Your skin is your body’s largest organ, every bit as active in maintaining health as your liver and kidneys. In fact, your skin is often referred to as your third kidney, so similar are their roles in detoxification. As antisocial as it may seem, your skin is designed to sweat. Sweat is as essential to good health as eating and breathing.
Besides helping to regulate body temperature, sweat has two other functions that are critical to good health, the removal of toxic wastes and keeping the skin clean, supple and free of disease. Ayurvedic scripts dating back to 568BCE show that sweating was considered so important by Ayurvedic physicians in maintaining good health that there are over a dozen different methods prescribed to induce sweating. Synthetic clothing, air conditioning, anti-perspirants, petroleum-based moisturisers and lack of exercise all inhibit the proper functioning of your skin.
A simple and highly effective way to reactivate your skin and experience the health benefits of sweating is with regular sauna use. The sauna is an ancient form of heat therapy found in many cultures around the world. In Turkish it’s known as hamman, in Japanese, mushi-buro; there are Aztec temescalli, ancient Roman thermae, Russian bania, American Indian sweat lodges and, of course, the Scandinavian sauna.
The sauna or equivalent was not only used as a therapeutic activity to clean the body and heal illness; it was also regarded as an important community gathering place for social interaction and a place to conduct religious ceremonies and aid in spiritual development.
The sauna is such an important part of Finnish society and way of life, the Finns have conducted a range of studies to ensure that regular sauna use does not affect metabolism of commonly prescribed medications, ensuring that the sauna is safe for all in the community. Finnish settlers in America would often build their saunas first as a temporary place to live while they built their house. Saunas were used by the Finns not only for weekly family baths but also as a place to cure meats and fish, do laundry, malt barley, nurse the sick and as a birthing chamber.
The Finns are also firm believers that sauna bathing purifies the mind as well as cleansing the body. Emerging from the sauna is seen as akin to a rebirth, emerging relaxed and peaceful from the warm womb of the sauna. Children are taught sauna etiquette from an early age. Similar to behaviour in a church, loud talking, sexuality and indecent behaviour are forbidden. Nakedness is considered the norm for sauna use and, while families may share a sauna together, public saunas have separate sections for men and women.
There is often confusion around saunas and steam rooms. A sauna uses dry heat whereas a steam room has a very high humidity, often around 100 per cent. In a sauna, a heater or wood-burning stove heats the room to 75-90°C; in some, small amounts of cold water are sprinkled on the heater or rocks on top of the sauna stove to create a brief burst of humidity which makes the sauna feel temporarily hotter. The temperature of a steam room is much lower than that of a sauna and is usually around 45°C.
Both are effective at inducing sweating; however, some people find the dry heat of a sauna irritating to their sinuses and respiratory tract and prefer the humidity of a steam room. The higher temperature of the sauna is believed by many to have a more beneficial effect upon the cardiovascular system.