Although sauna use has been a traditional relaxation and health practice in many cultures for centuries, in recent years they have made a big splash in the health and wellness community as facilitators for deeper healing. In this article I will give a rundown of the different types of saunas, how they work, the benefits of each type, and how to pick out your own sauna.
What is a sauna?
A sauna is a small space or room filled with hot air, steam, or light waves that cause the production of sweat, deep relaxation and other physiological effects on the body. The temperature in a sauna can range from 100-212° F, and are commonly used in durations of a few minutes to a half-hour depending on the type and effect desired. Saunas are sometimes used in rotation with periods of recovery at room-temperature or a cooling practice like a cold shower or plunge.
Radiant heat saunas
Modern radiant heat saunas trace their design and history from Finland, where small wooden huts were warmed by hot stones. Today, wood-paneled rooms (usually cedar) and an electric heater covered with stones create a similar effect.
Radiant heat saunas use hot air to heat the body from the outside. Compared to the other types of saunas, they operate at the highest temperatures (158-212° F). In some saunas, steam can be produced by pouring water over the rocks. There are usually benches at two different heights in the room, so that the user can choose how much heat they experience.
Traditional practices using radiant heat saunas sit in the sauna for 5-20 minutes and either recover in a cooler room or do a cooling practice like a cold plunge or shower. This cycle is typically repeated 2-4 times.
Steam saunas operate similarly to radiant heat saunas, except the room is at 100% humidity and operate at a lower temperature (110-130° F). The inability for sweat to evaporate makes this style of sauna feel much hotter than they actually are.
In this type of sauna, steam is created by using a steam generator and the room is usually tiled instead of wooden.
Infrared and FAR infrared saunas
Infrared saunas operate quite differently than radiant or steam saunas. They generate light from the infrared portion of the spectrum of light.
In this type of sauna, infrared light heats the body from the inside (instead of hot air or steam to heat the body from the outside). They operate at the lowest temperatures (100-130° F), are dry and produce the least amount of sweating.
There are two main types of these saunas. In a regular infrared sauna, incandescent heat lamps are used to create heat, emitting mostly NEAR-infrared energy, which penetrates tissues inside the body. In a FAR-infrared sauna, ceramic or metallic heating elements are used to create heat emitting mostly FAR-infrared energy, which does not penetrate as far into tissues, but may have other benefits.
Since these types of saunas are quite new, there are no standard temperature and duration ranges and use varies considerably. Proponents say that the health benefits are the same even though sweating is reduced due to the infrared energy penetrating tissues in the body.
Health benefits of using a sauna
It is important to note that most of the body of research about the effects of sauna use are on traditional radiant heat saunas and not infrared saunas. Although many infrared sauna manufacturers and proponents make health claims, I had a very difficult time finding much peer-reviewed evidence showing clear positive benefits with regular use.
Among some of the benefits of regular sauna use are:
- Benefits for those with cardiovascular disease (lower risk of disease, higher exercise tolerance, and lower markers of oxidative stress)
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved fitness
- Pain relief
- Relief from anxiety and depression
I think sauna use is a particularly interesting tool for those with autoimmune disease because we tend to struggle with the ability to engage in an exercise routine, due to pain, mobility, or energy fluctuations. A lot of the benefits of regular sauna use are similar to those of exercising. While I don’t think sauna use can replace an exercise, I do think incorporating sauna use with an autoimmune-friendly exercise routine (like walking, yoga, stretching, and mobility work) might make some breakthroughs for those who find more intense exercise not possible for them.
It should be noted that if you have any health condition you should talk to your doctor before starting sauna use. Pregnant women, those with heat sensitivity, or anyone under the influence of alcohol should not use a sauna.
Which type of sauna is right for you?
If you decide to incorporate using a sauna in your wellness routine, I recommend trying the different types before you make a purchase so that you can pick the one that feels the best to you.
You don’t need to own a sauna to get the benefit of using one. You might have a membership to a gym that offers some sort of sauna for you to use regularly, or you might see a practitioner at a wellness center that has a sauna and sells packages for regular use. You also might have a spa or a sauna facility near you that sells day passes or memberships.
If you decide to purchase your own, your options vary from affordable, portable tent-like versions to extensive, built-in models. I’ve even heard of people making their own radiant heat and infrared saunas! You can spend as little as $200 or as much as $10,000.
In the end, the best type of sauna for you is going to be the one that you enjoy and use regularly. A lot of people get caught up in the argument of which type is better for whatever reason. Instead, I’d encourage you to try the different types and if you see some benefits, consider going after the one that makes you feel the best. We don’t really have enough science available yet to determine definitively which one is superior than the other.
My experience using a sauna
I decided to purchase a traditional radiant-heat sauna after both trying different types of saunas extensively and doing research online. While I had heard a lot of people in the wellness community talking about the benefits of infrared saunas, I personally didn’t feel as good after using them as I did when I used a radiant heat sauna. Initially I thought I wouldn’t tolerate the heat well, but I found that I actually crave heat and sweating paired with cold showers. The infrared sauna felt relaxing, but the effects didn’t last the way that radiant heat sauna use did for me.
Personally, I use my radiant-heat sauna (I have this one) at a temperature of 150-175° degrees fahrenheit for 12-15 minutes, and then I take a 5-10 minute cool-down period after a cool shower and repeat this 2-3 times for about one hour total per session. I’m working up to getting the showers to be colder and colder, and my experience is that this compounds the benefits.
To me, using the sauna is like a “reset button” for my brain – while I am in there I close my eyes, meditate, and relax. Many times I enter the sauna in a stressed state, but by the end of the hour I feel balanced and myself again. I usually don’t sweat much the first session (resistance to sweating is common with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) but by the final session of the day, I have usually worked up a great sweat and I’ve noticed I start sweating earlier the more I use the sauna. I also feel less muscle and joint pain, improved sleep (especially when I use the sauna before bed), and better moods.
I enjoy my sauna routine because it feels like exercise and stress management combined. Like I mentioned above, with chronic illness or autoimmune disease we often aren’t able to exercise because of low energy, pain, or mobility issues. I feel like using a sauna, especially with alternating cold showers or therapy, I can still “exercise” my heart and work up a sweat without expending energy or causing pain. In addition, I leave a sauna session feeling relaxed and refreshed, as opposed to worn out as exercise can do. This is one of my favorite reasons to use a sauna!
Have you used any type of sauna in your healing journey? I’d love to know more about how it has benefitted you in the comments!