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Can Sauna Bathing Really Lower the Risk of Dementia?

If you could prevent the onset of dementia in yourself or a loved one, would you do so? 

For most people the answer to this question is a resounding YES! A multi-author peer reviewed study published in 2020 that investigates the possibility of preventing dementia. A wide spectrum of the Finnish demographic demonstrates compelling evidence that it is in fact possible to lower the risk of dementia in most people with habitual sauna use. 

There are specific biochemical alterations that occur in both the body and brain during passive sweating (non-exercise induced perspiration) that may prevent the onset of dementia in the later years of life. This study followed individuals from all walks of life, many of the participants were regular users of tobacco products as well as alcohol, the participants were both male and female. When these individuals took a minimum of 9-12 saunas that were relatively evenly distributed throughout the month the risk of dementia was significantly lowered. 

It seems too good to be true that engaging in a relatively pleasant activity such as sauna bathing, without eliminating harmful habits such as smoking, individuals may still be able to significantly lower their risk of dementia. 

This article will outline the key factors that may help to lower the risk of dementia by using a sauna regularly, and further, how to safely use a sauna to attain these results without harming the body or brain with too high a temperature in your sauna. 

The Anti-Dementia Cocktail: Heat Shock Protein Production, Sufficient Sleep, and Decreased Inflammation

This article aims to bring to life the lengthy and detailed peer reviewed journal: “Does sauna bathing protect against dementia?” This article was authored by 5 different PhDs whose names can be found below at the end of this article, and was originally published by Preventive Medicine Reports, and can also be found in the National Library of Medicine.

The primary takeaways from this study are the following three points:

  • Frequent sauna bathing predicted decreased risk of dementia
  • Results were independent of several dementia risk factors, and were not modified by sex
  • Findings support benefits of sauna and passive body heating to the brain. (1)

So, how does it all work? Is it really plausible that relaxing in a sauna could alter the course of one’s life in such a drastic and positive way as to eliminate or at least drastically lower the possibility of dementia?

The cocktail of positive biochemical reactions seems to comprise at least the following three key factors: Heat Shock Protein (HSP) production, improved sleep quality and quantity, and decrease in overall inflammation. 

Heat Shock Protein Production & The Human Brain

The intentional elevation of the body’s core temperature causes perspiration to occur and this can be attained via exercise or through passive heating of the body as seen in sauna use, hot tub, or other heat related activities to induce the augmented appearance of Heat Shock Proteins HSPs. (2)

The pivotal question then becomes how do HSPs protect against brain degeneration? The journal that is presently being illuminated writes the following:

Heat shock proteins are important regulators in normal cell functions and have an essential role in guarding and controlling protein formation. Because disturbances of protein construction and folding are central to the development of neurological diseases, heat shock proteins may be important in maintaining protein homeostasis in the brain.” (1)

In addition to the role that HSPs play in immunity there seems to be a clear correlative effect on brain function and health. In order to induce the increased production of HSPs the individual needs to engage in passive heating (ideally) to the point that an artificial fever is induced. This means that internal body temperature rises to at least 101.5 degrees. This process of heat stress is a form of hormesis. Further studies have shown that the heat source is not as important as the maintenance of an internal body temperature that is increased enough for a specific period of time to induce sweating. The individual should move through the gateway of feeling uncomfortably hot before perspiration begins to ensure that adequate heat stress has been experienced. 

If you can sit in a sauna of any variety through the period of discomfort just before perspiration begins, and then stay in the sauna during the sweating portion for 15 minutes,  then you can rest assured that improved HSP production has occurred.

In order for the sauna to be used to reduce the risk factor of developing dementia each individual should take at least 3 saunas per week. Ideally, the objective is to take 3-4 saunas per week with each session lasting 20 minutes. There should be caution taken in the initiation period so as not to overwhelm the body with too much heat. 

Decrease Inflammation in the Brain

Prolonged inflammation of the body and brain has been linked with neurodegenerative diseases; therefore, activities that are able to consistently diminish inflammation may help in the prevention of dementia. (3)

Inflammatory processes are suggested to be important in neurodegenerative diseases. In cross-sectional and longitudinal studies sauna bathing was associated with lower levels of inflammatory serum markers implicating reduced inflammation among those bathing frequently. It is possible that some of the effects of sauna in the brain are conveyed via reduced inflammation.” (1)

Regular use of a sauna can help to reduce inflammation in all parts of the body including neuroinflammation. It may be possible not only to reduce the risk of dementia by using a sauna frequently, but moreover other neurodegenerative diseases adversely affected by inflammation of the brain including parkinson’s disease, Alzeimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.(3)

Getting into the sauna at least three times per week may help to reduce the risk of dementia as well as other brain degenerative diseases in most people by decreasing neuroinflammation.

