New snacks on sale now for a limited time! Use code NEW for 15% off.

Sauna: A Long Touted Longevity Hack With Real Benefits

When it comes to longevity-friendly habits, sauna therapy is one of the most commonly practiced by the many experts and influencers we track (e.g., Peter Attia, Rhonda Patrick, the Wild Health Doctors, Ben Greenfield, Molly Malloof, et al).  

Heat (and cold) therapy is also a practice that many ancient cultures share in common. The term sauna finds its roots in Finland where the practice dates as far back as 7.000 BC and continues to be very much a part of everyday life today.

We often find the survival of a longevity practice across many centuries as persuasive evidence that, at the very least, there is some health benefit to derive from it (we trust in the wisdom of time-tested practices!) That’s definitely the case for us when it comes to sauna. It also helps that a heat experience of 20-30 minutes at 170F followed by a cold shower simply makes you feel good. 

But, we got curious about how solid the science behind the benefits of sauna therapy is, and the cellular mechanisms by which it might help extend healthspan. Here is what we found.

What Benefits Have Been Observed with Sauna Use?

Clinical research on sauna practice and its benefits has recently reached a new peak. According to the National Library of Medicine, over the last three year 200 studies and medical reviews have been published on the topic. 

Studies of different types have shown that broad potential benefits from regular sauna bathing include: reduced overall mortality; reduced incidence of cardiovascular events and dementia; improved symptoms in rheumatic diseases (e.g., fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis); improved symptoms for chronic fatigue and pain syndromes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and allergic rhinitis. Studies have also shown positive effects of sauna on overall performance in athletes. 

While many studies have shown positive effects of sauna on longevity, there is one that towers above them all in scale and breadth. The size (2,315 participants) and length (20 years) of the study are remarkable in and of themselves. But what’s even more attention-grabbing are the results it shows. Take a guess where it was conducted: Finland, of course.

The study, titled “Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events” was published in The Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2015 and updated in 2017. The study is worth a look. Here are our highlights:

  • Longitudinal study (20 years) of 2,315 Finnish men starting in 1984 examining association of frequency and duration of sauna bathing with risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal CVD, and all-cause mortality
  • Sauna bathing was assessed by a self-administrated questionnaire based on weekly sauna bathing sessions, duration, and temperature
  • Participants were split into 3 groups: 1x/week (control group, n=601), 2-3x/week (treatment group 1, n=1513), and 4-7x/week (treatment group 2, n=201)
  • Average temperature was 170℉; most session lasted over 20 minutes (range 2 to 90 mins)
  • At 20 years follow-up, the benefits of sauna use followed a dose-response curve with a increased frequency of sauna use (>4x/week for 20 mins) being associated with a reduced cardiovascular risk (6-7%) and all-cause mortality (18%)
  • Comparing the control group (1x/week) vs treatment group 2 (4-7x/week) the mortality rates showed: 
    • 18% lower absolute risk of all-cause mortality (-40% in relative risk)
    • 10% lower absolute risk of cardiovascular disease (-50% relative risk)
    • 8% lower absolute risk of stroke (-62% relative risk)
    • 3% lower absolute risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dose response observed with treatment group 1 showing declines in all-cause mortality risk vs. the control group  but not as pronounced as those observed in treatment group 2

Despite the remarkable drops in mortality risk observed in the study, its methodology presents some limitations that qualify the generalizability of the results and stop short of establishing a clear causal link between sauna use and mortality  Some of these limit

  • Homogeneity of the sample (i.e., no women, no people of color), 
  • Not a truly randomized study and no control group that was not exposed to sauna practice
  • Healthy-user bias: people who are inclined to do sauna 4-7 times a week are likely to engage in other healthy behaviors that affect lifespan and compound the results of the study 

Check out this episode of Peter Attia’s podcast to hear his take on this study and what it means for longevity (study review starts at 41:30). 

Other notable sauna studies include:

How and Why Does Sauna Use Improve Longevity?

