In this blog post, I’ll answer the question “is a sauna good for your lungs?” I’ve written many blog post on related topics in the recent past, such as infrared saunas and pneumonia, infrared saunas and asthma, and saunas and nasal congestion.
This time, however, I’ll not only look at disease risk but also what health gains you can make by spending time inside a sauna if you don’t have a health condition.
Introduction: Airway Health And Disease 101
Like many physical qualities, airway health slowly declines as you age (1). Your grandparents have probably told you in the past that even though they had terrific health in their 20s, once they reached their 60s or 80s their overall health declined.
To main measurements that closely track overall lung health called “FEV1” and “forced vital capacity” go down with age, in fact. FEV1 signifies the amount of air you can exhale in 1 second, after an inhale. And “forced vital capacity” is the total amount of air you can exhale over several seconds.
The forced vital capacity declines by about 0.3% per year and for the FEV1 that’s 1-2%. So, the best measurements of your lung capacity go down when you age.
However, you’re far from powerless: lung capacity can also be trained (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Aerobic training, resistance exercise, and specific lung exercises can all improve your lung capacity - such as measured with the forced vital capacity and FEV1 tests.
If you already have a health condition, then training your overall lung capacity will be even more beneficial. If that sounds complicated, just imagine that you can train lung capacity in the same way you can train the strength of your muscles or improve the health of your heart and blood vessels through exercise.
Also, even though it’s very self-evident, the main goal of your lungs is to supply your cells with oxygen (O2) and ensure excess CO2 can leave the body. For that capacity, other measurements are available, such as the well-known “VO2 max” and the lesser-known “control pause” (8; 9, 10)
These two other measurements can be improved with training as well. And, generally speaking - unless you exercise a lot - your numbers on your VO2 max and control pause will also decline with aeging.
And, with that being said, I’ll end this section with two conclusions: 1) many measurements of lung capacity and your body’s ability to exchange and use oxygen exist - by training you can improve the outcome on these tests; 2) with aeging, the maximum outcome you can reach on these tests goes down and you’ll also increase your risk for respiratory disease.
The good news here is, that the better you can support your lung capacity and the body’s ability to exchange oxygen, the lower the risk of lung conditions. And, also, the longer you’ll stay healthy into old age.
So, not all is doom and gloom. Next up, here’s where the saunas come in. Let’s explore the relationship between an infrared sauna and lungs so that you can maximise the health of your oxygen-exchange system for as long as possible:
Is The Sauna Good For Your Lungs?
After the previous introduction, let’s explore the question “is the sauna good for your lungs?” Unfortunately, all of the science currently published focuses on people who already have health conditions and no studies with healthy athetes can be found right now. So, therefore, let’s explore some cases of people who have impaired lung function:
COPD And Lung Capacity
Quite a few studies investigate the effects of different saunas on overall lung health and capacity (11; 12,13,14, 15, 16; 17)
With repeated sauna use, the quality of life of people who have “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” (COPD) improves. In COPD, either the buildup of fluid in the lungs (called “mucus”) or inflammation of the lungs impedes your ability to breathe properly. Study participants - where an infrared sauna was used - also improved their overall exercise capacity.
Normally though, spending time in a sauna is harder on your heart and blood vessel system than your lungs and associated tissues.
Other studies, however do show an increase in the FEV1 and “forced vital capacity” outcomes I talked about in the introduction. These effects were found in participants affected by COPD once again, using a far infrared sauna.
Alternate studies confirm this outcome. So, even though you’re not breathing much more quickly in a sauna than what you’d normally do, the effects on your lungs are still extremely positive.
The only thing I’d like to see is more studies with healthy participants in this regard. So, for instance, a 6 or 12-week study where the intervention arm of the study receives sauna therapy. And, subsequently, test and re-test the FEV1 and VO2 max before and after the study, in both the control and intervention group.
Let’s explore some more studies on lung health and saunas though:
Using Saunas To Counter Asthma
I’ve written an extensive blog post in the past on using infrared saunas for asthma (18; 19; 20)
Generally speaking, saunas are extremely safe if you’ve got asthma. Many people with asthma use saunas in different countries therapeutically, such regularly as in Germany and Finland.
