If you belong to a gym, chances are you’ve spent some time in the sauna. After all, it feels pretty great to get your heat on after working your muscles hard. Lately, lots of celebrities have been touting the detoxifying, fat-busting, and pain-relieving power of sweating it out in the sauna—but is this too good to be true? We asked experts to weigh in on the hype before you sweat your life away in search of all those benefits.
Can Sitting In The Sauna Help You Lose Weight?
You may have heard through the grapevine that sweating buckets in a sauna could help you drop major pounds—but sadly, this is not an effective weight loss treatment, says Mitchell Rosen, M.D., chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Here’s the theory behind saunas and shedding pounds: “When you’re in hot or cold [environments], there’s a certain amount of work that your body has to do to maintain a normal temperature,” says Rosen. “So you burn some extra energy to keep your body at that normal level.” However, this extra energy expenditure is so minimal that it won’t noticeably influence weight.
That being said, you’re probably wondering why you might be a pound or two lighter after a long sauna session. While you haven’t lost any actual fat, what you have lost is water. By making you sweat buckets, saunas dehydrate you (a.k.a. deplete you of fluids). “You could make weight if you were on the wrestling team, but that weight would come back very quickly,” says Rosen. “You’re not going to dehydrate yourself to weight loss.” Nor would you want to, considering proper hydration is key for your body to function at its best.
What Benefits Can You Actually Expect from the Sauna?
Saunas may not be the miracle weight loss tool you hoped for, but that doesn’t mean they have zero benefits. Saunas help promote better circulation and improved heart rate, says Svetlana Kogan, M.D., a holistic doctor and author of Diet Slave No More!.
How it works: “Heat increases the heart rate by stimulating a cardiac muscle to contract faster,” explains Kogan. “Circulation is improved by causing vasodilation (widening) of the arterial blood vessels.”
Research also points to a few potential perks of spending time in the sauna. For example, a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that regular sauna treatments improved both the cardiovascular health and exercise ability of patients with chronic heart failure.
That’s not all, though. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that regular sauna use could be effective in helping to improve the function of blood vessel walls (called ‘endothelial function’) of those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
“Endothelium is the innermost layer of the arteries, which can shrink or expand,” says Kogan. So, better endothelial function means your arteries can stretch to accommodate the same volume of blood, leading to lower blood pressure.
Plus, a 2014 study published in JAMA International Medicine even found an association between frequency of ‘sauna bathing’ and lower risk of fatal cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Saunas may do us good beyond our heart health, too. According to Kogan, the intense heat can help soothe symptoms like muscle soreness and joint pain, making them popular among chronic fatigue and arthritis patients. That’s because heat relaxes muscle fibers, relieving tension and spasms, she says.
One more major reason to enjoy a good sit in the sauna: You may find yourself in a more warm and fuzzy mood afterward. Saunas have been used since ancient times as a wellness tool by northern societies with lots of cold weather, says Kogan, who notes that many of her patients report a mood boost after a sauna treatment. Similarly, a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that daily sauna sessions improved ratings of relaxation in patients with mild depression.
The good news is there are no harmful effects that can come from spending time in a sauna, says Kogan. Just keep in mind that women shouldn’t use saunas while pregnant in order to avoid the risk of becoming overheated or dehydrated.