A sauna is a small room designed to be heated to high temperatures with well controlled humidity. Its use is a National tradition in Finland and the word sauna is derived from Finnish “Savuna” that means “in smoke”. Sauna usage dates back over 1,000 years and they are popular in other countries under different names. In Russia it is known as bania/banya, it is known as Thermae in Rome, Hamman in Turkey, and Sweat lodge in North America. The Finnish sauna is the most popular worldwide. In ancient times, saunas were huge holes in the ground that could accommodate entire communities or tribes. In the centre of the hole there was a pit for fire. This hole was covered to prevent cold, rain and heat from entering to help regulate optimal temperatures. Today saunas are common in sports arenas, spa facilities and physical education complexes.
Saunas are used both for recreational and therapeutic purposes. Most people utilise them for relaxation and its use provides additional health benefits. The majority of saunas are built of wood which is often aromatic thus releasing pleasing aromas as they heat. There are two main types of saunas one is known as dry and the other wet. Preference is a matter of taste. Wet saunas are sometimes called steam rooms, and are kept at lower temperatures than dry saunas (usually between 37 and 46 degrees Celsius). This temperature setting is to prevent superheated water from scalding the skin on contact. Dry saunas may be kept at much higher temperatures of up to 121 degrees Celsius by keeping the ambient moisture or humidity down to nearly zero.
Many saunas, including those using electric heaters, have some form of hot fragrant rocks which may be splashed with water to release both a short burst of steam, (temporarily creating the impression of a higher temperature), and a pleasing aroma. Some wood-burning saunas choose their fuels very carefully to help stimulate the participants through the scent of such substances. It is thought that Saunas are best used to their full potential by alternating heat and cold by spending enough time in the sauna to become hot, and then leaving it to cool back down then repeating the sauna treatment. Many people enjoy leaving the sauna to take a dip in a tub or pool of very cold water. Some feel that this shock is good for the immune system while others believe it can be detrimental to one’s health. Patients with high blood pressure should be especially careful of this immediate transition from hot to cold, as it spikes blood pressure for brief periods.
Alcohol should never be consumed when using a sauna and should be particularly avoided in individuals with low blood pressure. Spending time in intense heat causes surface capillaries (tiny blood vessels) to dilate, lowering blood pressure even further. When sauna use is mixed with alcohol it can cause lightheadedness and fainting. When used properly, saunas can provide incredible relaxation, temporarily lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system. Finnish saunas have become very popular worldwide and most gyms, health spas, and even public pools now have saunas available for their clients.
During a 10 to 20 minute sauna session, the heart rate increases by 50 to 75%. This provides the same metabolic result as physical exercise. This increased cardiac load is equivalent to a brisk walk. During a sauna, blood flow to the skin increases to as high as 50-70% of cardiac output which brings nutrients to surface tissue resulting in glowing healthy skin. Saunas also induce sweating which aids the comprehensive cleansing of the skin (which is the largest organ in the body) and sweat glands which is important as 30% of body waste and toxins are excreted through the skin. Profuse sweating enhances the detoxifying capacity of the skin by opening pores and flushing out impurities from the body.
When taking a sauna session, the skin temperature rises to about 45 degrees Celsius and internal body temperature rises to about 39 degrees Celsius. Exposure to the high heat creates an artificial feverish state. Fever is part of the body’s natural healing process as it stimulates the immune system resulting in an increased production of disease fighting white blood cells and antibodies. It is advisable to use a sauna at least once a week and up to 4-5 times if possible. Increased usage has a greater effect on health. Using a sauna does assist in weight loss most of which is fluid loss initially. Using a sauna to help reduce blood pressure is one of the primary benefits of the sweat bath which is achieved by the excessive heat that cause the capillaries in the skin to dilate resulting in a drop in blood pressure. Individuals with a history of low blood pressure should consult a physician before using a sauna for extended periods of time.
Reducing high blood pressure has obvious health benefits and alleviating stress and tension brings health and wellness to the mind as well as the body. The calming aspects of twenty minutes in a sauna are priceless in terms of long-term health benefits. Not only does the time in the sauna give the body relief from tension but it also gives the mind time to unwind, gather and reflect. The relaxing benefits of sauna use are probably the most redeeming. Muscles effortlessly relax after an intense workout. Throughout the day and work week, toxins build up in muscles which may lead to fatigue, back and neck pain, migraine headaches and high blood pressure which can be alleviated by sauna use. Some other benefits of sauna usage include relief from the pain and stiffness of arthritis, healthy skin and a clear complexion from the detoxification process as a result of profuse sweating and the relief of strained and tired muscles after exercise.
In a nutshell, sauna usage:
- Leads to sweating, opening the pores
- Helps to detoxify the body
- Deep cleanses the skin by opening pores and flushing out impurities from the body
- Relieves muscle and joint pain
- Increases heart rate
- Increases metabolism to promote weight loss
- Relieves tension
- Relaxes the mind and body
- Increases the sense of well-being
- Relieves tension headaches
- Induces a deeper, more relaxing sleep
It is important to follow posted guidelines for health safety when using a sauna.