Benefits of Sauna for Anxiety: How a Sauna Session May Help with Mental Health
Spending time in a sauna has been a tradition for centuries, with origins dating back to ancient Finnish and Russian bathing rituals. In recent years, modern science has confirmed what our ancestors seemed to intuitively understand - that sauna therapy offers numerous health benefits, including for mental health.
But can heating up in a small wooden room help relieve anxiety and other psychiatric issues? In this post, we'll explore the evidence behind using a sauna for anxiety, depression, and more. You'll learn about the different types of saunas, how they work, and most importantly, the mechanisms behind saunas' effects on the mind.
The Ancient History of Saunas
Origins in Finnish and Native American Cultures
Saunas have been used for bathing and healing purposes for thousands of years. Ancient Finnish cultures believed the combination of concentrated heat, humidity, and aromatic birch branches had purifying and relaxing effects. Traditional sweat lodges used by Native Americans served similar ceremonial, spiritual, and cleansing functions.
In these ancient cultures, time spent sweating in saunas or lodges was seen as sacred and restorative. The practice was intuitively understood to improve well-being. Both the heat therapy and community aspect played a role.
Sauna-Like Rooms in Greek and Roman Bathhouses
In ancient Greek and Roman public bathhouses, dry sauna-like rooms heated by wood-burning stoves were called Laconica. These hot rooms would be paired with adjoining cold plunge pools or showers.
This alternating contrast therapy of intense dry heat followed by cold water immersion is still used in some traditional sauna protocols today. The contrast of hot and cold is believed to improve circulation, strengthen immunity, and promote relaxation.
Developing Sauna Traditions and Rituals
Over many generations of consistent use in Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics, and elsewhere, ancient cultures developed rituals and traditions surrounding the frequent sauna bathing practice. Protocols included using leafy birch branches to stimulate the skin, pouring water over hot stones, and pairing of frequent sauna baths with cold plunges.
These traditions were likely derived intuitively over time, as people realized the sauna's psychological benefits, for reducing stress, easing aches and pains, and promoting a sense of well-being. The social and community aspects also played a role in developing sauna rituals.
Modern Research on Traditional Sauna Use
Now, modern research is beginning to shed light on why traditional sauna bathing seems to hold so many physical and mental health benefits. Studies are confirming what ancient cultures seemed to intuitively understand about the health benefits of sauna use.
Clinical trials and emerging research are demonstrating the ways sauna therapy can help reduce inflammation, release endorphins, improve heart health, boost mood, and provide holistic healing. From its ancient use, science is now backing up the traditional wisdom of saunas.
Types of Sauna: Traditional, Steam, Electric and Infrared Sauna
There are a few main types of saunas used today, each with its unique heating method and experience. Here are the types of saunas used these days:
Traditional Wood-Burning Sauna
Also called a Finnish sauna, this type heats a room to 160-190°F using a wood-burning stove with water poured over the hot rocks to increase humidity. Traditional saunas provide a deeply relaxing, authentic experience.
Infrared saunas use light waves in the infrared spectrum to penetrate skin and heat the whole body temperature directly, rather than heating the surrounding air. There are near, mid, and far infrared saunas. Infrared saunas operate near infrared light treatment but at a lower temp (110-140°F) but induce sweat at a lower heat threshold.
Steam saunas, also called Turkish baths, involve a steam generator filling a room with 100% humidity. This provides a cleansing sweat at around 110°F. The high humidity makes steam saunas feel hotter than they are.
Like traditional saunas, electric saunas heat a room indirectly to 160-190°F. However, instead of a wood-burning stove, they use electric heating elements for convenience and easier temperature regulation.
The Many Mental Health Benefits of Sauna Sessions
A growing body of research shows sauna bathing provides several mental health and mood benefits. Here are some of the main ways using a sauna may support mental health issues and overall well-being:
Sauna Use May Relieve Depression
Multiple studies have found regular infrared sauna sessions reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder. In one randomized clinical trial, depression scores decreased by 46% after just 4 weeks of infrared sauna therapy twice a week. Researchers believe the heat stress from infrared sauna heat exposure also increases levels of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that can act as a natural antidepressant. Sauna bathing may also boost mood through the release of endorphins. Overall, the evidence suggests frequent infrared sauna use can provide prolonged therapeutic benefits for depression.
Regular Sauna Use May Ease OCD Tendencies
The concentrated dry heat of an infrared or traditional sauna alone can help reduce obsessive, compulsive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Inflammation in the brain has been connected to the development of OCD, and more frequent sauna therapy and bathing combats inflammation through detoxification pathways. The overall relaxation effect and increased blood flow from sauna therapy may also help minimize habits like compulsive checking.
Sauna Use Boosts Mood Through Endorphins
Exposure to high heat therapy in a sauna releases endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters produced by the brain. Endorphins promote positive mood, pleasure and natural pain relief. The overall sense of relaxation following an infrared sauna session activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling the body to slow down and relax. This reduces stress levels and improves mental well-being.
Sauna Use May Provide Temporary Pain Relief
The concentrated heat from infrared and traditional saunas partially blocks signals of pain and discomfort from blood vessels from reaching the brain. Regular sauna bathing sessions can provide short-term relief for those suffering from chronic pain. Infrared sauna therapy in particular seems to have exceptionally potent temporary analgesic effects. The mild heat stress and increased blood flow from saunas may help reprogram neural pathways to better regulate pain over time.
