Saunas and health

For centuries people have believed that sweating was an extremely healthy way to cleanse the body of poisons, to stimulate the circulation, to impart a fresh and youthful appearance to the skin and to prevent serious illness. The way to induce sweating, to open skin pores – and to prevent the sweat evaporating so that it remains on the skin – is to put the human body in a hot, humid, steamy atmosphere. This is the basis of the sauna, a method of bathing that originated in Finland and which is one of very few Finnish words in the English language.

The Romans, renowned for their advanced bathing facilities, had intricate devices for modifying and regulating the heat supply to various bathing chambers. A hypocaust was a system of underfloor channels that carried hot air or furnace gases to heat the floors of Roman villas. Since those early days the belief that sweat bathing does have therapeutic benefits has persisted and various forms of sweat baths have been devised. Each country tends to have its own particular type of bath, often adapted to local conditions and the facilities available, such as natural mineral springs.

In Britain, spa towns such as Strathpeffer in Scotland, Cheltenham, Harrogate, Scarborough and the Roman city of Bath, were popular in Victorian times. People travelled to them to ‘take the waters’ – that is, to drink from the natural mineral springs – and to bathe in them. Several towns in Germany, which still have Bad (meaning bath) in their names, served a similar pur-pose. In south-eastern France, people benefited from the therapeutic effect of bathing in natural mud springs that were heated by subterranean volcanic activity.

Existing types of hot baths include the Turkish bath or steam bath, the Russian bath, the Japanese bath, the sweat lodge of the American Indians, the German Sitz bath and the Spanish mantle. But undoubtedly the most popular saunatype bath today is the Finnish sauna, or some modification of it. Only a few decades ago non-Scandinavians tended to consider sauna bathing as an eccentric habit indulged in only by the Finns. Today saunas are to be found in practically every spa, health club and local sports centre, and some people instal their own private sauna baths. The Finns are convinced of the therapeutic value of saunas, which also serve a family or social function, and have a tradition of sauna bathing going back to their earliest times. . epilepsy, . badly-controlled diabetes, . certain skin disorders or infectious diseases (check with your doctor), . high or variable blood pressure. The following tips should help would-be sauna bathers: . wait at least one or two hours after eating and drinking before you enter the sauna, . do not drink alcohol before a sauna, . do not take a sauna immediately after very vigorous exercise, . do not overdo the time spent in the sauna – a maxi-mum of five minutes for a first-time bather and ten minutes for an experienced bather, . do take a swim or cold shower after sitting in the heat, . allow time to cool down after the experience. If you go for a second sauna at the same session, allow yourself at least as long to cool off as you spent in the heated room, . unless you are used to it, do not plunge into an icy pool, lake or snowdrift.

The Finnish sauna

The typical Finnish sauna consists of a log cabin or other room containing a stove heated to a high tem-perature by burning birch logs. Water is sprinkled onto stones surrounding the stove, causing steam to rise. The steam is essential to prevent drying out of the eyes and other moist surfaces such as the mucous membranes in the airways and lungs. Bathers (either naked or lightly clothed) sit on benches set at different heights around the walls, the higher benches being the ones where the heat is most intense. Ideally the tem-perature of the sauna room should be at least 100°C, with temperatures of up to 140°C being used by some habitual sauna bathers.

The full Finnish sauna also involves, after the pro-longed steam bath, lightly beating the skin with twigs of birch leaves, or sometimes bundles of pine fronds or juniper twigs. This stimulates the circulation and adds to the therapeutic value of the sauna. After being beaten the bather traditionally takes a dip in a cold lake or stream, or in winter may roll in the snow. Many modern saunas are heated electrically and use special heat-retaining stones, but the effect is the same as that of the original Finnish sauna.


No matter how relaxed you feel, sauna bathing and the other activities described previously can be stressful for the body’s physiology, especially for those not used to it. Someone with a long-term medical condition is advised to consult his or her doctor before undertaking a first sauna bath. Saunas are not recom-mended if you have: . suffered a heart attack or angina pectoris,

Effects of taking a sauna

A sauna bath stimulates the circulation. The heat increases blood flow to the skin, imparting a rosy radiance. It is also possible, but not proven, that increased circulation might retard the formation of wrinkles in the skin. By excessive sweating additional quantities of the waste chemical urea are lost, assisting the kidneys in their job of filtering urea from the blood. It is possible that sauna bathing increases your body’s capacity to fight infection by stimulating the defensive cells in the lymph glands. Furthermore, most people find a sauna a good place to relax and unwind. One common fallacy is that sauna bathing causes you to lose weight. Unfortunately the apparent weight loss is simply water you sweat out, and this is quickly regained after a few drinks.

Other therapeutic baths

Various other forms of hydrotherapy and thermotherapy are in use. Hydrotherapy is used particularly to treat patients with various forms of paralysis or muscle wastage, in whom the buoyancy of water helps to support weakened or wasted limbs. In an aerated or bubble bath the water contains considerable quantities of gases, which produce a highly effective form of underwater massage.

This type of bath is useful for treating fractures and sprains and also as a general tonic. Artificial bubble baths are produced by forcing compressed air through small holes in wood or metal to create a mass of bubbles in the water; some natural spa waters contain gas under pressure that bubbles out at the spring. Another variant with similar invigorating qualities is the Jacuzzi or whirlpool bath.

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