Have you tried a sauna? We explore their powerful detox benefits
In many ways it’s an obvious correlation: raising the temperature triggers perspiration, the body’s inbuilt cooling system. And sweating is one of the ways the body naturally and efficiently expels cellular waste.
So if detoxifying is as simple as getting hot and sweating, why are there so many different types of saunas on the market and heat experiences in spas? If you know what you’re getting into when you hear the terms “far-infrared”, “negative ion” and “ozone”, you’re probably either a physicist or a sauna salesperson, but this technology is changing how we apply heat to the body and what we expect to gain from the experience.
Heat through history
In India, the Ayurvedic panchakarma program of detox prescribes time spent lying in a steam-filled case enclosing the body in herb-infused vapours; the Central American practice of temazcal saw a shaman leading spiritual cleansing and fasting practices inside a super-heated clay dome; and in northern Europe, the Finnish sauna has become iconic of that country, completed by a roll in the snow.
How would you react if someone came up to you and asked, “How is your sweating?” In the Roman Empire, where bathing rituals became deeply entwined with culture, that was the custom. The steamy thermae were places to wash, swim, relax, socialise and (no doubt) plot political intrigue. Wealthy citizens went to the bathhouse twice a day and by the first century BC there were around 150 thermae in Rome. Rooms were heated by an oven with stones laid on a bronze frame over the red-hot charcoal, allowing steam to be released by tossing water onto the stones.
The word sauna is the only in the Finnish language to be known throughout the world. In Finland, saunas came into use about 1500 years ago and they still hold a high place in the Finnish national ethos. The concept of the essential nature of sweating even appears in Norse legend, in which humanity was created from sweat of the frost giant Ymir’s armpit. The first modern wooden saunas featured traditional wood-burning stoves to build heat over a long period, usually to temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius. In the frigid winters of Scandinavia, the sauna naturally became a centre of family and social events. It was the place to cure all ills and drive away evil spirits; the place where babies were born and the aged went to die in a peaceful environment. In the Finnish cleansing practice, a small bundle of fresh birch branches, a vihta, becomes a circulation-boosting switch used to swat yourself and fellow sauna bathers. Similarly, the practice of jumping in a lake or rolling in snow is also performed to rapidly constrict and expand blood vessels, bringing a rush of blood to the extremities that is thought to quickly purge toxins trapped in fat pockets under the skin’s surface. It’s certainly sure to get the heart racing.
Striking similarities exist between Russia’s banya and Finland’s sauna: building construction, bathing styles and even folklore are so similar that most experts agree their development was simultaneous, though the earliest description of the banya comes from the Russian Primary Chronicle of 1113. The word banya derives from Latin balneum, which means bath, a place “to chase out pain”, indicating the Russian belief in the health-giving properties of steam, heat, cold, and an invigorating beating with birch branches. Like the Finns, Russians also used their banyas to give birth, for wedding rituals and as a refuge in death. Banya temperatures often exceed 93 degrees Celsius and special felt hats are worn to protect the head from the intense heat. After a good sweat is induced, it’s also customary to refresh by submerging in snow or lakes through holes cut in the ice.
The Turkish hammam were elaborate facilities for hydrotherapy, massage and beauty treatments. The Turkish bath is thought to be modelled on the Roman system of transitioning between warm, steam-filled hot and cool rooms. The most characteristic aspect of the hammam is the cleansing ritual in which the bather lies on a large heated stone platform in the centre of the hot room and their whole body is simultaneously scrubbed and massaged by an attendant with a rough cloth kese mitt prior to being doused with alternating buckets of cool and hot water.
In the 5000-year-old Indian science of Ayurveda, detoxification is vital in maintaining health. According to Ayurveda, good health depends upon our capability to fully metabolise all aspects of life, assimilating that which nourishes and eliminating the rest. The multi-faceted panchakarma (five actions) cleansing process was developed thousands of years ago by the ancient healing masters of India to loosen and facilitate the removal of accumulated ama (toxins) from the body. Panchakarma involves hot herbal oil massages and bodily purging as well as the practice of swedana, a Sanskrit word meaning “that which produces heat in the system”. In a swedana treatment, a wooden case or tent-like covering concentrates herb-infused steam around the body to induce sweating. The herbalised steam is intended to dilate the srotas (channels of circulation), loosening and removing impurities through the skin and gastrointestinal tract.
