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Did You Know? The Sauna and Your Health

I’ve got a gazebo I’d like to turn into a sauna–but I don’t know the first thing about the famous “Finnish bath”. Except of course, that it originated in Finland, and is replete with health benefits. Turns out, there are a variety of saunas such a cordwood masonry, post-and-beam, earthwood, conventionally framed, and more. You can build your own! Rob Roy is a sauna expert, and his how-to advice on building (including architectural drawings) is spot-on. But first, let’s talk basics. Let’s talk health.

The following is an excerpt from Rob Roy‘s The Sauna: A Complete Guide to the Construction, Use, and Benefits of the Finnish Bath. It has been adapted for the web.

If you think the sauna history recounted above is fuzzy, be prepared for all the conflicting reports that you are bound to hear about the health benefits—and risks—of the sauna. I’ll try to help you through it, but ultimately I can report only what I’ve read, giving greater weight to statements reported again and again from a variety of respectable sources and lesser weight to what seem to be unsubstantiated claims. And I will share some of my own personal experiences and let you file them as you will under illumination, humor, or claptrap.

Fact or Fiction?

You may have heard: Saunas are a great way to lose weight. Reality check: You’ll lose 1 to 3 pounds in a typical sauna, but you’ll gain it back as soon as you drink 1 to 3 pounds of water, juice, soda pop, or beer. Basically we’re all bags of water (90 percent of our body weight), and the bags are made of our largest organ, the epidermis (skin to the layperson). When we sweat, this bag springs thousands of leaks, and a few pints of water drip out. So, while some wrestlers have been known to spend an hour in a sauna to “make weight” (with what other negative effects on their bodies we can’t fully imagine), experts agree that if you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. The sauna won’t help.

You may have heard: Sauna is good for your skin. Reality check: Consensus says it probably is. A good flow of perspiration can carry out dirt, stale body oil, dead skin, sebum, and certain blood chemicals such as sodium and electrolytes, so some internal cleansing might be considered to be taking place. Viherjuuri says (and I tend to agree): “Induced perspiration is the best known means of cleansing the skin.” From experience, I find that a good sweat in a sauna works particularly well in loosening hard-to-displace grime, oils, pitches, and the like that come from hard or dirty work. It seems to drive the dirt out of one’s skin from the inside. As an adolescent, I was bothered by acne attacks. Saunas definitely improved my condition but certainly didn’t cure it.

You may have heard: Saunas increase (or decrease) blood pressure and the risk of heart attack. Reality check: Mixed. A standard warning by manufacturers of sauna and hot tub equipment advises those with respiratory or heart disease and those troubled by blood pressure abnormalities to check with a doctor before using said equipment. Problem is, doctors won’t all agree with each other on this issue. Most today will probably take the safe route: “Don’t use the sauna.” Cynically, we might say that the manufacturers (and the doctors) are just trying to protect themselves from lawsuits. But there is more to it than that.

Your heart works harder in a sauna. No question about it. Heart rate can increase from around 72 beats per minute to anywhere from 100 to 160 beats. The load of the heart in the sauna corresponds to light physical work or to fever in moderate degree. Blood circulation also increases, but not necessarily blood pressure, because the heat simultaneously dilates the blood vessel walls, which accommodates the increased blood flow. Circulation could double, from around 5 to 7 quarts per minute all the way up to 11 to 13 quarts. This is your body’s reaction to the great heat. The heart pumps more blood to the surface of the skin, trying to bring down the temperature.

The Sauna and the Common Cold

Can the sauna cure (or cause) a cold? Mount Sinai’s Dr. Halperin says that saunas may temporarily alleviate the symptoms of colds because the steam acts as a decongestant, but they won’t shorten the duration (Berinstein, 1995). But regular use of the sauna might decrease the chance of getting colds in the first place. Veteran sauna bather and writer Leslie Li writes in Health Magazine: “The results of a study conducted on schoolchildren in Germany, half of whom took saunas weekly, suggest that the heat increases resistance to viral infections, particularly the common cold.”

In my younger days I used to visit the sauna at the very first onset of a cold, and I was (and remain) convinced that I was able to “sweat out” several colds in that way. I also remember trying the same thing a few years ago with no positive results. My theory, unproven, is that the success depends on the nature of the infection. And the hope of a “cure” is predicated upon the early application of the medicine, the sauna. Now, everybody is different, and I recognize that a positive attitude (faith?) may have as much to do with success as the sauna itself. Definitely don’t take a sauna when your resistance or general health is at a low ebb. Will you catch a cold in the sauna? No, not unless an infected fellow bather sneezes all over you. One caution, though: Make sure you are fully dry and have stopped sweating before dressing and going out into the cold. The danger here is the possibility of chills from remaining in damp clothes.

The Sauna and Pregnancy

Should pregnant women use the sauna? Not according to Aubrey Milunsky, M.D., director of the Center for Human Genetics at Boston University Medical School. She cautions that exposure to intense heat during the first trimester increases the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida. Dr. Milunsky, quoted in Good Housekeeping, says, “Even though the additional risk is relatively small, the data should serve as a warning to pregnant women to avoid exposure to the high temperatures found in saunas, hot tubs, or steam rooms.”

Dr. Milunsky’s advice differs from the view from Finland. There, in a 1988 paper, Dr. K. Vaha-Eskeli and R. Erkkola of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Turku report: “Up to 90 percent of pregnant women in Finland regularly visit the sauna until the expected time of delivery and Finnish women are confident that the sauna and pregnancy are compatible, a view that contrasts with many opinions abroad.” In the same paper, incidentally, the authors report that sauna did not change the sperm count among male bathers.

It should be noted that Dr. Milunsky’s commentary is more specific—and more recent—than that of the Finnish paper. Will the sauna cause pregnancy? Not likely. At 180°F, sex will be about the farthest thing from your mind. But Carlton Hollander says:

The sauna experience . . . will leave you feeling very much alive. Your senses will be sharpened, and your tactile sensitivity heightened. In the vernacular of today’s world, you could define the state as being “turned on.” But by then the sauna will be over and what you do is your own affair.

Other Health Claims

While wild health claims for the sauna are still unsubstantiated, there is agreement on a few benefits. Many doctors and patients report temporary relief from pain and inflammation connected with arthritis and rheumatism. Sports medicine experts use the sauna to relax sore muscles and treat minor aches after a strenuous workout. Asthma patients in Czechoslovakia take saunas to allow freer breathing, since the air sacs in the lungs dilate in the intense heat.

Finally, saunas are relaxing. They can help relax and loosen muscle tissue, decrease muscle tension, and increase flexibility by as much as 10 percent. Stress seems to evaporate in the sauna steam. While in the stoveroom, you are kind of forced to do nothing. Ideally, you should think nothing, too, and the stress-reducing benefits of meditation will begin to set in. Call it Sauna 202. Pseudo-psycho claptrap? Maybe. Psychology may have a lot to do with the feeling of well-being reported by sauna aficionados for hundreds of years on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, I have experienced similar benefits at a good English pub.

If it works, don’t knock it.

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