Saunas have been around in Europe since at least The Middle Ages. They really took off in Finland, where most homes have their own built-in modern sauna. Today, saunas exist all around the world but their strong connection with Finland continues.
Most saunas can be defined as either dry or wet depending on the kind of heat they deliver. Dry saunas deliver a dry heat, while wet saunas – often called steam rooms – deliver a wet heat. In the end, it all comes down to relative humidity. And humidity is the core reason while the human body can withstand the high temperatures a sauna delivers.
Dry heat can be provided by a heated up pile of rocks in the center of the room. Of course the humidity will be low, but usually you can increase it a little by pouring water over the rocks. Continually vented fresh air tends to limit any humidity build-up, and it rarely goes above 10% to 20%. The water is drained and temperatures at the top of the room can reach over 200℉.
Steam rooms have generators which boil water, producing steam that fills the room. Humidity reaches 100%; there’s no venting, and you can feel the dampness on the walls. Temperatures of a wet sauna reach between 100 to 120℉. Quite a difference.
In both wet and dry heat saunas, where you sit affects the temperature you endure. Because heated air always rises, the higher you are the hotter you get.
With modern saunas having acquired such global popularity, it’s no surprise that many health benefits have been aired on their use. Some of these are at best wishful thinking, and at worse, plain wrong, but we’ll take a look at those that do have some basis in fact.
The most widely cited health benefit by sauna users is stress relief. Today’s modern lifestyles inflict unknown amounts of stress on the mind and body. There’s no better way to counter this than to step into your own warm space and close the door on all life’s distractions. Relaxing in both dry and wet heat releases the body’s feel-good hormones, beta-endorphins. These give you a sense of euphoria and help relieve pain.
Particularly after engaging in physical sports, a sauna can help to relax muscles by reducing muscle tension.
There’s also evidence that a sauna can help muscle regrowth by reducing muscle atrophy through disuse. Studies show this muscle atrophy may also be restrained by heat shock proteins. These chemicals are released when the body confronts sudden high temperatures.
There’s anecdotal evidence that visiting a sauna can help you sleep. If you suffer from mild insomnia, spending a relaxing period in a sauna may induce a healthy deep sleep later
This is one of the oldest known benefits of sauna use, perhaps because it’s the most visual. Sauna therapy opens the skin pores and rinses bacteria out of the epidermal layer and sweat ducts. It cleans the skin and allows dead cells to be replaced through deep sweating. Your skin will look softer, with a pink glow. After a sauna, you’ll look healthier, younger and feel rejuvenated.
Steam also helps with acne, clearing impurities from the skin. A Finnish study showed that sauna use resulted in the production of less oil on the forehead, helping to prevent blocked pores. It also showed improvements in surface pH.
Aids Sinus Relief
This health benefit applies more to steam rooms with their high humidity levels. For those with respiratory problems, such as bronchitis, the wet heat from a sauna can open up airways and relieve pressure on the sinuses. It also clears nasal congestion, relieving much discomfort for the sufferer. Asthmatics may experience less severe wheezing.
Reduces The Incidence of Colds
Fifty volunteers were enrolled in a six month German study evaluating the effects of sauna bathing on the incidence of common colds. Half were given regular sauna sessions, while the other half formed a control group which abstained from sauna bathing. The incidence of common colds in the sauna group was much lower than in the control group. This suggests that those in the sauna group released more white blood cells to fight infection. Severity and duration of colds were not much affected between the two groups. Again, a more robust study is needed on this one.
Improved Cardiovascular Performance
During a sauna, the heart rate can rise from 60-70 beats per minute to 120. This is quite an increase in cardiac output. In fact, taking regular saunas is often compared to moderate exercise, which also trains heart muscle. This is particularly true if the sauna session is followed by a cold
Regular sauna use also trains the body’s regulatory system to adapt better to higher temperatures. Despite promising studies, a regular exercise regimen should not be replaced by sauna bathing. There is far more evidence to support the benefits of regular exercise.
An increased heart rate means that more blood is pumped around the body, which requires fewer heartbeats and energy. A study showed that sauna bathing enhanced performance for long distance runners. Red cell counts taken during the study were found to have increased by up to 7%, which meant that more oxygen was being carried around the runners’ bodies.
Reduces Mortality Risks Associated With Cardiovascular Disease
When someone sits in a sauna, their body temperature rises with the expanding heat. This causes physiological changes such as an increased heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels near the skin. The combination of these effects improves blood circulation.
Increased circulation can be beneficial to those suffering from pain in the muscles or joints. Where much of the focus of cardiovascular benefits from sauna use has been directed though is its effect on the risks of death by heart disease.
A Finnish study looked at the association between sauna bathing and the risk of cardiovascular death. 2,315 men, aged between 42 and 60, were enrolled in the 20 year study. 929 of those studied died from cardiac or coronary artery disease, or from sudden cardiac death. Cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking history, were adjusted for. Frequency of sauna use was also taken into account. Approximately two-thirds of participants took a sauna two or three times a week. Some took a sauna daily.
The study concluded that sauna bathing lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular disease or a sudden cardiac event. Those who used the sauna two or three times a week were 22% less likely to die from sudden cardiac death than those who bathed only once a week. And for those bathing more than four times a week, the risk of sudden cardiac death was 63% less. More research is needed. No-one really understands why sauna bathing helps protect against cardiovascular disease.
Despite the conclusions of the Finnish study, no one with a pre-existing heart condition or coronary disease should use a sauna without first consulting their physician. If your heart condition prevents you from performing moderate exercise, sauna use is probably best discouraged.
Sixteen young men were enrolled in a Polish study to evaluate the effects of sauna bathing on lipid profile. It was a pretty intense sauna experience with the men subjected to ten 45 minute bathing sessions every one or two days. Sauna temperature averaged 196℉, with humidity reaching as low as 5%. Results showed the men recorded a reduction in total cholesterol levels, which returned to normal levels a couple of weeks later. The reduction in cholesterol levels was similar to that obtained by moderate physical exercise.
Reduces Risk of Dementia
It’s been mooted that sauna bathing even increases blood flow to the brain as well as the heart, perhaps by strengthening the lining of blood vessels. This Finnish study suggested that men who sauna-bathed several times a week had a lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Again, more studies are needed to confirm these initial findings.
Reduces Pain from Chronic Tension-Type Headaches
Finally, if you’ve ever suffered from frequent tension headaches, you might want to try sauna bathing. This study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that sauna bathing reduces pain intensity in chronic tension-type headaches.
Often, further scientific investigation is needed. But there seems to be much compelling evidence for the health benefits of sauna bathing. Remember though always to use a sauna safely.
Avoid the perils of dehydration by avoiding alcohol before and after your sauna. Instead drink two or three glasses of cool water after each session. Don’t stay in a sauna for longer than 20 minutes, and cool down gradually
Thanks for reading! Please Like on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for more article on becoming a better you.