Sweat-lodge ceremonies have been used for many centuries to purify the mind and body among tribes throughout the Americas. The temazcal is the traditional sweat lodge of the population indigenous to Mexico; women in Mayan and Aztec culture used them as a fertility ritual. In North America, from Alaska to Arizona, men took part in sweats in preparation for hunts. The sweat lodge served as a place of worship, healing and celebration for the community. It was traditionally used to heal individuals of physical and spiritual ills and had emotional, psychological and religious significance. The ritual process would involve a therapeutic physical cleansing or “sweat” as well as a spiritual, emotional and mental cleansing, a ritual rebirth or renewal of the self. Hot stones inside a tent or clay dome created heat and steam, which was intended to purify the body through sweating as well as induce a spiritual experience.
Any sauna expert or enthusiast will tell you that the commonest two queries are “Wet or dry?” and “How hot?” The differentiation between a sauna and a steam bath is somewhat down to semantics but the fairly obvious rule of thumb is that steam rooms are wet, usually up around 100 percent humidity. The steam piped into the room heats the air to around 45 degrees. If that sounds fairly warm, consider that an average sauna tops around 100 degrees Celsius.
In a sauna, the heat source is contained within the room: traditionally a wood-burning stove, but now more commonly gas or electric elements. However, humidity can be introduced in saunas, too, when water is sprinkled onto rocks on top of the sauna stove. This burst of humidity will make the sauna feel temporarily hotter but will quickly burn off. Swedish researcher Jan Bjaarnhag differentiates four types of baths by conditions of temperature and humidity:
|Steam Bath||40–45°C||about 100%|
Going by a daily weather report, it wouldn’t seem possible that temperatures up to and above 100 degrees Celsius would be bearable, let alone beneficial. However, the hottest saunas have extremely low humidity levels, so air temperatures that could boil water can be tolerated and even enjoyed for short periods. In wet saunas, the high humidity would scald the skin if the temperature were as high, but the lower ranges still feel warm as the vapour-filled air settles on the body.
After a good sweat is induced, it’s also customary to refresh by submerging in snow or lakes through holes cut in the ice.
The answer as to which combination of heat and humidity best aids detoxification is, you may have guessed, “It depends.” There are proponents of both methodologies, and contention as to which more effectively induces perspiration — something very difficult to measure in a humid environment where moisture is constantly settling onto the skin from the air.
Ultimately, any environment that heats the body is 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 on the cardiovascular system and has also been said to aid lung purification in asthmatics. Personal physiology comes into play as well, as some people find they are able to bear one type of heat longer than the other (better enabling them to work up a sweat).
Throw into the mix the newer technologies of far infrared, negative-ion and ozone therapy and you will find avid fans of each. The ultimate adjudicator will no doubt be your own experience as to what type of sauna (or banya or temazcal) feels more therapeutic and restorative to your health and wellbeing.
If you are plumping for steam, check whether the water in use is purified, as the chlorine in city water supplies will counteract detoxification. As you step into the sauna, take a moment to consciously smell the air; if you pick up eau de swimming pool it’s worth investigating other options.
How To Sauna
Once you’ve sought out a sauna at your local gym, pool or spa, or even installed one at home, it’s time to strip naked (or down to your cossie if that’s the protocol of the facility) and get sweaty.
- Take a shower before you go in to clear the pores of any surface clogging so that they can perspire freely.
- Choose one of the lower benches to start and only promote yourself to the upper echelons when you’re sure you feel comfortable with the temperature.
- Stay in for about 10 minutes on your first pass, then refresh with a cool shower, plunge or snow roll (if there’s some handy).
- Wrap in a towel or robe and sip some water while you rest for 10 to 15 minutes before heading back into the heat for another session.
- Be sure to rinse after each round to remove substances from the skin and prevent their re-absorption.
- Exfoliation is particularly effective for boosting circulation in combination with the heat, so try birch branches if you can get your hands on some or a body mitt or glove (go for a natural fibre if you can find it).
- When you leave the sauna for the last time (three rounds are often cited as ideal for giving the body plenty of time to flush), shower and allow yourself to thoroughly cool down and dry off before getting dressed and rushing back into the world.
- Don’t forget to savour the emotional detoxification that this generous self-care will bring.
The process of being in a steam bath or sauna raises body temperature and sweat is produced by the glands to regulate it. As the pores open to release cooling sweat they also expel cellular waste brought to the surface by the lymphatic system. Heat is also thought to help release stored toxins from fat cells, assisting the elimination process.
Another effect of raising the body temperature is to create an artificial short-term fever, which has been proven to elevate the immune system response. The fever symptoms trigger the release of white blood cells into the bloodstream where they go to work on bacteria and viruses.
Increased blood circulation is another way the body regulates its core temperature. Heart rate, cardiac output and metabolic rate increase and blood vessels dilate to move warmed blood out from the interior of the body. The increased blood flow carries oxygen, nutrients and fluids to our skin, improving cell health and providing a rush to the waste-removing lymphatic system. The thermal contrast resulting from the use of cold water after the hot steam also gives a big boost to cardiovascular activity.
