While the origins of sauna use throughout world history is somewhat difficult to pin down, we typically look to Finland as the foundation of the modern sauna - in fact, did you know that the word sauna is one of the only Finnish words to have been adopted into the English language?
Word used to be that Finland has more saunas than cars, however that no longer appears to be the case. However, most Finns take a sauna bath weekly and grow up hearing the adage: ‘If the sauna, schnapps, and birch tar don’t help, then death is near.’
‘If the sauna, schnapps, and birch tar don’t help, then death is near.’
However, saunas and the use of heat therapy can be seen all over the world: the sweat lodge was traditionally used by certain indigenous populations in North America; Korea and Japan both famously incorporate bathhouses known as mogyoktang and sentō respectively; the Turkish bath or hammam is an important part of certain Islamic cultures; even the Roman Empire famously built large bath complexes known as thermae- some of which can still be visited, such as the Roman Public Baths in Bath, England.
More examples can be found throughout the world, which raises the question as to why various cultures employed the use of heat. Well, it may come as no surprise that besides from relaxation, saunas have been found to have certain health benefits.
A study on the effects of the sauna on diffusing capacity, pulmonary function and cardiac output in health subjects, Finnish saunas decrease pulmonary congestion and increase forced vital capacity, peak expiratory flow rate and forced expiratory volume in one second. That all sounds very complicated, but essentially research showed that regular sauna therapy indicated improved respiration in asthma and bronchitis patients. General respiratory function also showed improvement , and having a ‘sauna session twice weekly for six months reduced the incidence of the common cold by 50 percent.’ (Crinnion, 2011)
While some may believe that regular sauna use is detrimental to one’s cardiovascular system, there is in fact little association between increased regular sauna use and increased mortality from sudden cardiac death. Studies have shown that there is indeed increased cardiac output during a sauna session, which suggests a slight workout for your heart.
Post-Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attacks)
Myocardial infarction is more commonly known as a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow decreases or stops to a part of the heart, causing damage to the heart muscle.
A study on a group of men who had experienced heart attacks in the previous 4-6 weeks of the study showed no adverse effects from sauna use. Sauna use increased cardiac workload similar to brisk walking, however the caveat here is that while there is a reduction in cardiac stress during saunas, it is slightly less than that found during exercise.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertensive Heart Disease)
Hypertensive heart disease refers to those conditions caused by high blood pressure. Siewert et al. showed evidence that taking saunas just once every two weeks resulted in increased blood flow being pumped out of the heart with every beat. A further group of 46 men saw a decrease in blood pressure similar to those using anti-hypertensive medication.
What’s more is that there also appears to be some correlation in assisted weight loss, with some studies showing weight loss in individuals exercising moderately and with regular sauna use to be 1.8 times greater than those solely exercising.
In 2005 a team of Japanese scientists studied how thermal therapy could influence a loss of appetite and subjective complaints in patients with mild forms of depression. Over a four week period, they found that there was a statistically significant improvement in appetite, ability to relax and even a reduction in complaints relating to physical discomfort.
Speaking of physical discomfort, a study conducted by a different team of Japanese scientists found that there was a statistical improvement in patients experiencing chronic pain when undergoing sauna therapy five days weekly for four weeks. At the end of the program, the study group reported diminished pain behaviors and had statistically lower anger scores. Furthermore, a two-year follow-up revealed that 77% of that group had returned to work, compared with a group who did not undergo sauna therapy, with only 50% having returned to work.
Sauna use has a long history with remarkably low cases of mortality which suggests that regular use is generally safe. There is a growing body of evidence on the clinical use of saunas for therapeutic purposes, and such use may even be an underutilized treatment for a variety of problems.
Most adverse effects are generally linked to the consumption of alcohol prior to entering the sauna, and pregnant women are certainly not recommended to engage in sauna use.
Please note that any information contained within this article or associated links should not be taken as medical advice. For any such advice you should consult your physician before using a sauna.
Crinnion WJ. Results of a decade of naturopathic treatment for environmental illnesses. J Naturopathic Med 1997;l7:21-27.
Ernst E, Pecho E, Wirz P, Saradeth T. Regular sauna bathing and the incidence of common colds. Ann Med 1990;22:225-227.
Kiss D, Popp W, Wagner C, Zwick H, Sertl K, Effects of the sauna on diffusing capacity, pulmonary function and cardiac output in healthy subjects. Respiration 1994;61:86-88.
Matsuda A, Nakazato M, Kihara T, et al. Repeated thermal therapy diminishes appetite loss and subjective complaints in mildly depressed patients. Psychosom Med 2005;67:643-647.
Masada A, Koga Y, Hattanmaru M, et al. "e e#ects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. Psychother Psychosom 2005;74:288-294.
Siewert C, Siewert H, Winterfeld HJ, Strangfeld D. Changes of central and peripheral hemodynamics during isometric and dynamic exercise in hypertensive patients before and after regular sauna therapy. Z Kardiol 1994;83:652-657.