For thousands of years, saunas have been utilized for their ability to encourage relaxation and help detoxify the body. The use of saunas is still extremely common throughout countries like Finland, Switzerland, and Japan, but their popularity is definitely increasing throughout the Western world as well. In fact, in the US, home sauna options are becoming increasingly popular.
Sometimes used interchangeably, saunas and steam rooms are actually quite different. The biggest difference between the two is the fact that saunas actually use dry heat, typically through rocks or a stove. Saunas temperatures also reach upwards of 170-200°F, while steam rooms max out around 120°F. Because of this, and their set of unique health benefits, sauna use has lived on for generations. This article will explore the history of saunas, the possibilities available today, and why you should start using one immediately.
The History and Cultural Relevance of Saunas
Because there is little available history about Finland and those who inhabited it before the Middle Ages, the exact origin of saunas is not actually known. It is believed, however, that the Finns have always had some sort of sweat bath as a way to stay clean, warm, and healthy.1 The Finnish sauna has evolved incredibly over the years, from an original earth pit covered in animal skins to today’s modern and infrared options. And, there is a valid explanation as to why the practice has lived on for so long.
Most people are at least aware of the health benefits associated with using a sauna, but for the Finns, the practice also holds spiritual significance. An old saying, still commonly heard in Finland today, compares the sauna to a house of worship saying In the sauna, one must conduct himself as one would in church. Children have been born in these locations, and women have purified themselves here before marriage. Those who utilize the sauna for spiritual reasons often feel transformed afterward, using the heat to metaphorically cleanse themselves.
3 Health Benefits of Using a Sauna
So, are saunas good for you? As mentioned above, in addition to the deep cultural significance, utilizing the heat from a sauna yields some impressive health benefits. It’s for this reason that the practice continues to gain traction in the West, and why many people are choosing to include a home sauna in with their building plans. Some of the most incredible health benefits associated with sauna use include:
- Improved Heart Health: For most, sitting in a sauna is a very relaxing and stress-relieving experience. And, believe it or not, new research is showing that is could be just as beneficial for the heart as exercise. This could be due to the fact that saunas induce sweating and have a “natural diuretic effect”, which decreases blood pressure, the risk of heart disease, and even the likelihood of developing dementia.2
- Reduced Pain: Lower back pain is one of the most common and persistent symptoms to affect American adults. Some experts estimate that as much as 80% of the population will experience low back pain at some point in their life. For those suffering from this chronic condition, sauna use could be the answer. Research shows that sauna therapy, used once per day, significantly reduced muscle tenderness, improved joint motion, and decreased levels of pain for those with diagnosed chronic lower back pain for at least 3 months.3
- Improved Mental Health: Because they simply haven’t been studied enough, the mental health benefits often associated with sauna use are mostly anecdotal. People around the world swear by the sauna’s ability to improve mood and reduce stress, however, there isn’t much scientific evidence to support this yet. One groundbreaking study published in 2018 did note a “strong association” between frequent sauna use and a reduction in psychotic disorders, but this still deserves more research.4
Differences Between Traditional and Infrared Saunas
Traditionally, saunas were built using hot rocks but as technology advances, newer options become available. Today, infrared saunas are gaining popularity as a common home sauna option. And understandably, people have questions about the differences between the two.
What is Traditional Sauna?
Traditional saunas use hot rocks, heated with fire or some other way, to heat an enclosed space to temperatures up to 200°F. Sometimes, water can be poured over the rocks to create a sauna-like steam bath. Because the temperatures are so high, you should stay in a traditional sauna for no more than 15-20 minutes.
What is an Infrared Sauna?
Instead of rocks, infrared saunas utilize infrared heaters to warm the space. These heat lamps are responsible for raising body temperature while promoting detoxification, similar to that of a traditional sauna. And, there have been numerous health benefits associated with infrared sauna, including reduced joint pain, lowered blood pressure, and improved mental health.5,6,7 Unlike the traditional version, however, infrared saunas offer a much more comfortable temperature of about 150°F. This allows you to remain in the space for up to one hour.
The sauna has lived for thousands of years, and will probably continue for thousands more. It is a beneficial and relaxing experience like no other, which only seems to grow more popular as the years go by. And for good reason! Both traditional and infrared sauna options offer unbelievable health benefits that are worth exploring in today’s world. Have you ever considered including a sauna in your home?