Regular Sauna Use May Improve Sleep Quality
The relaxation response triggered by the repeated sauna therapy use leads to better, deeper sleep. Sauna sessions done in the evening help signal the body and brain that it's time for rest. The improved blood circulation from sauna therapy also increases beneficial nighttime growth hormone releases. Multiple studies found regular infrared sauna use before bed helped patients with chronic pain and sleep disorders fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply.
Sauna Use May Alleviate Chronic Fatigue
For patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, sauna sessions may provide temporary relief from feelings of exhaustion. In one study, an infrared sauna session 3x a week for 4 weeks was shown to increase energy levels and allow patients to walk longer distances without post-exertional malaise. However, sauna therapy for CFS should always be followed by adequate rest.
Sauna Use May Offer Potential as an Integral Mental Health Therapy
While more research is certainly needed, sauna bathing shows promise as a supplemental therapy to integrate into mental health treatment plans. The mild heat stress of a few sauna bathing sessions produces endorphins and other hormonal benefits with mood-elevating effects. It also improves sleep quality, circulation, detoxification, and immunity - all additional mechanisms linked to improved mental health outcomes. When paired with medications and counseling, regular sauna sessions may help manage psychiatric disorders.
Related: Benefits of Infrared Sauna
Sauna and Anxiety Disorders: The Relaxation Benefits of Sauna Use
The relaxation response triggered by repeated infrared sauna use helps reduce muscle tension, racing thoughts, nervous system activity, and other common anxiety symptoms. As the body heats up in the sauna, blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the brain and muscles. Heart rate increases as blood circulation improves. Core body temperature begins to rise as the body works to cool itself through sweating. This increase in core body temperature from infrared sauna use has been shown to cause the release of endorphins, providing natural anxiety relief.
Regular Sauna Use May Lessen Anxiety
Typical sauna bathing habits induce a deep state of relaxation, which inherently reduces feelings and symptoms of anxiety disorders. In one study, anxiety levels were lowered after just 3 weeks of regular sauna bathing sessions. Infrared sauna therapy specifically has been shown to lower cortisol levels, blood pressure, and anxiety in people under chronic stress. The relaxation response triggered by infrared sauna use helps reduce muscle tension, racing thoughts, nervous system activity, and other anxiety symptoms.
Effects on the Nervous System
In those prone to generalized anxiety disorder, the parasympathetic nervous system is often imbalanced, leading to involuntary stress reactions. However, the deep state of relaxation following an infrared sauna session activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals the body to take a break and slow down physiological processes and anxious thoughts.
Regular infrared sauna use may also help limit inflammation throughout the body and brain, which is often increased in those with anxiety disorders. Limiting inflammation may in turn reduce anxious thoughts and compulsive habits. The soothing dry heat of infrared saunas may also help anxious individuals let go of fears or concerns about potentially dangerous situations.
Making Time for Self-Care: Other Activities Paired with Sauna Usage to Ease Anxiety Disorders
Additionally, making time to use an infrared sauna for stress relief trains the brain and body to focus on relaxation and self-care. As part of an overall wellness routine, regular infrared sauna sessions may provide natural anxiety relief while also lowering the various risk factors of long-term adverse mental health outcomes.
Other relaxing activities that can be paired with sauna usage to ease anxiety symptoms include:
Yoga or gentle stretching
A brief yin or restorative yoga flow before or after the infrared sauna can enhance feelings of relaxation. Holding gentle poses helps ease muscle tension.
Sitting in quiet meditation or doing a body scan meditation while in the heated infrared or sauna room can help calm the mind. Guided meditations can also enhance the relaxation response.
Curling up with an engaging book before, during, or after an infrared sauna session takes the mind off stressful thoughts. Reading helps lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Writing down thoughts and feelings either before or after infrared sauna therapy can provide emotional release and insight.
Going for a stroll outdoors after an infrared sauna session enhances circulation and improves mood through fresh air exposure.
Practicing long, slow deep breathing exercises while in the infrared sauna oxygenates the body and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system.
Diffusing calming essential oils like lavender can enhance sauna relaxation therapy. Inhaling soothing scents affects mood.
Listening to music
Creating a playlist of tranquil, slow-paced music can promote relaxation before, during, and after infrared sauna use.
Light stretches for the neck, shoulders, and back before and after infrared sauna use help release built-up muscle tension that contributes to anxiety symptoms.
Building in any of these relaxing rituals around infrared sauna sessions can provide holistic anxiety relief and lasting stress reduction over time. A focus on self-care activities trains the body and mind to relax and let go of anxious thoughts related to anxiety disorders or generalized anxiety. Regular infrared sauna use, paired with other healthy habits, may help manage anxiety and maintain mental health and overall mental well-being through deep relaxation.
Sauna for Anxiety: The Bottomline
The existing evidence makes a strong case for integrating sauna use into treatment plans for certain mental health conditions. Sauna benefits like relaxation, circulation boosts, and endorphin release show promise in supporting well-being.
While more research is still needed, sauna bathing has centuries of tradition and intuitive healing wisdom behind it. Humans innately understand the power of heat therapy.
Supplement Sauna Sessions with Lifestyle Changes
Of course, the sauna is not a cure-all or replacement for professional treatment. But paired with counseling, medication, and lifestyle changes, it may provide additional relief. Even small improvements in symptoms can make a major difference.
With more positive clinical data incoming, hopefully, more patients will be encouraged to test out sauna therapy. While not a standalone treatment, a sauna may turn out to be a crucial piece of holistic mental healthcare.