Many fitness clubs have one; they are at day spas and high-end hotels. Saunas are often portrayed as a relaxing, spa-like way to unwind, and many people believe they have health benefits (although they may not know precisely what these are).
Using a sauna is called sauna bathing and is practiced around the world. Although there is a lot of hype surrounding them, sitting in a hot room for an extended period begs the question – are saunas good for you?
Before we get into the research, let’s look back in time. Saunas are believed to originate in 2000 BC somewhere in Northern Europe. The first saunas were built in human-made caves, enclosed with animal skins. There would be a burning fire within the cave with a pile of stones underneath the flames. The fire would burn during the day, heating the rocks. It would eventually be extinguished and the smoke was removed, but the cave would remain hot. People would gather inside, occasionally pouring water on the stones creating steam.
During harsh winters, these saunas weren’t simply used for relaxation. They became living quarters, hospitals, washrooms, and kitchens. People were born in saunas and laid to rest in here when they died. They also became spiritual places, with people believing that spirit would be awoken in the sauna and you could possess mystical abilities inside.
Over time, techniques for building and using saunas were upgraded. They were better ventilated, and people began beating each other with birch branches before using them. Saunas remain widely used in many countries today. For example, Finland has a population of 5 million people and yet has over 3 million saunas! Most of these saunas are dry. Even when water is used to control humidity, the benches are above the dew point with low humidity levels. The temperature of these Finnish saunas is between 140 and 176 degrees Fahrenheit which is hotter than most saunas found in American fitness centers.
During the industrial revolution, saunas underwent upgrades, creating structures that were easier to build and use. For example, a chimney was added, allowing the sauna to stay hotter while simultaneously removing smoke. Saunas that contain a wood-burning fire are still used today and considered the authentic style; however, the real original method without a chimney is still used in some areas and called a smoke sauna. UNESCO has given smoke saunas in Estonia protected cultural status.
In the mid-20th century, Finland invented the electric sauna. This made it much more accessible and easy to install in hotels, spas, and gyms. It soon became popular in the US and started to be used as a leisure activity. Today the largest sauna is located in Sinsheim, Germany, and holds 150 people and a koi aquarium.
Sauna Use and Your Health
When it comes to the health benefits of using a sauna, most are anecdotal. In addition, the majority of research on the health effects of sauna use comes from Finland and is generally viewed as insufficient and low-quality.
There are some benefits when it comes to sauna use, but there are also risks. To make the most of your time in a sauna, you need to use it correctly. When you do, you will likely experience a greater sense of relaxation. Heat can make us feel relaxed, which is why we all love curling up with a hot water bottle. Saunas can make you feel relaxed as your heart rate increases and blood vessels dilate. This increases blood flow and circulation, and your sympathetic nervous system becomes more active. As a result, you can feel a greater sense of joy, relaxation, and are even less perceptive to pain. You will also sleep better on your millet pillow each night when you are more relaxed!
If you suffer from joint or muscle pain, time in the sauna may do you good. A study conducted in 2008 found that sauna use for those with chronic musculoskeletal diseases like rheumatoid arthritis could reduce fatigue, stiffness, and pain. Another study found sauna bathing reduced lower back pain.
Some studies also suggest that sauna bathing can improve cardiovascular health. For example, a Finnish study followed over 2300 men between 42 and 60 years old for a period of 20 years. Of these participants, 878 died of cardiovascular disease. The researchers then looked at how often they used a sauna and compared it to the other participants. The researchers concluded that regular sauna use lowered the risk for cardiovascular disease. The results of the study showed that the men who used a sauna two to three times a week were 22% less likely to experience a cardiac-related death than those who only used a sauna once a week. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 63% less likely to experience sudden death.
Yet another benefit of sauna use is an improvement in the skins appearance. Some believe that perspiration flushes your pores, and the increase in blood circulation can give your skin a more youthful glow. That said, although some believe that sweating removes toxins from the body, this has not been proven. Toxins like mercury and aluminum are removed by the liver, kidneys, and intestines. When the sauna is dry, the skin can become more dehydrated, which could make skin conditions like psoriasis worse.
People with asthma could feel some relief when using a sauna. It is believed to help open airways, reduce stress, and loosen phlegm. Additionally, some research suggests that regular sauna bathing could lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. For example, the same 20-year study conducted in Finland found that the men who used a sauna two to three times a week were 22% less likely to get dementia, and those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 66% less likely to get dementia.
Though these benefits are great, there are some risks involved as well. One of the most significant risks to sauna use is dehydration. When you are sweating for a prolonged period or if you have a health condition, you are at risk for dehydration. So before getting in the sauna, make sure you are drinking enough water (check out our blog post on how much water should you really drink).
There are also blood pressure risks, especially when going from a sauna to a cold pool or room. Those with low blood pressure should be especially cautious and speak with their doctor before using a sauna. To reduce your risk, follow posted guidelines, avoid alcohol, and don’t stay in too long. You should not spend more than 20 minutes in a sauna at a time.
Using a Sauna
Many gyms, health clubs, and spas will have their own guidelines around sauna use. Many of these guidelines exist to ensure guests don’t overheat. Users will often shower before using the sauna as this makes the room more hygienic and will also speed up perspiration when using it. Though some locations may require swimwear, in many cases, people will use a sauna wearing only a towel.
The humidity and temperature may be a fixed setting, or you may control it yourself. To increase humidity, you throw more water on the heater. It is important to note that not all sauna heaters are equipped for this. Modern dry saunas manage the humidity levels and cannot have water thrown on the heating elements, and doing so could break it. How long you stay in the sauna will also impact your temperature. When the door stays closed for an extended period, and you remain inside, the temp will increase. Lastly, where you sit inside the sauna will have an effect. Heat rises, so the benches higher up will be the hottest. Further, by sitting closer to the stove, you will feel the greatest amount of heat.
To achieve the benefits of a sauna, you need to listen to your body. If you feel unwell, faint, or throbbing in your head, you should leave. It is important not to wear jewelry, glasses, or contact lenses as they can dry out or get too hot and cause injury. When it comes to sauna use, the process of cooling down is just as important as the heat. Once you get out of the sauna, you can sit and allow your temperature to drop. Some people believe there are additional benefits to jumping into a cold pool, taking a cold shower, or entering a cold room. Before doing this, you should speak with a medical professional. The extreme flux in temperature causes circulatory stress. In many cases, it is best to give it a few minutes before doing so.
If you have never used a sauna before, start slow. You can spend just 5 minutes in the sauna and gradually extend your sessions over time. By following the guidelines and safely sauna bathing, you may feel better, look better and even sleep better on your millet pillow each night!