Soothing Saunas: The Hottest Way To Wellness

I have been using saunas for as long as I can remember – whether it is at the gym, in a spa, in a hotel while traveling or even during a hot yoga class. Saunas are not a new phenomenon, and their use has been well documented over time across many cultures, including the Romans, the Turks, the British and, most importantly, the Finnish – who have perfected the art and science of the sauna.

In fact, scientists from the University of Eastern Finland have been studying this national activity for some time, and recently published a new paper to support previous studies showing sauna bathing is associated with a variety of health benefits. The researchers say taking a sauna for 30 minutes can help to improve the ability of your blood vessel wall to expand and contract passively with changes in pressure – which is an important function of large arteries and veins. The high temperatures of a sauna may also provide some cardiovascular conditioning, as they can drive heart rates to levels often achieved by moderate-intensity physical exercise.

Previously, the research group published findings from a population- based study indicating that using a sauna regularly is associated with a reduced risk of coronary diseases and sudden cardiac death, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, respiratory diseases and lower CRP levels. This time the researchers used an experimental setting and reviewed the physiological mechanisms through which the heat exposure of sauna may influence a person’s health. The study analyzed the effects of a 30-minute sauna bath in 100 test subjects. In particular, the objective was to analyze the role of vascular compliance and reduced blood pressure in the health benefits resulting from sauna bathing. The experimental study carried out in the Sauna and Cardiovascular Health project provides new insight into changes that take place in the human body during and after having a sauna. Vascular compliance was measured from the carotid and femoral artery before sauna, immediately after sauna, and after 30 minutes of recovery. These vascular compliance measurements carried out in the experimental study constitute a new assessment method in a sauna setting.

Is a sauna the same thing as a steam bath?

Sauna baths and steam baths are not the same. While both types of rooms are used to promote sweating, they use different types of heat to accomplish it. Saunas use dry heat produced from a stove or hot rocks to escalate the room to 195°F (90.5°C) with very low humidity. On the other hand, steam rooms involve moist heat. They operate at lower temperatures, usually around 110-120°F (43-49°C) and 100% relative humidity. A modern sauna is a simple, unpainted room with wooden walls and benches. A rock- filled electric heater keeps the temperature at about 90°F at floor level, and boosts it to about 185°F (85°C) at the top.

The dry heat has a profound effect on the body. Sweating begins almost immediately. The average person will lose a pint of sweat during a brief sauna. However, it evaporates so quickly in the dry air that you may not realize how much you are perspiring.

Skin temperature soars to about 104°F within minutes, but internal body temperature rises more slowly. It usually stays below 100°F. Although a sauna may help you relax, your heart is working hard while you sit on your bench.

Some tips to keep in mind before you sauna:

1. Remove any jewellery, spectacles, contact lenses or anything metallic before entering.

2. Always take a clean towel with you into a sauna, for your personal use.

3. Be mindful of cultural etiquette when using a public sauna bath – whether in a gym, hotel or spa. Each region or country is different, with different rules around attire (or not). This is especially important to consider if you are using a unisex sauna bath.

Are there any risks with using saunas?

Most medical evidence suggests that saunas are generally safe for healthy individuals. While many people use saunas as part of a healthy lifestyle, what’s best for you may not be what’s best for someone else. A few simple precautions are important for healthy people and heart patients alike.

  • Avoid alcohol before or after your sauna.
  • Don’t overdo it. It’s important to use a sauna bath moderately and to remember that high temperatures for long periods of time can actually put strain on the body. Aim for 15-minute sessions at first and work your way up to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time.
  • Cool down gradually afterwards. Although some cultures advocate a plunge into cold water, it can cause considerable circulatory stress.
  • Drink two to four glasses of cool water after each sauna. Above all, listen to your body. Head for the door if you feel dizzy, unwell or develop a headache while in a sauna.

Research References:

The findings on the effects of sauna bathing on the human body were published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, and the findings relating to the carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity measurements were published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. The study was funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, Tekes, and was carried out by Prof Jari Laukkanen’s research group at the University of Eastern Finland. The project partners were Harvia Ltd, Velha Ltd, Pihlajalinna, Fintravel Ltd and the Finnish Sauna Culture Association. The test subjects were 100 clients of the Pihlajalinna healthcare service provider. Their background information was collected by extensive surveys and interviews, and their physical health was measured by a clinical exercise test. The study was carried out in experimental saunas provided by the sauna stove and sauna heater manufacturer Harvia Ltd. The experimental sauna setting was a careful simulation of the way people in Finland take a sauna in their own homes. Click here to find out more about these treatments.

I look forward to my sauna bath rituals each week, and, best of all, I know that even as I age, I will always be able to enjoy them.

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