Hi My name is Lynnette and I’ve been a sauna enthusiast since age 12.
Before yoga, surfing or any of the other (often weird) wellness roads I’ve traveled over the years (Kambo, anyone?) I started with the sauna and it has been a mainstay in my self-care toolkit since. As the practice becomes more popular in the US, more research is being dedicated to scientifically proving what the ancients (and I) already knew – plus disproving one of the biggest benefits in the process.
As with most habits in life, I blame my parents for this (incredible, yet often inaccessible) practice. Growing up, the sauna was a sanctuary from the stress of our family life and of course the cold winters of Chicago. Thanks to their hands-off parenting style, they allowed my brother and I to roam free through the fancy gym, dodging the on-site day care in favor of tennis, rowing machines and ending in the sauna.
While “working-in sets” with people 3 times my age could be a bit strange in a gym intended for adults, sitting in a sauna was even stranger at times, with conversations spanning the more absurd when “grown folks” forgot a kid was in the room. Nevertheless that fly on the wall experience helped shape how I communicate and most importantly how comfortable I am with my body.
As I got older I became even more thankful for that experience as I realized how rare the sauna was in the USA yet so prevalent around the world. From the European mega city to the South American village, sweat culture is introduced at an early age, in various ways and continues to be a big part of everyday life.
Up until recently, most Americans saw “bathhouse culture” through the lens of pop culture; where business deals get made in crime films or more stereotypically where gay men get laid. Nevertheless both are accurate in real life (and throughout history) however not always the case (usually not).
History + Culture
Whether they call it a spa, sauna, sweat lodge, or bathhouse, there is no doubt that nearly every culture has its own way of using heat for relaxation, therapy and ritual.
Cultures on every continent unanimously recognize the healing quality of hot steam. steam-opening the pores and shedding off a few layers of skin makes frequent sauna users feel cleaner, healthier, more relaxed, and more capable of overcoming fear, stress, environment, and disease.
The oldest — and hottest — of these techniques is the sauna. Steam bathing is a truly ancient custom, dating back to the earliest nomadic tribes who happened across geothermal hot springs and steamy caverns.
Steam houses drew communities together to talk, laugh, cry, share food, resolve conflicts, and develop familial relationships with each other. African spas use local clays, oils, herbs, wood, and spring water to purge the body of its toxic load through hot mud baths and massages. Aboriginal Australians recognized that regular visits to sweat lodges, much like those built by the Native Americans, were an effective mental health treatment. In Korea, spas called jjimjilbang were designed to promote detoxification and provide medicinal care to the community. Japanese baths, or onsen, combine naturally occurring sulfur, magnesium, mineral hot springs, and pumice with fresh air to create a medicinal environment for whatever-ails-you.
In Europe, the Finnish have sat in saunas for as long as they’ve been a people. After stripping and exfoliating their skin, they proceeded to steam rooms, where charcoal smoke, hot rocks, and water combined in an unventilated hut. After enduring the heat as long as possible, they proceeded back into the cold, often throwing themselves into the snow. Today although the techniques are a bit different, nearly a third of all adults take them regularly.
Up through the Middle Ages, bathhouses were a catchall venue for every aspect of life in Europe where whole villages of common men, women and children would participate daily, holding birthing and marital ceremonies and ironically was also known to be a great place to meet prostitutes. After the Protestant Reformation however, most bathhouses were wiped out. Only the Finnish, Scandinavians and Russians held tight to their traditions.
Today the United States, with ancient self care techniques on the rise, sauna culture is growing with over one million saunas in use.
How Saunas Work
The modern sauna is a simple unpainted room with wooden walls and benches. A rock-filled electric heater keeps the temperature at about 90° at floor level and boosts it to about 185° at the top. Unlike Turkish baths, Finnish saunas are very dry. Humidity levels are just 10% to 20%. Water drains through the floor to keep things dry.
The Science of Sweat
The skin is our largest organ and what better way to maintain it by sweating it out in a sauna, right?
Although the idea of saunas have always been seen to be a way of purging toxicants, recent research reveals its not as much as we thought. A recent study in Environmental International explains that because the chemicals we consider as “toxic” are attracted to fat, they don’t dissolve well in sweat, which is mostly made of water.
Oh well….nevertheless, there is a (very) small amount that does get purged, luckily there are a few more ways that it has proven to be useful.
First up, the skin. A 2008 study in the Journal of Dermatology suggested that regular sauna usage has a protective effect on skin functions and may help with dry skin conditions. (Bonus points for exfoliating after.) Saunas also help with better breathing. It’s dry heat can also open up clogged respiratory passages, improve your lung function, even if you have asthma or chronic breathing problems, and reduce your risk of contracting a cold or pneumonia if you have them regularly in winter. It can also help to reduce inflammation in the blood, helping to soothe chronic conditions.
