“Life without sauna seems to me impossible.”—Urho Kekkonen, former Prime Minister and longest-serving President of Finland
The Finnish sauna has been around for thousands of years but only came to the United States relatively recently. While Americans used to look upon saunas with suspicion in the 1800s, when Finnish immigrants built them on their farms, today you need only look as far as the nearest gym to find one. When operated correctly, the sauna (pronounced sow-nah rather than saw-nah) offers a relaxing environment while your body undergoes a transformation similar to heavy exercise, prompting a sweat that leaves you clean both inside and out.
Sauna is an ancient Finnish word that refers to both the bath and the bathhouse. A sauna is generally a small, insulated room or house made of wood with an implement for creating wet or dry heat. “Sweating rids our bodies of waste, regulates our body temperature, and keeps the skin smooth and supple,” says sweat bathing expert and author Mikkel Aaland.
The earliest saunas were pits dug in the earth that had a central fireplace where rocks were heated and then water poured on them to create steam heat. Modern saunas are simple and clean rooms where the temperature may range from 120 to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. You sit on wooden benches and relax until you work up a sweat.
The heat alerts your 2.3 million sweat glands to start working to excrete water onto the surface of your skin in an attempt to keep the body cool. Although 99% of sweat is water, the remaining 1% includes excess salts in the body, lactic acid from your muscles, as well as heavy metals and other toxins. Capillaries in the skin dilate to allow more blood to the surface in an attempt to disperse the excess heat. This, in turn, causes the heart to beat faster to keep your blood pressure from falling, and the body’s internal temperature rises up to 3 degrees, mimicking a slight fever and boosting your body’s immune system. The increased circulation helps refresh the organs (including the skin, our largest organ) and muscles through increased oxygen supply and waste removal.
A sauna can be more than relaxing. It can be a place to cleanse body and soul, a place to nurture ourselves as we retreat from the outer world. As Constance Malleson wrote in her 1946 travel book In the North: Autobiographical Fragments of Norway, Sweden, Finland:
The sauna is an apotheosis of all experience:
Purgatory and paradise; earth and fire; fire and water;
sin and forgiveness. It is lyrical ecstasy. It is
resurrection from the dead. It is eternal new birth
You are healed, you are made new.
Correct Sauna Operation
Operating a sauna correctly is important for both comfort and ensuring the health benefits of sweat bathing. The sauna temperature should be kept between 176 and 230 degrees Fahrenheit, measured at head level, to encourage sweating but prevent overheating the air. The sauna should have time to heat up so that the rocks, walls, and benches are all radiating heat, rather than only having heat emanating from the stove. Thirdly, pouring water on heated rocks is critical to keeping the air humid so that you don’t dry out the fragile mucous membranes in your nose and lungs, which can lead to increased susceptibility to colds, flu, and other airborne viruses, as well as nosebleeds. Rocks should be placed above a sauna stove’s electrical coils. At the proper temperature, the rocks are so hot that the water evaporates before it hits the coils, providing essential humidity but not harming the stove. Do not pour water directly onto the stove’s heating coils.
An additional health benefit of pouring water on the heated rocks is the creation of negative ions, odorless, tasteless molecules given off in certain environments such as at beaches and waterfalls, and after thunderstorms. Some researchers have found that negative ions help relieve seasonal affective disorder and mild depression. The negative ions produced by water vaporized on heated sauna rocks induce a feeling of well being in users. Beware of “dry saunas” where water is not allowed in the sauna. If there are no rocks in a sauna, drape a damp washcloth over your mouth and nose to keep your respiratory system moist.
Hydrate and Shower
Be sure to drink plenty of water during and after a sauna. Alcohol dehydrates the body, which is aggravated by a sauna, so it is best to avoid alcohol for an hour or two before, during, and after a sauna. Stay no longer than 10-15 minutes in a sauna at a time, using 10-15 minute cooling-off periods between sauna sessions. It may be traditional and refreshing to briefly jump into cold water or roll in the snow to cool off, but it is a temperature shock to the body and should only be done by people in good health.
Saunas do not elevate blood pressure and are generally fine for people with heart disease, as well as pregnant women, but check with your physician first. In the U.S., doctors warn older people to use a sauna with caution because of an increased risk of hyperthermia when the body is unable to regulate and cool down its temperature. Consult your doctor before practicing sweat bathing.
Traditional etiquette calls for sauna bathers to maintain a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere. Speak quietly or not at all. Ask other bathers before placing water on the rocks, to ensure no one has just done so and cooled them down. Shower off before entering a sauna, as well as after. Sit on a towel.
As Aaland writes in his comprehensive book, Sauna & Health: Sweat Bathing and the Body, many cultures used sweat bathing in religious ceremonies.
“Many sweat bath cultures discovered that rocks could absorb the power of fire, and thereby acquired spiritual significance. The Omaha Indians, for example, referred to the rocks as Grandfather, symbol of earthly endurance, and moved them from the fire into the revered sweatlodge. When water was splashed over them, the vapor produced became another medium for the transfer of heat and another object of worship. The Finns named this vapor loyly, spirit of life. The Fox, another American Indian tribe, believed that Manitou, a friendly spirit, dwelled inside the rocks and was released through the vapor to penetrate the skins of the bathers and drive out sickness. (Science has given a new name to vapor’s healing power–negative ions.)
A bather absorbing the heat of a sweat bath was seen as re-enacting Creation, merging body and fire. Hindu mythology has several stories regarding the human absorption of heat. Pajapati created the world by heating himself to an extreme temperature through asceticism. Consequently, Hindu ascetics meditate near fire to achieve inner heat. Those who reach a communion with the Spirit are said to “burn.” Those who perform miracles are called sahib-jocks, which means to “boil” from inner heat.
The visible product of heat, or “waters born from the heated man,” is sweat.”
Ready to try a sauna? Day use saunas can be found at many spas in most cities as well as at many health clubs. (Google “sauna” and your location). Hotels also often feature saunas, which can be used by non-guests for a supplemental fee. If you get hooked, you can even build your own. Pre-fab units are available for a relatively low cost. Aaland’s book, How to Build Your Own Sauna & Sweat, is a step-by-step guide to building your own sauna and how to use it.
Not to be construed as medical advice. Consult with your doctor before beginning any new health practice.
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco yoga instructor.
Disclosure: the writer is married to sauna expert Mikkel Aaland.