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How Do Saunas Work?

 

The sauna is a Finnish word that means "sauna room" and is also an enclosed building used for sweating. Some people use a sauna for relaxation, while others use it to treat skin ailments, such as psoriasis.


To those of you who are not so familiar with a sauna, it is an enclosed room that traditionally contains a large wood burning stove, although nowadays electric and infrared heaters are increasingly popular. The stove heats the entire room and causes one to sweat while relaxing. There are usually benches where you can sit or lay down while you relax.


For us to understand how saunas work, it is important to recognize that there are two types of saunas: traditional, and infrared saunas. So let’s take a look at how each type works:


Traditional Saunas


Traditional saunas are the most commonly thought of sauna, and are those that are typically used in Finland. They utilize a standing heater (known as a kiuas in Finland) which can be heated by an electric supply, gas, or by burning wood. Of course these heaters each have their own pros and cons, but they generally serve the same function. 

 

Traditional Sauna Heater Rocks


Purists may insist that wood burning heaters feel the best, delivering the most authentic experience. These stoves often have a chimney to funnel smoke out of the sauna, so these are most often used in outdoor saunas. Electric heaters are becoming increasingly popular, and are also easier to control.


The sauna temperature generally sits somewhere between 158-194°F, and typical practices last around 15 minutes followed by a break (either to cool down naturally, or by taking an ice bath or cold shower). If so desired, you may reenter the sauna for another 15 minutes, where the cycle can be repeated several times. 


One of the key elements of the traditional sauna which infrared saunas lack, are the sauna stones (lava rocks) that sit atop the heater. The sauna stones not only help to radiate heat, but allow you to enjoy löyly - the hot steam that evaporates and fills the sauna after pouring water over the sauna stones. While this does not necessarily increase the temperature of the sauna, it does increase the humidity and hence makes the room feel much hotter. For many regular sauna users, it is in this time where most of the best work is done- your muscles relax, and your body releases those sweet endorphins giving an almost euphoric sensation. 


Ultimately, with a traditional sauna experience, the room can be as hot and humid as the user desires.

 

Infrared Saunas

 

Welcome the new kids on the block: the infrared sauna. Sometimes called a far infrared sauna, the heating method relies purely on radiation as opposed to the convection and conduction used by traditional saunas. 

 

Infrared Sauna Panel

 

They utilize ceramic, incoloy, or carbon panel heaters which emit far-infrared light which is then absorbed by the skin’s cells. The body will then become warmer and sweat, helping to expel dirt, chemicals and dead skin cells, while also promoting circulation through vasodilation of the peripheral blood cells. Temperatures are typically lower (averaging 120-140°F) providing a gentler experience.


Infrared saunas are generally designed to look like traditional saunas, using the same structure and wood. However, the panel heaters are either built-in to the surrounding walls, or fixed on top depending on the sauna’s construction. Because of this, many infrared sauna advocates state that the heat source is all encompassing and evenly distributed, whereas higher seating in traditional saunas are often noticeably warmer than lower seating. Because of these panels, there is then no need for a standing sauna heater, providing more space in the sauna. 


With many models having removable benches, this does offer the user additional benefits such as the option to perform light exercise and hot yoga in the sauna. Unfortunately, as a result of this, infrared saunas lack a core element of traditional saunas: the löyly.


What Actually Happens to Your Body When You Sauna?


Traditional or Infrared, the heat from a sauna can have profound effects on your body. During a typical 15-minute session, your skin temperature can soar to about 104° F within minutes. On average, a person can release up to a pint or more of sweat during a short stint in a sauna. Accompanied by this heat and release of sweat, your body’s pulse rate jumps by 30% or more, allowing the heart to nearly double the amount of blood it pumps each minute. This enhanced circulation significantly stimulates and increases the turnover of various substances in our body – your metabolic rate, in other words. 

On a cellular level, both wet and dry forms of sauna use induce discrete metabolic changes that have been shown to help reduce oxidative stress on our cells and reduce inflammation pathway activities across our body, this is accompanied by an increased absorption and bioavailability of useful nutrients, vitamins, and minerals while expelling (aka detoxifying) heavy metals like lead, copper, zinc, nickel, mercury and chemical - which are all toxins commonly absorbed just from interacting with our daily environments. It has been suggested that heat stress induces adaptive mechanisms similar to exercise.

We have now journaled the internal changes our body’s go through during a sauna. Let us talk about the external; through intense sweating, saunas provide a great way to work out the body’s largest organ – the skin. The increased blood flow and flush promotes the growth of new skin, helps repair any damages to the epidermal layer and skin surface, and removes the layers of dead skin through heat, sweat, and the occasional whip from your birch or eucalyptus sauna whisk, this process leaves you with a flushed and glowing complexion. Lastly, to tie it back to the internal on-goings, your sauna session can also help activate your autonomic and sympathetic nervous system amongst others, thereby playing host to your body’s internal release of the ‘‘feel good’’ hormones or endorphins – besides being natural painkillers and anti-inflammatories, these endorphins will leave you completely relaxed and well courted for a good night’s rest.

Speaking of internal and external benefits of regular sauna usage; In some of our other blogs, we’ve covered how sauna usage could help with acne, the link to potential weight loss as well its role in keeping the common cold and other viruses at bay.


So Which Sauna is Best?


This is a very common question that we get asked a lot. The truth is that both sauna types offer the following benefits:


  • Improved cardiovascular health,
  • Helps with chronic pain and fatigue,
  • Helps manage rheumatoid diseases,
  • Improved rest and recovery,
  • Assisted muscle growth,
  • Benefits to the skin moisture barrier.

However, there are some distinct benefits that only traditional saunas offer, owing to its distinct arrangement of heat and humidity:


  • Protection against the risk of developing memory related diseases,
  • Improved arterial stiffness,
  • Reduced risk in respiratory disease,
  • Reduced risk in pneumonia.

That is not to say that traditional saunas are inherently better, as it is important that each user finds the right sauna for them. 

Hopefully we have helped to clarify how the two types of saunas work and how they affect your body. This should help you to make a more well informed decision for which would be better for you. However, if you are still unsure or have further questions, please feel free to contact us here at thermaliving.

 

 

 

 

References

Hussain, J., & Cohen, M. (2018). Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2018, 1857413. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/1857413


Pilch, W et al (2013) ‘Effect of a Single Finnish Sauna Session on White Blood Cell Profile and Cortisol Levels in Athletes and Non-Athletes’ Journal of Human Kinetics (39) pp. 127-135. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916915/


Hussain, J and Cohen, M (2018) ‘Clinical effects of regular dry sauna bathing: A systematic review’ Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5941775/pdf/ECAM2018-1857413.pdf 


Hussain, J. N, Greaves, R.F, Cohen, M (2019) ‘A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey’ Complementary Therapies in Medicine. (44) pp. 223-234. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229919300998 

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