These days, the 120 lockers at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village fill up fast on weekends and holidays. On New Year’s Day, each of the five sauna and steam rooms were clogged with damp 20- and 30-somethings, some stepping over each other to dump buckets of water on their heads in 190-degree heat.
After a pandemic lull, it’s boom time again for the 131-year-old institution: In 2022, business at the Russian and Turkish Baths was up by about 20 percent from it’s best years, in the 2010s, said Dmitry Shapiro, a general manager at the bathhouse.
Bathhouse, a spa in Williamsburg, saw admissions rise by 50 percent in 2022, compared to 2021, a representative said.
There isn’t much data on global or nationwide sauna use, but the market does seem to have revived, driven mainly by users seeking health benefits. “There’s a movement now,” said Eero Kilpi, president of the North American Sauna Society, who pointed to commercial saunas popping up as well as sales of portable, mobile saunas, which people can put in their backyard or take on a camping trip.
Saunas, steam baths and sweat lodges are baked into cultural traditions for many people across the globe, from Native Americans to Koreans to Scandinavians. And saunas themselves come in different permutations — for example, Finnish-style saunas are typically built from wood and known for their dry heat, while steam rooms fill with moist vapor, and more modern infrared saunas often use light panels to generate heat.
As saunas become more trendy, companies often promote them with the promise of health benefits like “detoxification,” heart health and increased metabolism, along with claims that the heat can simulate a workout without the work. Posts from Bathhouse’s social media accounts suggests its saunas and steam rooms can release toxins, help you recover from a workout and improve circulation; the Red Rocks Spa in Colorado says that saunas can alleviate insomnia and improve mental health.
There is some research that suggests a trip to the sauna may have some health benefits — but you shouldn’t believe every claim you hear, said Earric Lee, a researcher at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland who has studied their health effects.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, instead of going for my 45-minute run, I’m going to sit in the sauna for 45 minutes,’’ he said.
Heat for the heart
While several studies point to the potential benefits of saunas, some of the most prominent research focuses on data from men in Eastern Finland, as part of an ongoing study on risk factors for heart disease. Observational studies have found intriguing links between regular Finnish-style sauna bathing and lower risks of cardiovascular issues and inflammation, although the studies cannot definitively prove causation and focus on a specific slice of the population (middle-aged and older Finnish men).
Still, the findings suggest that saunas may help improve cardiovascular function, said Setor Kunutsor, an associate professor at the University of Leicester in England who has been involved in some of these studies. That may be because, generally speaking, short bouts of intense heat stress our heart in beneficial ways — and strengthen the cardiovascular system over time, Dr. Kunutsor said.
When we’re exposed to extreme heat, our hearts pump faster, circulating more blood through our body to cool us down as it would during exercise, said Dr. Daniel Gagnon, a researcher at the Montreal Heart Institute who has also studied the potential cardiovascular impact of heat therapy. This could explain why regular sauna use has been tied to lower rates of cardiovascular calamities, he said, but scientists haven’t definitively proved that saunas themselves can be protective.
“So far, we’re really missing the link to say, ‘Yes, for sure, it does something,’” he said. But the heart’s response to heat might mimic mild exercise, he said, perhaps like a light ride on a stationary bike.
“We know that the more you work a muscle, the better a shape it’s in, and the longer it lasts,” said Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
People with heart conditions, like angina or congestive heart failure, should speak to a doctor before going to a sauna, said Dr. Melinda Ring, director of integrative medicine at Northwestern Medicine. Pregnant women should also consult their physician. And if you’re already at the risk of getting dehydrated — for example, if you’re intoxicated — you should also steer clear of the sauna, she advised.
Steam and mirrors
Some spa companies advertise the illusion of a sauna “detox” — the idea that sitting in the heat or steam can leach chemicals from your body. “There’s this image of, ‘All the sweat is going to carry these toxins out,’” said Dr. Ring. “That’s really not how it works.” It’s not clear that sauna therapy can lower overall toxin loads in the body, she said.
While some sauna companies claim that sweating can boost immunity, there isn’t robust evidence suggesting that a sauna, on its own, will make you more resistant to illness, Dr. Gagnon said. But saunas do reduce stress levels in some people, Dr. Kunutsor added, which can benefit the immune system.
And the idea that saunas can make someone magically shed pounds is also false, Dr. Lee said. But the most effective time to hop in a sauna may be after a workout, he added, as the heat may be able to amplify the cardiovascular perks of exercise.
In 2019, Dr. Lee tested this with 48 people, split into three groups: a control group with a largely sedentary lifestyle, one that worked out three times each week and a third that exercised in addition to going to the sauna for 15 minutes afterward. After eight weeks, the groups that worked out saw expected improvements in cardiovascular fitness and decreased fat mass, Dr. Lee said, but those who went to the sauna saw higher cardiovascular fitness gains and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than those who only worked out.
He said the “jury’s out” on the long-term benefits of sauna use without exercise. And while saunas may help to make muscles more pliable, potentially alleviating aches, he said, there isn’t convincing evidence that a post-workout sweat can prevent injuries, either.
As promising as some of the research around saunas is, he said, without more studies, it’s not totally clear which claims about the health perks saunas are accurate, and which are exaggerated.
“I do find a lot of hogwash — a lot of charlatans,” he said.
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