The sauna may also help you live longer. A study of 2,300 Finnish men over 20 years found that, over the course of the study, 49 percent of once-weekly sauna takers passed away, compared with 38 percent of twice-weekly users and 31 percent of men who went nearly every day. Scientists also believe the social aspects of sauna culture also help with this. Part of this, the scientists behind the study say, is that saunas are often done communally, and help you bond with other people, which has confirmed health benefits of it’s own.
Although the study was only men, women who use saunas can greatly alleviate menstrual cramps and various soft tissue, muscle and joint pains. I can attest to this one, by the way!
Sauna styles run the gamut, from backyard hovels in the woods to just about the ritziest spas imaginable.
Maximum occupancy can range from a single bather to the entire Swiss men’s national ice hockey team. In Finland, where saunas are integral to daily life, it’s customary to bring portable, folding saunas on camping trips. The soldier’s life isn’t complete without one either. When the Finnish army sent troops to help restore war-torn Kosovo, the army made sure to construct 20 saunas for its 800-troop contingency. Even Finnish prisons offer sauna privileges to inmates.
Los Angeles alone boasts countless “sweat centers” from infrared (we love Sweat Theory) to the classic bathhouse to the oh so amazing Korean spa (we love Wi Spa). If you are looking for more of a psychoactive element, Mexican temazcal sweat lodge sessions are offered in the surrounding desert and mountain communities. But if you’re looking for a simple cleansing sweat, look no further than your nearby gym or spa or even consider a portable unit in your home.
If none of those options work, traveling is one of the best times to find the perfect place. While traveling, I seek sauna access above the gym, as it can boost immunity levels (and is a great way to meet new people if you’re traveling alone).
Instead of the traditional hot stones, this sauna directly heats bathers with infrared light. Infrared enthusiasts believe that this method provides a superior sauna experience since the infrared radiation penetrates deeper into bone and muscle tissue. They also argue that a session of infrared imparts all the beneficial aspects of sunlight, only without all the blisters and skin cancer.
In addition to the sauna, Korean spas are are known for providing cutting-edge health treatments through medicinal herbs, acupuncture, ice rooms and other healing modalities. Plus they are often open 24/7 with restaurants and theatres inside!
A temazcal is a traditional Mexican steam bath that is in many ways similar to the Native American sweat lodge. Besides promoting physical well-being and healing, the temazcal is also a ritual and spiritual practice in which traditional healing methods are used to encourage reflection and introspection. Technically the word temazcal is Aztec, not Mayan. However, ancient Mayan athletes, priests and kings regularly engaged in these sweaty detox sessions and took hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote to further enhance the experience.
From Costco to Craigslist, there are a number of places that offer sauna units for the home. To get a good handle on what’s out there start with of Saunas.com, of course.
Although every culture has always had ways to enhance sauna sessions (Russian self-flagellation, anyone?) one of the biggest benefits to recent research is the discovery of new ways. Below is a new and an old method, with some of them more scientifically sound than others, so stay mindful!
Recent research suggests that the consumption of activated charcoal can help absorb toxicants that are being released inside the body.
An oldie but goodie, brushing does a body good by aiding in circulation. Be sure to use natural bristles, don’t forget the soles of the feet and always brush toward the heart.
Ironically, sweating can actually backfire if you don’t remain properly hydrated. The kidneys need water to function, and your water-based urine is the vehicle by which substances such as urea leave your body. Rob your body of too much water and you could wind up impairing your core detox systems. It goes without saying that consuming alcohol before or shortly after isnt a good idea. Also, don’t overdo it; 15 to 20 minutes of a sauna is a reasonable time limit for most.
The following folks are generally advised to avoid saunas.
Individuals with weakened immune systems
Individuals with pneumonia or other acute respiratory diseases
Individuals with heart conditions or high blood pressure
Obviously, for a comfortable, effective sauna experience, you’ll need to be as naked as possible. From there, everything breaks down into whatever the accepted local sauna culture happens to be. If you’re planning to break a sweat in a U.S. sauna, then you’re probably going to have to cover up.
Everywhere else covering up with a towel is fine, but many establishments will frown on the wearing of shorts or even swimwear for hygienic reasons. In Finland, for instance, you’ll find both mixed-sex and single-sex nude saunas. Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe generally offer nude, mixed-company bathing. Russian banyas and South Korean jjimjilbangs are both traditionally gender-separated, but usually quite nude as well. Other countries, such as France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom tend to offer same-sex facilities and are perfectly fine with nudity.
Beyond the issue of nudity, also keep in mind that many cultures frown on talking in the sauna or bringing in outside items such as books, phones or food. There’s often additional etiquette surrounding when to pour water on the rocks, as well as when to enter or exit the sauna.
Just how much sauna can a certified world champion take? Well, in August 2009, Finland’s Timo Kaukonen won the men’s world championship by withstanding sweltering 230 degrees Fahrenheit (110 degrees Celsius) for 3 minutes and 46 seconds.
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