Scrubbing with a brush or loofah removes dead skin cells that can block the pores, so combining exfoliation with a sauna will aid a free-flowing sweat session. The surface massage that comes with exfoliation also aids the movement of lymph below the surface of the skin, so remember to brush toward the heart.
When you add medicinal plants to the mix, the rewards of the sauna are even greater: the steam helps your body to absorb the benefits of various herbs by carrying their healing essences into the lungs and pores. During swedana, sandalwood is infused into the steam to envelop the body. This powerful aromatic traditionally used to calm and focus the mind. In Thai tradition, turmeric, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves help to invigorate the senses and open the pores. Juniper, cypress, eucalyptus and mint are all suggested for their powerful vasodilatory effects, helping to cleanse sinuses, invigorate blood flow and maybe even work a little magic on cellulite. Essential oils massaged into the skin during heat therapy will be effectively transferred into the body through the open pores.
In many cultures, sauna bathing is a social event. Whether in the nude or towel-draped, the warm, low-lit, steamy and (generally) gender-segregated setting is conducive to feeling safe, nurtured and open. Both men and women find that with relaxation comes a feeling of non-judgment, acceptance and security, whether bathing with friends or like-minded strangers — an environment rarely found elsewhere. On top of this, increased cardiovascular activity has been proven to trigger the brain to release those happy hormones endorphins. No wonder sauna can become a regular habit.
Niacin (vitamin B3) is a powerful vasodilator that also stimulates the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream. A “niacin-sauna” program has been used in some clinics to help in the detoxification of chemicals, especially pesticides and addictive drugs. This program involves several weeks on a fluid diet combined with large doses of rapid-release niacin and extended sauna sessions. The medically supervised detoxification process has been found to be extremely successful, especially for people with symptoms caused by exposure to pesticides, such as Agent Orange.
Signs of Excess
The extreme heat of a sauna can be a challenge for the body to cope with, especially for first-timers. Thirst, dizziness, nausea and clumsiness are all signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water should do the trick, but medical assistance may be required. Users of far infrared saunas need to be especially vigilant as the air temp isn’t indicative of how much heat the body is absorbing.
Latest sauna technology
The segment of the electromagnetic spectrum between four and 1000 microns is called far infrared. We’re rightfully wary these days of ultraviolet, microwave and X-rays, but far infrared waves are a safe form of natural light energy that imparts heat without damaging the skin. Infrared is a form of thermal energy naturally produced by the sun; it’s the warmth that you feel on your skin when you are out in the sun — even when you have sunscreen on.
Infrared-generating materials were first developed by NASA as a form of heat during space travel in zero-atmosphere environments. This indicates how far infrared affects the body differently to the old-style sauna: convection saunas heat the air in the space, whereas far infrared heats the body directly.
Though you feel very warm in a regular sauna (because the nerve endings are on the skin’s surface), the effect on the body’s core temperature can be quite mild as much of the heat energy actually bounces off the skin. Far-infrared energy penetrates the dermis and is absorbed by tissue, so it effectively heats the body without heating the air — a little like a microwave but with far less intensity.
The obvious difference you’ll note when trying a far-infrared sauna is that the air temperature feels relatively cool compared to a traditional sauna. However, the deep-heating effect of the wavelength is said to induce two to three times more sweating. In a study performed by American researchers, the sweat of people using a conventional sauna was found to be 95 to 97 per cent water while the sweat of those using an infrared sauna was less than 85 per cent water. The non-water portion included cholesterol, heavy metals (such as mercury and aluminium), sulphuric acid, sodium, ammonia, uric acid, pesticide residues, petroleum-based toxins, chloride and fluoride. The sweat produced in far-infrared saunas is surmised to contain more toxins due to the penetration of the infrared rays into body tissue below the skin where the toxins are stored inside fatty deposits.
The research into negative ions in certain types of saunas became headline news in Finland a few years ago. Until then, the healing power of the sauna was attributed to relaxation and increased circulation but it is now noted that as water is rapidly evaporated on the sauna’s hot rocks, negative ions are released.
A brief foray into chemistry reveals that the air, along with everything else, is made up of molecules, all of which possess an electrical charge. How many electrons circle a molecule determines whether it has a positive or negative charge. “Ion” is another term for a molecule with an electric charge. Since the early 1950s, scientists have suspected that ions — in particular, charged oxygen molecules — play an important role in how the body functions. Research has shown that an abundance of negative ions in the air is highly beneficial and can imbue an overall sense of wellbeing while an excess of positively charged ions can cause anxiety and fatigue.
