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The Ancient Tradition of Sauna Bathing: Are there health benefits or is it just hot air?  

West End Healthline

By Shai Farhi, MD 

The practice of saunaing has been getting increasingly popular with claims of health benefits including pain reduction, weight loss, heart benefits and improved sleep. Let’s embark on a journey through the history of this multi-cultural tradition and the most recent research to find out if the benefits of sauna bathing are rock solid or just a bunch of hot air.  

The tradition of Finnish sauna bathing is an extraordinarily old practice, with discoveries of rudimentary saunas dating back as far as 2000 BCE. Early sauna designs typically involved lighting fires over large stones. The early sauna goers would then allow the fire to burn out, waft out the smoke and then gather around the stones to enjoy the retained heat. It is important to note that the practice of sweltering around heated stones for health benefits or spiritual purposes developed and exists independently in many other cultures. For example, the practice of sweat lodging was popular among several American Indian tribes in the plains which shared a similar concept. However, for our exploration today we will focus on the Finnish dry sauna practice as it has been the subject of the most rigorous research. 

Modern saunas have evolved beyond rudimentary flame, smoke and stone for achieving the sweltering temperatures needed to sauna bathe. Alongside woodburning stoves you can find electric saunas and infrared saunas! Variation in the method of heat generation is only the tip of the iceberg as there are ongoing debates about the types of wood, stones, sizes and shapes of saunas as well!*  

What are the health benefits?  

In the last two decades there has been a growing body of research into the health benefits of saunas. Large studies in Finland have found that frequent sauna bathing improves heart health, lowers blood pressure, decreases markers of inflammation, reduces the risk of developing dementia and is helpful for combating depression. There is also some compelling evidence that folks who sauna regularly live longer!  

The science behind the benefits of using a sauna 

The mystifying magic of the sauna lies in its ability to generate intense heat within a confined space. As the body’s core temperature rises the heart rate increases, mimicking the effects of moderate exercise! This cardiovascular workout is thought to be the source of the enhanced heart health, improved circulation and beneficial blood pressure effects. Still, we don’t entirely understand how and why Sauna bathing has been shown to be so broadly beneficial for things like mental health, pain and inflammation but there is ongoing research.  

What is the perfect sauna regimen? 

The exact specifics of how hot, how long and how often people should sauna to sweat out the maximum benefits is a subject of heated debate. The current consensus seems to be a sweet spot of a temperature between 176 °F and 194 °F and a duration of 15-20 minutes in order to reap the benefits safely. Saunaing is generally safe, however it may not be suitable for everyone. As with any health-related practice, it is a good idea to consult your doctor to consider your specific and individualized health before stepping into the heat. For those choosing to engage in sauna sessions, remember to stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water!  

In the Twin Cities, where many claim heritage from Nordic and indigenous people’s cultures, it is no wonder the practice of Sauna bathing or sweat lodging has been gaining steam. While the many details of the practice are ongoing subjects of debate, it seems pretty clear that stepping into the heat to escape the frigid Minnesota winter has many benefits for the mind, body and soul. 

* Curious about all the different types and forms of modern saunas? Consider making your way to The Great Northern Sauna Village at Malcolm Yards! An event that runs from Jan 19th –Feb 4th where the blazing passion of thermaculture enthusiasts and the smoldering interest of those new to the practice can be fueled by the exploration of many different sauna types and builds from local sauna companies! 

Dr. Farhi is a family medicine physician at Allina Health United Family Physicians, 233 Grand Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55102, 651-241-5200 

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