How saunas can improve your health

written by The WellBeing Team

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.

The health benefits of sweat

There are two basic types of sweat glands in your skin. The Apocrine sweat glands are located in your armpits and pubic area and activated by emotional stimuli. The most abundant sweat glands located over all body surfaces including your hands and feet are known as the Eccrine sweat glands whose chief function is to cool the body by the evaporation of sweat from the skin.

In a typical day, the average sedentary person loses about half to one and a half litres of sweat. Spend 15 minutes in a sauna and you’ll expel roughly one litre of sweat, the equivalent to 24 hours of detoxification by your kidneys. Ninety-nine percent of sweat is simply water; the other one per cent consists of a variety of water soluble waste products including salt, lactic acid, urea and heavy metals including copper, lead and mercury. A special type of sweat, known as insensible perspiration, works its way up to the surface of your skin, judiciously collecting toxins as it passes through all of your body’s tissues. It evaporates from your skin before you even realise that your skin is damp.

Sweat glands also produce and excrete a potent antibacterial compound, Dermicidin, which is effective against E. coli, Staph areaus and Candida albicans. If you’re prone to skin infections, including athlete’s foot, regular saunas to stimulate your sweat glands may help your skin resist further infection. Many people with chronic skin conditions including dry, flaky skin note an improvement in their skin’s health and appearance with regular sauna use.

Effects on circulation

As the temperature of your skin heats up, blood vessels dilate and the circulation to your skin increases dramatically in an attempt to keep your core body temperature stable. The increased flow of blood to your skin causes your blood pressure to drop as the resistance to blood flow in your veins and capillaries decreases. Your heart is then forced to beat faster and harder in order to keep your blood pressure normal. While you relax in the sauna your organs, heart and circulation are as active as if you were taking a jog around the block.

Sauna therapy

Enhanced endurance

Clinical trials have shown that as little as three weeks of post-exercise sauna use produce a significant improvement of endurance running performance due to an increased blood volume.

Cardiovascular health

A widely held belief is that anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease should avoid using saunas. Clinical trials have in fact shown the opposite to be true: saunas have a beneficial effect upon cardiovascular health and appear to be particularly beneficial for chronic heart failure and high blood pressure. Regular and repeated sauna use has been shown to improve ventricular arrhythmias in patients with chronic heart failure and has a positive effect upon the health and function of arteries. Saunas have also been shown to have positive effects upon blood pressure and circulation in patients suffering from high blood pressure. If you suffer from cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, it’s always best to check with your physician before using a sauna. If given the go-ahead, it’s important to ensure that the temperature is kept below 90°C and avoid exposure to sudden cold, such as diving into a swimming pool after using the sauna.

Immune Function

Regular sauna use has been shown to reduce the incidence of the common cold and your immune system will also benefit from the enhanced detoxification that sauna use brings about.

Weight loss

Just like a jog around the block, spending time in a sauna results in extra calories being burnt for energy as your body and heart are forced to adjust to the heat. Regular sauna use may assist in weight loss and maintenance. The key here is to make it regular, just like exercise. A single sauna session will not result in any kilos being shed, only short-term fluid loss.

Detoxification

By helping to move toxins out of your body via your skin and sweat glands, you’re doing your body a huge favour. Detoxification through your skin means toxins do not have to re-enter your blood stream with the potential to cause further damage before being excreted via your kidneys. We live in an increasingly toxic world and you’re exposed to toxins every day through air, food, water and even substances applied to your skin. Toxicity is associated with a range of health problems including fatigue, skin problems, hormonal imbalance, immune disorders and even cancer.

Aches and Pains

The warm, dry heat of the sauna is relaxing to both your muscles and nervous system. By reducing muscular tension and improving circulation to muscles and joints, saunas are often very effective in reducing a range of aches and pains.

Pregnancy

According to the Finnish Sauna Society, sauna use is safe for pregnant women provided the temperature is kept below 70°C.

