Sauna bathing has been used throughout the world and for thousands of years, with a substantial amount of supporting evidence. Using the sauna can enhance your physical performance; while reducing your risk of cardiac, all-cause mortality, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
In a crossover study, six male long-distance runners completed three weeks of sauna use after exercise, three weeks without, and with a three week washout period. Relative to the control weeks, sauna bathing increased run time to exhaustion by 32%. Plasma and red cell volumes increased by 7.1% and 3.5% respectively. The authors concluded that three weeks of post-exercise sauna use produced a worthwhile improvement in endurance, likely by increasing blood volume. Having more blood cells is advantageous because more oxygen gets to the tissues.
Men who engaged in frequent sauna use had reduced risks of fatal cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality! 2,315 middle-aged men living in eastern Finland over a 21 year period were put into one of 3 categories: those that used the sauna 1 time per week, 2-3 times per week, or 4-7 times per week. The risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, and all-cause mortality was greater in the group that used the sauna one time per week as compared to the group who went 4-7 times per week. The more the men used the sauna, the greater the protection.
Sauna use is also protective against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Using the population above, after follow up at 20 years, 204 men were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and 123 were diagnosed with dementia. After adjusting for compounding factors (like age, diabetes status, smoking, etc.) compared with men who only used the sauna once a week, the men who used the sauna 2-3 times per week had a lower rate of these neurodegenerative diseases and the men who used it 4-7 times had an even lower rate of these diseases. Using the sauna in this Finnish population lowered the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As for the amount of time needed to achieve benefit, it looks like a good estimation is to stay in for at least 20 minutes. The temperature used in the endurance enhancement study was about 195 degrees F. We are all individual though, so use common sense and listen to your body.