Over the past few years, cold therapy has skyrocketed in popularity, with icy temperatures being touted as a cure-all for everything from low mood to inflammation. While the trend for wincing into ice baths isn’t going anywhere soon, heat is fast emerging as a sister craze for achieving better physical and mental health.
Saunas are causing a buzz in the wellness world with the age-old practice experiencing a moment on social media – a quick scroll on TikTok shows the hashtag has garnered over 1.6 billion views, with converts sharing a laundry list of the purported benefits.
Considered a traditional therapy in Finland, where it was invented, the sauna has been around for over 2000 years, and it’s a big part of the culture in Scandinavia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
It’s finally catching on here, though, and you only have to look at celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Anniston and David Beckham (who’ve recently posted their own #SaunaSelfies to Instagram) for solid proof.
What are the benefits of regular sauna sessions?
From Finnish wooden saunas to steamy Turkish Hammam and Russian Banya, saunas use heat from a stove or hot rocks to expose the body to temperatures of up to 100°C.
“In the banya, the temperature can range from 50 to 90 degrees Celsius, with a humidity of around 70%,” says Anna Pusevich, marketing manager at The Bath House. The exclusive, west London-based banya counts David Beckham, Guy Ritchie and Justin Bieber among its well-heeled clientele.
Sauna manufacturers say that they have a host of medical benefits, but while some claims are inconclusive, studies have found that time in wet or dry heat can relax the mind and body. Researchers believe this is because our blood vessels dilate in hot temperatures, increasing circulation and causing the endocrine system to release ‘feel good’ endorphins.
Using saunas may also be beneficial for relieving pain too. A 2008 study observed people with chronic musculoskeletal diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, and concluded that regular sauna sessions could improve pain and stiffness over a month of use. Another more recent study found that cranking up the heat can be beneficial for lower back pain, making it an attractive post-work option for people who suffer from desk-based niggles.
“Because of the release of endorphins, many people find that vising the banya leaves them feeling refreshed, stress-free, and relaxed,” says Pusevich. “It’s particularly great for summer, as it helps normalise your body temperature, making you more tolerant to hot days.”
There’s another benefit to consider too. The Bath House say that the communal nature of saunas helps to bring local communities together, and many continental European cultures believe in the power and connection of sauna culture – something that many of us are craving in a post-lockdown landscape.
What about weight loss?
One of the major reasons why people are talking about saunas on TikTok is because of the purported weight loss and detoxification benefits, with some people claiming you can ‘sweat out’ toxins like alcohol and blitz the pounds with hot temperatures.
Saunas seem like an effective tool for losing weight, because some people record a lower number on the scale immediately after a session, but the weight lost in hot temperatures is made up of fluids from sweating. This means that the body gains the weight back as soon as those lost fluids are replenished.
If healthy and sustainable weight loss is on your radar this year, most health professionals would agree that it’s better to approach the issue with a balanced diet and regular exercise, rather than attempting to lose weight by visiting a sauna.
Studies are still inconclusive as to whether sweat is an effective detoxifier, but what we do know is that the body is naturally designed to detoxify itself, so extreme ‘detox’ diets or methods aren’t needed to encourage this process.
Your liver, a large vascular organ, is responsible for the ingestion and breakdown of substances in your body. Your kidneys play a role, too, filtering and excreting blood by-products in the form of urine. It’s always a good idea to look after these organs by staying hydrated, eating a balanced diet and limiting alcohol consumption.
How long should I spend in the sauna?
As with any wellness technique, it’s a good idea to ease yourself in slowly. Pusevich recommends starting with five-minute sessions and slowly increasing the time, capping it at 15 minutes maximum. Using a sauna comes with risks, especially if you’re doing it wrong or going too often.
“There’s no strict instruction on how long you should stay in the banya, as it depends on how you feel,” she says. “If you start feeling dizzy or unwell, you should leave the heat immediately, though, as you run the risk of overheating and fainting.”
Pusevich says that it’s really important to fully hydrate beforehand, and it’s useful to have a bottle of water on hand during your sauna session. Prolonged periods of time in the heat increase your risk of dehydration, which, if severe, can be a medical emergency.
“It’s important not to base your banya stay on time and instead focus on how you feel,” she stresses. “People often forget to check how they feel and stay longer than they should.”
Certain health conditions like pregnancy, epilepsy and asthma aren’t compatible with super hot temperatures, so you should always check with your doctor before hitting the spa, especially if it’s your first time.
So how often should you don a towel? “If you’re able to, I recommend visiting a sauna or banya once a week to enjoy the benefits,” says Puscevich. Many gyms and spas have communal saunas, but if you don’t have a local option, infrared sauna blankets like the MiHigh (£399, mihigh.co.uk) are a handy alternative. The sleeping bag-style heated blankets deliver the supposed cure-alls of the four-walled sauna, but in an easier-to-access way.
Finally, it’s important to read the information on social media with a critical eye. Platforms like TikTok are notorious for harbouring misinformation about health trends, so it’s good to enter the sauna with reasonable expectations. While it’s unlikely to help you drop a jeans size, it could help to soothe post-work stress. And if nothing else? It’s a relaxing way to spend a self-care Sunday.