The mechanism behind sauna use and its effect on longevity finds its roots in stress. We know, it sounds counterintuitive, but in this case stress is actually a good thing. It’s called hormesis

Without getting overly technical, we learned that exposure to heat—especially those high temperatures present in a sauna—puts stress on the body. In response, our skin and core temperature increase along with our cardiac output (how much blood the heart pumps in 1 minute) and heart rate, diverting blood from our core to our skin and we begin to sweat to cool ourselves down.  

This physiological response to heat stress activates underlying biochemical mechanisms that regulate inflammation and play pivotal roles in the development of chronic disease and longevity. As it turns out, these mechanisms are the same ones activated by moderate-to vigorous intensity exercise, making sauna bathing an exercise memetic (heat stress raises your heart rate significantly). In fact, research on sauna and physical performance shows that the two practices might result in a synergistic hormetic response.

More specifically, this is the list of biochemical factors that get upregulated in our response sauna heat exposure:

  • Heat shock proteins (HSPs) increase to stabilize and repair disordered proteins or make new ones during heat stress.
  • IL-6 & IL-10 are inflammatory cytokines (protein factors) that increase during heat stress and are critical to controlling levels of inflammation in the body. These guys have links to chronic disease!
  • Nrf2 is a transcription factor that increases an enzyme that breaks down heme (an antioxidant) and inhibits expression of pro-inflammatory molecules during heat stress.
  • FOXO3 is a transcription regulator that forms a complex with SIRT1 which in turn is an essential factor that reduces cellular senescence and extends lifespan through the regulation of diverse cellular processes
  • Growth hormone (GH) increases during heat stress in younger adults (<49 years) and is related to the duration of exposure to the stressor.
  • Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone) that increases in response to heat stress but returns to normal 1-2 days following exposure and decreases steadily for 3-7 days. High levels of cortisol are linked to weight, immune dysfunction, and chronic disease!

For a more detailed discussion of the biochemical mechanisms behind the heat stress response and how these act as an exercise memetic, check out this lecture by Dr. Rhonda Patrick (start at 10:44).

How Can I Incorporate Sauna Bathing Into My Life?

Based on the evidence, we’re believers in the merits of sauna bathing. While no robust clinical studies exist to confirm the causal link between sauna bathing and longevity, there’s enough evidence to suggest that there is a strong association of sauna use with health, and to our knowledge, no elevated risk of injury or disease. So, if it could help and can’t hurt, we’re of the opinion (like all those longevity experts listed at the top) that it merits trying to incorporate it into our longevity protocol.

First, we need to understand the different ways in which we might be able to do that.

Sauna Bathing: The Practice

While most sauna clinical studies are focused on the use of finnish-style dry sauna, there are also steam-based “wet” saunas and near-infrared light saunas. The later practice is the fastest growing one given its greater accessibility.  The basic differences are the temperature levels reached and the heating mechanisms. Here is a quick comparison:

Finnish-style Dry Sauna

Wet “Steam” Sauna

Infrared Sauna (aka Waon Therapy)

  • Temp between 160-200°+ F
  • Low humidity (<20%)
  • Made of wood
  • 5-20 min sessions
  • Temp 110-115 °F
  • High humidity (>50%)
  • Made of marble or acrylic
  • 10-15 min sessions
  • Temp between 130-160 °F
  • Low humidity (<20%)
  • Made of wood
  • Longer sessions of 20-60mins 

Sauna Bathing: Solutions

If you are looking to try out heat therapy, there are many entry points available.

Cheapest Route—Turn your bathroom into a wet sauna (steam room). Using this WikiHow tutorial (free) you can turn your bathroom into a wet sauna to capitalize on some of the health benefits of heat therapy. 

The pro of this solution:

  • Low cost (just water) as long as you have a bathroom shower/tub and a decent sized towel 

The cons of this solution: 

  • Poor temperature regulation (unlikely to reach temperatures much higher than 100F)
  • Waste. Running your shower or lower faucet in your tub is going to waste quite a bit of water before the bathroom remotely resembles a wet sauna

Next Best Thing—Join a gym (approx. $40-50/month plus initiation fees). Some gyms are equipped with saunas and steam rooms for their members' enjoyment. Assuming your local gym isn’t still closed due to COVID-19, this is a worthwhile outing that doesn’t require you to store or install anything at home.

