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Are saunas good for you?

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Saunas are all the rage right now, especially in the Midwest. They're a welcome respite from the bone-chilling cold this time of year. After letting the dry heat penetrate to the core, the steamy plunge back into subfreezing temps is as invigorating as it gets.

Claims abound about the health benefits of saunas. The Finnish swear by them. And a German take on them - involving even more intense degrees of heat, steam and physical activity - has become popular locally.

"Sauna evangelists" tote not only the psychological benefits of taking a cozy, relaxing break in a quiet, warm room, but also the physiological advantages. Sweating helps detox the body, they say, and the heat-induced increase in heart rate improves circulation. Some have gone so far as to claim that saunas help with weight loss, rejuvenation and immune function.

But is there any substance to the health claims? And are there any risks associated with saunas?

Unpacking the health claims

According to a comprehensive study published last spring, research does indeed support numerous health benefits from the regular use of dry saunas. Documented outcomes included:

  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's
  • Reduced pain levels
  • Reduced risk of sudden cardiac death
  • Lower mortality rates
  • Better mental health
  • Improved quality of life

But there are risks, too, ranging from heart attacks and burns to fainting, strokes and even death. Studies also suggest that saunaing may have detrimental (though reversible) effects on male fertility.

You can avoid these risks by:

  • Always checking with your doctor about whether saunaing is safe for you
  • Never exceeding your limitations
  • Listening to your body
  • Observing safe temperature levels and time limits
  • Staying hydrated with water and electrolytes
  • Never using the sauna alone
  • Avoiding alcohol consumption before, during or after using the sauna

Of note, the research on the benefits of saunas assumes that participants will cool down gradually. Plunging head-first into a snowbank or icy lake might earn you impressed looks from fellow sauna-goers, but it can also stress the cardiovascular symptom.

The takeaway

Ultimately, the decision to sauna - like the decision to start an exercise or weight-loss program - should be made in consultation with your doctor, and in light of the risks and advantages for your particular situation. Done responsibly, saunaing can be the perfect refuge from the bitter clutches of winter in Minnesota.

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