Ten to 15 minutes is believed to be the most effective period of time to spend in the sauna to achieve maximum health benefits. After you leave the sauna, allow your body to cool down by taking a cool shower, a swim or simply spending some time in the cooler environment outside the sauna before returning for another 10 to 15 minutes. The Finns are famous for plunging into icy water or rolling in the snow to cool themselves before returning to the sauna.

You can repeat this cycle of heating and cooling as many times as you feel comfortable. Very sick or very frail people should limit themselves to a single session of 10 to 15 minutes and gradually increase the time spent in the sauna over a period of weeks to months. If you have a chronic health condition, avoid shocking your body with extreme cold after spending time in a sauna. Wait until your body has returned to its normal temperature before showering or dressing otherwise you’ll continue to perspire in your clothing.

Remember to drink plenty of pure, filtered water after your sauna in order to re-hydrate. Saunas are not recommended if you’re already running a temperature or have consumed alcohol or other drugs that may impair your ability to regulate body temperature.

Far-Infrared Saunas

A relatively new type of sauna is the infrared or far-infrared sauna. Far-infrared, part of the sun’s invisible spectrum, has the ability to easily penetrate human skin and tissue of depths up to five to seven centimetres. Unlike ultraviolet radiation, far-infrared heat is very safe. You can be exposed to it for several hours without any risk of burning; in fact, infrared heat is used in hospitals to warm newborn babies.

The human body also produces and emits far-infrared waves. Far-infrared saunas are often built to mimic more traditional saunas to provide the same sense of ambiance and also allow multiple users. Single-person and portable models are also available.

Not all infrared saunas are created equal. The infrared spectrum is divided into three subsets of wave length known as near, mid and far-infrared. The ideal infrared wave length frequency for maximum health benefits is the far-infrared waves of between 7 and 14 microns: this is the frequency at which water vibrates or resonates. When you consider that your body is around 70 per cent water, the health benefits of far-infrared waves make complete sense. Far-infrared waves are believed to provide many of the benefits of sunlight exposure without the risk of unwanted and damaging UV radiation.

Far-infrared saunas — like their more traditional counterparts, saunas and steam rooms — stimulate detoxification via sweating and have positive effects upon the cardiovascular system, but here the similarities end. As well as additional health benefits, far-infrared saunas, especially those that use newer ceramic or ultra carbon heaters, have an added environmental advantage in that they consume far less energy to run.

Far-infrared waves don’t rely on heating the surrounding free air; instead, they penetrate and heat your body directly. Unlike a traditional sauna, there is no need to wait for up to an hour for the desired temperature to be reached. Far-infrared saunas are also much cooler, typically between 40-60C, reducing the risk of respiratory irritation from hot, dry air. Anyone who dislikes the intense heat of a sauna or steam room, including rosacea sufferers, may find far-infrared saunas much more comfortable and relaxing.

Far-infrared saunas are also believed to be much more effective at helping with detoxification. The far-infrared waves cause water molecules in your skin and fat cells to vibrate, resulting in a greater release of toxins through your sweat. The quality of your sweat is changed during a session in a far-infrared sauna, containing up to 20 per cent toxins compared to 1-3 per cent with a regular sauna or sweating during exercise. As well as water-soluble toxins excreted in your sweat, oil glands in your skin also release fat-soluble toxins including pesticides stored in your body fat.

Many of the nastier toxins, including heavy metals, pesticides and dioxins, are kept hidden away in your fat cells to prevent them from damaging vital organs. If your toxic burden is high, you may find it difficult to lose weight as your body will fight hard to prevent a sudden rush of toxins entering the blood stream as body fat is broken down. Releasing toxins through your skin is a much safer way to detoxify than having them released into your blood stream. By reducing the levels of toxins stored in your body together with an increase in metabolism, regular sauna use may assist with weight loss.

Whether you choose to use a sauna, steam room or far-infrared sauna, the key to lasting health benefits is to make it regular. Shorter, regular sessions are far more effective than a single marathon session in a sauna.

Sarah Luck is a naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist specialising in the natural healthcare of pregnant women, breastfeeding mums, infants and children. She has a private practice in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.


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