For many of us a visit to a sauna is considered a spa-like luxury to be enjoyed on rare occasions as a special treat. However, as long demonstrated by Finnish culture, saunas can be a regular part of our health regime, providing benefits beyond relaxation and an enhanced feeling of well-being (as if that wouldn’t be enough!) Saunas are also more accessible than they once were and, in many places, can be found as close as your local gym.
A sauna is an enclosed room that is heated to a temperature between 170 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit by a wood stove, an electric heater, or infrared heater. Finnish saunas are usually heated by wood stoves which can be splashed with water, relieving some of the dryness of the room. Electric heater powered saunas can become extremely dry and consequently irritate the respiratory track. Saunas using infrared heaters create radiant heat that heats the body instead of the air and can causes greater sweating. All saunas are usually lined with slatted wooden benches, providing a place for the heat bathers to sit or lay down, usually on a towel.
While in a sauna, skin temperature generally rises to 40°C (104°F) and internal body temperature rises to about 38°C (100.4°F). The intense heat causes an increase in circulation and results in profuse sweating and a flushing out of impurities through the skin’s pores. While additional health benefits have not been empirically confirmed, other benefits claimed by sauna lovers include relief from the pain and stiffness of arthritis, improved complexion over time, relief from the effects of Lyme disease, quicker recovery of sore muscles, and increased flexibility.
Saunas are not for everyone. Individuals with high blood pressure or heart disease should consult their physician before deciding to sauna. Also, pregnant women should be cautious with sauna use as there is concern over the impact of the rise in temperature on the fetus. For pregnant women, more dangerous than saunas, however, is soaking in hot tubs. Again, you can check with your doctor to decide what’s best for you. Additional safety measures:
- Limit time in sauna to 15-20 minutes — don’t fall asleep!
- If at any point you feel light headed or unwell, exit the sauna.
- Drink generous amounts of cool water before, during and after your sauna.
- Avoid alcohol and medications that may inhibit sweating and produce overheating before and after your sauna.
- Do not sauna if you have a fever.
- Remove jewelry before entering sauna. Metal objects will heat up and can burn your skin.