Fortunately, a group of Finnish researchers also looked at the effects of sauna bathing on overall respiratory diseases. The earlier COPD I’ve mentioned was included here, as well as asthma and pneumonia.
An average of two to three sauna sessions per week reduced with 27% compared to an average of one session or less per week. Also, bumping your weekly sauna sessions to four or more per week, reduced risk of respiratory diseases by a whopping 41%.
The study participants were almost 2,000 Finnish men aged 42 to 61. These participants were followed for more than 25 years. The very good rigour the researchers used in this study makes this study highly significant and extremely promising.
Your asthma, COPD, and pneumonia risk can be cut big time by frequenting a sauna alone. Next up, let’s explore that one condition that I haven’t talked about yet - pneumonia:
Saunas And Pneumonia
I’ve written about traditional saunas for pneumonia and infrared saunas for pneumonia in the past. Below I’ll summarise the main argument I made in these blogs:
Pneumonia is an infection of your airways, thereby lowering your overall breahting and air exchange capacity. Symptoms of pneumonia include shortness of breath, coughing, and fever. Fortunately, a decent amount of research exists investigating the effects of saunas on pneumonia (21; 22).
The same Finnish research group investigating the risk of overall airway disease also investigated pneumonia specifically. By just spending an average of 2 session or more per week in the sauna, participants cut their pneumonia risk by 21%.
A second study compared 1 session or fewer per week on average with a higher sauna frequency. Two to three sessions cut pneumonia risk by 33% and four sesions or more by a whopping 47%.
Lastly, let’s explore some other effects that might indirectly affect your overall lung health:
Indirect Effects: Lowering Your Weight And Boosting Detoxification
There’s more to the story though: other factors such as your exposure to toxins and carrying excess weight also influence your risk of getting lung problems down the road.
First of all, exposure to toxins increases your risk of airway diseases (23; 24; 25; 26). For instance, if you’re breathing tiny little particles called “particulate matter” - mostly originating from vehicles and industry - your risk of lung conditions goes up. The same is true for occupational exposure to toxins that you breathe in.
Fortunately, spending time sweating in an infrared sauna is an excellent way to remove toxins from your body. Some toxins are preferentially excreted through your skin, and thus, sweating increases the removal of these toxins. Others are removed through your internal organs - I’ve written a blog post about the basics of detoxification in the past).
Even though there are very few direct studies on this topic, theoretically, by removing toxins, you should lower your risk of airway diseases. For instance, some of the same heavy metals that cause these diseases are also detoxed preferentially thorugh your skin.
And there’s more:
Being overweight or obese also increases your risk of airway diseases (27, 28; 29). Not only does being overweight increase the number and severity of symptoms, your overall risk of getting airway diseases also goes up.
Fortunately, spending time in an infrarred sauna is an excellent way to lose weight. For instance, you’ll burn a lot of calories just with a single infrared sauna session, which add up over time.
Me and my team have also carried out our own research on using an infrared sauna for weight loss . In the study, one of our own saunas was used.
Over a period of four months, study participants lost up to four percent of their bodyfat in that study with three sauna sessions per week. A very important finding is that planning the sauna session in the afternoon or early evening resulted in the greatest fat loss benefits.
Many theories have been posited for these fat loss results, including the steady removal of fattening toxins from the body, more relaxation of the nervous system after a sauna session, higher “human growth hormone” levels, and of course the aforementioned calories that are burned.
So, besides what is formally proven in studies, many other mechanisms by which sauna good for lungs.
So, the answer is “yes”, an infrared sauna good for lungs. Studies show that in time, your risk of getting airway diseases goes down and overall lung health improves. For instance, the risk of getting pneumonia and COPD and asthma is impeded.
Additional proof that symptoms of airway problems that I haven’t covered also exist. For instance, read my blog post on nasal congetion if you’d like more information. The same it true for salt therapy - if you’re interested in improving lung and airway health then reading up on that topic is highly recommended.