandemic, people were looking for things that they could do at home that would have some wellness benefits as well as comfort … They may not know specifically what they’re looking to achieve, but they know that [sauna use] is good for the body and the mind.” 

Rather than simply inform customers about the benefits, Coburn prefers to show them by having saunas displayed in his showroom. 

“We actually run them pretty frequently in the store,” he explains. “A customer can — fully clothed — sit in it for two or three minutes and just get a sense of what it’s like.”

Customers can even take it a step further by scheduling a test sweat. All they need are bathing suits and towels, then they can enjoy a 20-minute session in the sauna, Coburn says.

Vince Wuebker, owner of HotSpring Spas & Pool Tables 2, agrees customers are increasingly placing value on health when considering the cost of a sauna. 

“We want wellness,” Wuebker says. “Think about your body — what is that worth? And you only get one of them — only get one life, one body. So, what are you doing about it daily? Then, price doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

Think about your body — what is that worth? And you only get one of them — only get one life, one body. So, what are you doing about it daily? Then, price doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

Vince Wuebker, HotSpring Spas & Pool Tables 2

When selling saunas, Wuebker doesn’t focus on the technical details; rather, he spends his time explaining the difference the product could make. “The focus is on you being better,” he says.

Like Coburn, Wuebker sees an upward trend in sauna purchase and usage because of the benefits it offers. 

“Hopefully, for us, that trend continues,” he says. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t because it’s real. Wellness is real. So, in my very strong opinion, there’s nowhere to go but up — it’s only going to get better.”