Sweat and Steam: The Healing Benefits of Saunas

Saunas, also known as heat bathing, have been used in various cultures for thousands of years. In fact, it’s origins are believed to have come from northern Europe around 2,000 BC. There are many types of saunas worldwide, with the most popular being the traditional Finnish sauna.

A sauna works by producing heat from rocks or a stove to increase the temperature of the space to 90.5°C (195°F). Today, saunas are popular due to Finland’s extensive use in their history and present day, and there are 3.3 million saunas in public and private spaces in the country.

Today, many people use saunas as heat therapy to improve certain aspects of their health. The benefits from saunas are even embedded in Finnish proverbs that say: “Sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy… If liquor, tar and sauna do not help, the illness is fatal.”

BENEFITS

CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
Due to the heat of a sauna, skin temperature increases and causes sweating as the body attempts to cool down. Because of this reaction, the heartbeat increases and can reach between 100-150 beats per minute. It’s like exercising, as the heart has the same response.

Using a sauna even lowers the mortality rate for cardiovascular disease people. The KIHD studies found that men who used saunas more than four times a week had a lower risk of 50% for fatal cardiovascular disease. In comparison, men who had spent less time using the sauna, around 2-3 times a week, were only 27% lower, showing a significant difference.

MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING
One trial investigated the impact of using a sauna for four weeks on 28 people with mild depression. The results were an improvement in hunger and reported relaxation. Becoming more relaxed allows stress levels to drop and well-being is heightened. Other potential benefits include eliminating fatigue, improving memory and stimulating mental alertness.

SKIN
Studies have suggested that skin diseases such as Psoriasis (when flaky patches of skin form scales) can benefit due to the heat helping to remove the scales. More discoveries have uncovered the effect of reinforced skin barriers that aid in water loss from the body, an increase in hydration of the outermost layers of skin and a quicker comeback of elevated water loss and skin pH.

People with atopic dermatitis (which causes the skin to become itchy, dry and cracked) have reported relief too. After three weeks of sauna bathing, they found their skin easier to clean and treat with skin cream after sessions.

BODY
People who experience sore muscles or joint stiffness like arthritis have reaped the benefits of heat therapy. Saunas cause blood vessels to relax and expand, which increases blood circulation. It then spreads to the muscles and joints, speeding recovery and taking the edge off the pain.

A four-week study of people with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis who used sauna bathing as a treatment had their pain reduced by 40% and 60%. Additionally, stiffness decreased by 50% for rheumatoid arthritis and 60% for those with ankylosing spondylitis.

SAUNA: WHEN, HOW AND WHERE
The most appropriate time to use a sauna depends on individual circumstances, as everybody is different in their health and routine. For example, people who regularly suffer from sore muscles or conditions like arthritis may find it better to use a sauna when their condition is most painful.

A common suggestion is to bathe in a sauna after exercising. It can accelerate muscle recovery, relieve muscle pain and raise the metabolic rate, which aids weight loss. Caution is advised if doing so due to dehydration from exercising and water lost through sweating. Drinking a glass of water and waiting 10 minutes before entering is highly recommended.

Only some can visit a sauna once a week, and it depends on experience. The American Sauna Society and experts in sauna bathing say it’s best to start at a few minutes and then slowly increase the time as the body adjusts to the climate and the overall experience. Ten minutes is recommended for beginners, but Harvard Medical School says to spend no more than 15-20 minutes at a time.

Gyms, spas, health clubs, and facilities are the easiest way for people to access saunas. As stated previously, using a sauna post-exercise is a simple way to incorporate heat therapy into everyday routine. People with kids could find a sauna at a recreational centre with water activities for the children during the weekend or school holidays. Or some might find it better to start or end their day with a sauna so it doesn’t interfere with their job and other commitments during the day.

Saunas and heat therapy are simple but effective ways to treat various health issues and are easy enough to try. Healthline has several sources about sauna use and its benefits that people can access as a starting point if they haven’t used one before. However, anyone concerned about saunas’ impact on personal medical conditions should always consult a doctor or medical professional to check if it’s okay first.

But the benefits are worth it, as Becky Lumsden, PURE Spa and Beauty Founder & CEO, attests. She says: “I absolutely love using my infrared sauna blanket in the evenings at home to relax and unwind. There are lots of amazing health benefits to infrared therapy like supporting the body’s natural detoxification process, soothing sore muscles and improving circulation… I’d really recommend saunas and infrared heat therapies for anyone wanting to detoxify and deeply relax.”

So, maybe it’s time to heat things up!

Written by

  • Michelle Monaghan

    Originally from Australia, Michelle moved to the UK to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. She will begin training for her NCTJ qualification with News Associates in November. Having studied Women's Studies as her Major at Flinders University, Michelle is passionate about bringing importance to these issues through her writing. Through her internship at Ankhä Magazine, she hopes to explore topics she hasn't explored in her writing before and learn and develop new skills to make her a better journalist.

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