The many benefits of joining the sauna club
Words Kaisha Scofield
You’re standing outside a small cedar hut wearing nothing more than a small robe and an even smaller towel. You grip a roughhewn wooden handle and pull open a sweet-smelling cedar door. You are consumed by a blast of hot, humid air that immediately floods your body with a wave of warmth.
Walking inside, you are surrounded by a heavy heat that dives into your breath and seems to drench you from the inside out. As your body adjusts to the temperature change, you notice there are other people sitting on the warm wooden benches inside, towels strategically draped over their more private body parts. You may feel awkward at first, but you quickly realize that your skin is uniformly so warm, and you are sweating so much, that any amount of clothing is unwelcome on your body.
You join the others on a bench, immersing yourself in the heavy hot air. Soon, you find your rhythm, breathing in the humidity that fills your lungs, heat drenching your skin and soothing your body. Welcome, you are now a member of the exclusive sauna club.
The first rule of sauna is to cover as little skin as possible. In fact most cultures practice steam bathing in the nude, simply because it is more efficient and comfortable. However, the degree of expected nudity varies greatly by region, tradition and familiarity to those around you. In Finland and Japan, for example, only tourists wear bathing suits to steam bathe, but in the UK, US and Canada, bathing suits are mandatory, at least in public. This may explain the popularity of personal saunas.
The first saunas are claimed to have been invented by the Finnish nearly 2,000 years ago and, while Finns are certainly the most enthusiastic steam bathers, the practice of sitting in a hot room, sweating out of every pore, is almost universal. Saunas have been around in various forms and across many cultures for thousands of years, and while we may use it as an occasional way to relax, indulge and maybe add a little glow to our skin, in some cultures steam bathing is a way of life. For example, in the far north where running water is a scarce resource, especially during the winter months, spending time in a sauna or sweat hut is a very practical way of cleansing the outside and inside of the body.
Most saunas are made from cedar or spruce with wooden benches and large stones of basalt or granite. The selection of wood is based on its ability to distribute the heat and its comfort for sitting, while the choice of stone is based on its ability to resist splitting or exploding when heated. This is important because the stones are heated enough to bring the temperature of the room to around 40 degrees Celsius. Steam bathers can then ladle water onto the stones to produce even more steam, heating the room to a recommended maximum of around 80 degrees Celsius.
The high heat and low humidity of the sauna allow the body to sweat continuously; the sweat is then unable to evaporate on the skin where it would normally cool the body. A consistently raised body temperature creates an almost false fever condition, which increases blood flow and promotes flushing of the lymphatic system while increasing metabolism and white blood cell count. To contend with the increased body temperature, the heart beats faster, increasing circulation without raising blood pressure.
Some studies have shown regular sauna practice improves heart health and some respiratory ailments, aids menstrual conditions, improves various muscle, nerve and joint pains, and improves stress management. There are even some studies that suggest steam bathing can have positive effects on the endocrine system, including potentially regulating cortisol (stress hormone) levels directly after a sauna session, and for the next several hours.
Another exciting and popular area of study is the combination of sauna and cold-water therapy. Most of these studies are conducted on athletes trying to harness the circulatory benefits of long-term body-system heating with the anti-inflammatory benefits of cold therapy. In Finland, hot/cold therapy would involve an 80-degree naked sauna practice followed by a flop into the nearest snowbank. In BC we are more likely to get a partially clothed spa sauna followed by a nearby cold pool plunge, and while the experience differs the benefits remain.
If you’re feeling ready to get your sweat on, please note that there is a catch: almost all studies show that in order to experience the benefits of steam bathing and cold therapy, you must do so consistently. Intermittent sauna practitioners are actually more likely to have a negative experience because the nervous system needs enough time to adapt to the regular practice of elevated temperatures in order for it to allow your body to relax into the benefits. In other words, you have to train before diving into the sauna club.
Luckily, there seems to be a growing sauna culture popping up all around our province. No longer limited to the dirty tiles and musty side rooms of public swimming pools, you can now find all manner of sauna experiences. These range from luxurious sauna spa centres designed for sauna/cold therapy immersion to portable barges on the far west coast that include cold plunges directly into the Pacific Ocean. So, break out your softest robe, grab your most absorbent mini towel, and get your sweat on!
*Saunas are not recommended for those suffering from certain health conditions. If you have health concerns, please consult your doctor before entering a sauna.