Negative oxygen ions occur commonly throughout nature: falling water produces negative ions so you’ll experience them after rain, around crashing ocean waves and near waterfalls. Places you’ll commonly find a buildup of positively charged ions are in air-conditioned buildings and within cars — so lack of patience isn’t the only reason that you may feel frustrated at work or while stuck in traffic.
In Europe, negative-ion therapy is used in treatments for burns, respiratory diseases and infections and even to slow the spread of some cancers. One of the effects of a negative charge on a molecule is that it can release an ion to neutralise a free radical, just like an antioxidant.
The effect of negative ions on sweat bathing was discovered when researchers were trying to account for the tremendous popularity of wood-burning stoves over electric stoves in Finnish saunas. Subjective reasons, such as tradition or the fragrance of burned wood, did not fully explain why Finns felt so refreshed after time spent in a wood-heated sauna. Tests showed that the practice of splashing water on super-heated rocks produces an abundance of negative ions. Many electric stoves, it turned out, don’t heat the rocks sufficiently to create negative ions and some metal heating coils actually produce positive ions.
While the good old Finnish method of tossing water onto hot rocks is a viable method of producing negative ions, many modern sauna manufacturers now integrate more advanced technology in the form of air ionisers. These electronic devices use high voltage to negatively charge air molecules. While it was traditionally steam that released negative ions, ionisers can be installed in any setting, including far-infrared saunas.
Many of us correlate ozone with the hole in the ozone layer, but ozone exists in the troposphere, too. Ozone is a triatomic molecule — O3 — consisting of three oxygen atoms (our run-of-the-mill oxygen or O2 is a diatomic version of the unstable single-atom oxygen element). In the body it is naturally produced by white blood cells as an immune system response, effectively destroying bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in the blood stream.
The German physician Albert Wolff was the first to use ozone medicinally — he applied it to treat skin diseases in 1915 and the German military subsequently used it extensively during World War I to treat wounds and infections. Today, more than 2500 municipalities worldwide use ozone to sterilise their water supplies (including LA, Moscow, Paris, Montreal and Florence) and it is gaining popularity as a non-toxic way to purify commercial and domestic swimming pools.
In ozone-infused saunas, O3 is produced by exposing air to a light source that generates a narrow-band ultraviolet light, which converts oxygen into ozone at very low concentration (about 0.5% or lower). This treated air is then introduced into the sauna together with hot steam. The theory is that as pores opened due to the heat, ozone enters the body through the skin, penetrating into tissue, blood, lymph and fat, exterminating infectious disease bacteria and virus organisms. Ozone will also kill germs and bacteria on the skin.
A session of ozone therapy, by introducing high levels of oxygen into the entire system, may assist the body in re-establishing an environment where fungi, bacteria and yeast will find it difficult to survive. It is useful because of its reactivity with viruses and disease pathogens found in the body.
However, ozone is a recognised air pollutant (it can be produced by the photochemical disintegration of nitrogen dioxide from the exhaust of automobiles) and has proved to be damaging to lung tissue, so it should be used with care by those with lung conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. O3 within the body is also being studied as a source of free radicals and a cause of inflammation, so more research about this therapy is still needed.
What story on detox could be complete without a reference to our old friend cellulite? This gel-like substance, made up of fat, water and wastes which are trapped in pockets below the skin, causes that surface dimpling that’s hard to love. Saunas have been used to reduce the appearance of cellulite since the phrase was coined in the 60s. Far-infrared devotees claim the deeper penetration of the heat energy will more effectively break up the fat deposits and release the materials that cause the look.
Sauna at home
If communal cleansing isn’t your cup of tea or you can’t find an amenable facility, you can still get some of the effects right at home even without building one in the backyard (though that may be on the cards too). Steam, heat, exfoliation and relaxation can be accessed in the bathroom without too much effort. By closing doors and windows, the air can be quickly warmed with heat lamps or a radiant heater.
Try this at-home steam bath ritual as a start:
Place a pool lounge chair in the bathroom if there is room. If your shower is over the bath, turn the shower head on full at its hottest until the tub fills. This will release negative ions and should fill the room with a fair amount of steam. Lie on the lounge, inhaling deeply, for about 20 minutes or until the air begins to cool. Get up slowly and then splash cool water on your face. This is a great time to exfoliate with a loofah or mitt to scrape waste from the pores. Then, spend another 20 minutes or so relaxing in the warm bath and continuing to sweat. Finish with a shower to thoroughly rinse the skin. A chlorine-filtering shower head is an inexpensive way to boost the detoxifying benefits.
After steaming up the bathroom, open up the windows, ventilate with an exhaust fan and dry off the walls with a sponge or towel to prevent mould.
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