Sauna use and heat therapy have been around for hundreds of years. Yet modern science is only beginning to scratch the surface of its potential. A couple of years ago, Dr Rhonda Patrick published an article stating that sauna use could be linked to longevity. Not long after this was published the University of Eastern Finland released a study where they tracked the lives of 2300 middle-aged men. These men were split into 3 categories based on sauna use. Group 1 used a sauna once per week, group 2 used it 2-3 times per week and group 3 used it 4-7 times per week.
The study revealed that the risk of stroke amongst group 1 and 2 was decreased by 14% however is was decreased by 61% amount those in group 3 who were using the sauna 4-7 times per week. According to the researchers, mechanisms driving the association of sauna bathing with reduced stroke may include a reduction in blood pressure, stimulation of immune system, a positive impact on the autonomic nervous system, and an improved cardiovascular function. In a recent experimental study, the same group of scientists also showed that sauna bathing has acute effects on the stiffness of the arterial wall, hence influencing blood pressure and cardiac function parameters.
Other benefits of sauna use
1. Stress relief – stress relief is the most commonly recognised benefit by regular sauna users
2. Improved endurance – sitting for 30mins in a sauna can raise your heartbeat to 120bpm. This is equal to a moderate treadmill workout
4. Decreased heart disease – explained above in Eastern Finland University study
5. Sleep improvement – increasing body temperature before bed helps your muscles relax, making it easier for you to fall asleep
6. Helps decrease muscle aches – high heat releases endorphins, creating a tranquillising effect on your muscles. This is why saunas are so popular amongst athletes and those who can’t sleep
7. Fights illness – German researchers found that frequent sauna use reduces the frequency of colds and influenza. The high temperature also helps relieve sinus congestion and allergies (perfect for springtime).
The Finnish sauna culture
Saunas are popular in many cultures but no one has quite as special a relationship with saunas as Finland. It is estimated that there are two million saunas in Finland, for a population of 5.3 million. Big companies and state institutions have their own saunas. The president has an official sauna, as does the prime minister. They are to be found in city apartments and in country cottages.
Traditional saunas are heated by wood, burned either in a stove with a chimney or by a stove with no chimney. The latter – a smoke-sauna – is the original sauna and believed by most Finns to be the best. The door is closed after the wood has burned down (and most of the smoke has escaped), leaving the embers to heat the sauna to the proper temperature, but giving a soft heat and the aroma of woodsmoke.
All saunas have a basket of rocks heated by the stove on which to throw water to increase the humidity. Called löyly in Finnish (for pronunciation, contact your host), the steam increases the feeling of heat and makes you sweat.
Lonely Planet has a detailed article about everything you need to know about the sauna culture in Finland. It goes into detail about etiquette and what to expect when your inside and what the tradition is after you’re done.