Improved Sleep

Ongoing sleep disturbances have been linked with the onset of dementia. This does not mean that one sleepless night can lead to dementia, but rather that over the course of several decades of shift work, insomnia, as well as other reasons for lack of quality and quantity of sleep the risk of dementia goes up. 

The use of a sauna or hot bath before bedtime has been associated with improved sleep: 

“Problems with sleeping and lack of sleep are often associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. An increased risk of dementia was associated with frequent sleep disturbances in a study of middle-aged men from Finland during a 20-year follow-up. Findings from experiments which used warm water baths for passive body heating suggest that an increase in the body core temperature beneficially affects sleep, depending on the increase in body core temperature and the proximity to sleep. Potentially sauna bathing affects sleeping similarly. In a survey of middle-aged urban dwellers in Finland, sauna bathing was mentioned among the factors that were perceived to promote sleep.” (1)

A major factor in the initial stages of falling asleep is a drop in internal body temperature by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, if the body does not drop in internal temperature the individual will not fall asleep. By artificially elevating the body’s temperature through a hot bath or sauna the natural process of the drop in temperature that the body experiences will help the individual to fall asleep and stay asleep. If an individual can consistently sleep well for at least 8 hours per night the risk factors over time for developing dementia are much lower. 

If you are choosing a sauna to reduce the risk of developing a brain degenerative disease be sure to time your sauna for later in the day so that it can help you to fall and stay asleep. 

Brain Safety: Contraindications For Sauna Use To Attain Ideal Results

While it is true that heat stress is the key player in the necessary biochemical reactions that take place during and after a sauna to affect positive changes in the brain, it is very important to not overdo the duration of time spent in the sauna or the temperature of the sauna. Heat stress can harm the brain permanently at times if it overloads the body’s system. 

“Although a major part of research on the effects of sauna bathing is in favor of the benefits of the habit, it cannot be excluded that strong passive body heating could have harmful effects in the brain. Severe heat stress may result in a reduction of the cerebral blood flow and may increase blood–brain barrier permeability. It is thus possible that during bathing at very high sauna temperatures, the body core temperature rises high enough to harmfully affect cerebral blood flow. The elderly and other groups with compromised thermoregulatory control are especially vulnerable during severe passive heat stress. Among young people the effects of moderate and high thermal stress on the brain may be counterbalanced by cardiovascular, cerebral and metabolic alterations.” (1)

It is very important that the body has time to slowly adjust to the heat of a sauna over the course of several weeks. Just as you would a new exercise regime, it is important to begin your sauna therapy at low temperatures for a shorter period of time for the first few weeks and slowly build up. 

Ideally individuals will aim to take a sauna 3-4 times a week for around 20 minutes (depending on the heat source, infrared saunas allow for longer sauna sessions because of the lower atmospheric temperature.)

Studies have shown that there is an optimal window of sauna bathing that allows individuals to create a positive impact on their health without hindering it. Please be sure to never use a sauna that is set to a temperature over 190 degrees Fahrenheit as this could possibly damage the brain or body. If you are using a traditional sauna 180 degree Fahrenheit temperature is more than sufficient, and if you are using an infrared sauna anywhere from 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit will help you reach your goal internal temperature of 101.5 degrees. 

It May be Possible to Lower the Risk of Dementia with Regular Sauna Use

Robust scientific studies suggest that when a sauna is used correctly over a period of several years consistently, regardless of your gender or other lifestyle habits, it is possible to lower your risk of developing dementia: 

“The findings of this population-based study, including men and women from Finland, are in line with the hypothesis that sauna bathing provides protection against the development of dementia.” (1)

A sauna protocol is an effective way to improve health, but it also must be respected as a powerful medicinal tool. This means hydration must be maintained with diligence at all times. If you are unsure if it is safe for you to use a sauna consult with a medical professional. Saunas can only provide significant results if the user is committed to taking a sauna at least 3 times per week for 20 minutes and ensuring that the internal temperature is raised to 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit during the sauna session. 

If you are only taking a sauna a few times a year it is doubtful that it will have a long lasting impact on health even if it is enjoyable and fun at the time. Please be sure to follow clinically significant protocol to ascertain the results you are looking for. When in doubt, be sure to talk to your  primary care physician. 

Happy Sauna’ing!

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