The pros of this solution:

  • Social outing --can bring a friend-- AND get a work out in to trigger the synergistic hormetic effects of exercise and heat
  • No storing sauna-type items or home installations
  • Fixed price/month

The cons of this solution:

  • Sanitation precautions / possible COVID-19 closures
  • Initiation fees can bring a $40-50 gym membership to over $500 
  • Higher time commitment, less likely to use frequently

At Home, In Limited Space—Use a sauna blanket. If you want the infrared sauna experience, but your space is limited or you just aren’t sure about making a substantial financial investment, an infrared blanket like the Infrared Sauna Blanket V3 by HigherDose ($499) might be a viable solution. This low EMF blanket has 8 heat settings and a 1-hour timer so you can wrap up and enjoy the heat in the comfort of your own home. 

Infrared Sauna Blanket V3 by HigherDose

The pros of this solution:

  • Portable, use at home
  • One-time purchase
  • Lowest entry point for infrared sauna

The cons of this solution: 

  • Infrared is not as hot as dry sauna
  • Not fully immersed in sauna (head remains outside of blanket)

At Home, Slightly Less Pricey—Install infrared heaters or panels. Infrared sauna might not hit the temperatures of a traditional Finnish dry sauna, but you can still accrue the health benefits of regular sauna use, especially if you increase exposure. If you have the space and have a little bit of extra cash to spend, installing infrared panels like these from Northern Lights group ($230+ per panel) might be your best option.

Infrared Lights Northern Lights Group

The pros of this solution:

  • Unlimited use
  • Privacy of home
  • One-time purchase

The cons of this solution: 

  • Infrared not as hot as dry sauna
  • Price per panel/heater plus installation can become a hindrance for larger spaces
  • Possible increase in energy costs

At Home, The Real Deal—Purchase a barrel sauna. If you are committed to using sauna regularly for years to come, have a larger budget to spend, don’t have (or wish to dedicate) space inside your home, have some room outdoors and like working with your hands, purchasing a barrel sauna like the Salem 2-Person Barrel Sauna ($3800-3950) might be the right option for you. This 6ft x 4ft dry sauna system seats 2 people, and according to the company, can be assembled in 6 hours with a two-man work crew.

Sauna Barrel For Home Purchase Installation

The pros of this solution:

  • Unlimited use
  • Privacy of home
  • Possible one-time purchase or use of payment plan
  • Minimal assembly required

The cons of this solution: 

  • Possible increase in energy costs
  • Space constraints
  • Possible labor cost if you don’t DIY
  • A bigger, one-time monetary investment

At Home, Major Splurge—Install a dry sauna in your home. This most likely isn’t an option for a lot of us, but we’ve included it anyway in case you’ve been saving to get yourself something special or you have a few thousand dollars earmarked for a personal sauna. Whether you decide to hire a construction company or build it yourself, an in-home dry sauna offers all the benefits that heat therapy has to offer. 

According to this article from HomeAdvisor, the cost of a dry sauna installation ranges from $3000-9000+ in addition to the cost of materials. Indoor installations are more expensive than outdoor ones, and larger spaces or added amenities will definitely cost you extra. For those who want to DIY, you can omit the installation cost, but you still have to account for the cost of materials which can still range into the thousands. We found this DIY guide, if you’re thinking of building your own sauna.

The pros of this solution:

  • Unlimited use
  • Privacy of home
  • One-time purchase

The cons of this solution: 

  • Not-at-all cost-friendly with installation and materials
  • May increase your energy costs

When it comes to accessing sauna bathing at a convenient price, our top pick is the infrared blanket. It’s most likely to give you the health benefits you’re looking for without the inconvenience of driving to a (possibly closed) gym or flooding your bathroom. The blanket also avoids costly renovations to your home that will more likely than not put a heavy dent in your wallet. 

What do you think? Is sauna use worth it? Which method are you likely to try? Let us know!

Additional resources

Wild Health PodcastAll About Sauna

Found My Fitness—”Sauna”

The North American Sauna Society

Search our shop