Saunas have long been known to have mystical healing properties, and in places like Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, their popularity is so widespread that many people have them installed in their homes or backyards.
A brief history: saunas were once very popular all over Europe, but when plague spread in the 1500s, its popularity died out everywhere except Finland (which was spared of these communicable diseases), which is why the sauna is now so closely culturally associated with that country.
A traditional Finnish sauna is a small, wooden room, in which wood is burned for several hours, and the smoke is released, leaving behind an arid, extreme heat that hovers between 160 and 220 degrees Fahrenheit. One would sit in the sauna for no less than five but no more than thirty minutes, sweating and occasionally throwing water from a bucket onto a pile of hot rocks to give off steam and a sense of increased temperature, then emerge to either jump into an ice pool, rinse off with a cold shower, or, if you’re very traditional, jump into a mound of fresh snow.
While it may look a bit bizarre to an insider, the process is not only fun, but it has several incredible health benefits. Here they are. And for more health knowledge, be sure you know the 75 Amazing Benefits of Coffee.
It’s Good for Your Heart
According to a new study from the University of Eastern Finland, a 30-minute sauna session can have the same effects on your heart and blood vessels as moderate exercise, which is why those who frequent the sauna tend to have lower blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and lower risk of heart disease.
The sweating, researcher Tanjaniina Laukkanen explained, has “a natural diuretic effect — lowering blood pressure and decreasing the work load of the heart.”
It Keeps You Sharp
In a more surprising discovery, Laukkanen’s team found that sauna regulars had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, thanks in large part to the fact that the sauna lowers your blood pressure. “Both the heart and the brain need good blood vessel function,” Laukkanen said. And for more instant health fixes, here are the 25 Best Instant Mood Boosters.
It Increases Blood Circulation
The study used 102 people in their 40s and 50s who did not have heart disease but did have risk factors for it, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or obesity, and exposed them to a single Finnish sauna session.
They found that the just one session made an average participant’s blood pressure drop by seven points, elasticized their arteries, and helped their heart rate go from 65 bpm to 81.
Dr. Joshua Liberman, a cardiologist and governor of the American College of Cardiology’s Wisconsin, said that the longterm cardiovascular benefits of frequent saunas sessions can be attributed to the way in which extreme heat in small doses causes the blood vessels relax and blood flow to increase.
Anyone who’s ever stepped inside the sauna at their gym knows lying with your eyes closed in this warm, dry room can be extremely meditative, and that’s part of what makes it so therapeutic. It helps that you can’t really bring electronics with you into the sauna as well, allowing you to truly escape and unwind from the outside world.
It Can Ease Sore Muscles
This is especially true if you opt to use a venik, aka a bundle of birch leaves which have been soaked in water, and which an experienced “beater” will gently pat over your entire body in a treatment known as Platza in English. Again, while it may appear bizarre, the effects of a platza treatment are immediately astounding, as it increases your internal body heat, relieves sore muscles, improves blood circulation, and decongests the lungs. While it looks medieval, it’s not painful, and afterwards you feel like you’ve been reborn.
It’s Good for Your Skin
The sauna can help “open up your pores and increase blood and lymphatic circulation, which will effectively aid in softening your skin,” health and beauty researcher Qurratulain Zaheer wrote in Care 2 Healthy Living. “You will notice a healthy pink glow in your skin, which will make you look younger, so not only will you feel good but you will also look rejuvenated.” A single session can also get rid of blackheads, and flush out toxins, thereby leading to smooth, healthy skin.
It Can Help You Lose Weight
While it won’t make you burn fat, the sweating that you do in the sauna does help you lose a bit of water weight, which will make you feel considerably lighter, especially after a weekend of heavy drinking.
The Cold Plunge Has Additional Benefits
If you want to maximize the benefits of the sauna, it is imperative that you follow up your sauna session with a quick run in freezing weather, an icy cold shower, or a dip into a subzero body of water. It might not be pleasant in the moment, and it’s certainly a shock to the system, but the sudden cold makes skin blood vessels constrict rapidly, and really gets the blood pumping. Afterwards, you can feel your blood vessels pulsating with life, and you can see the steam rising from your skin. You feel invincible and, at once, more alive and more relaxed than ever before.
“The cold dip increases the sauna’s elevation of heart rate, adrenaline, and endorphins that ease your pain and lighten your mood,” Dr. Mark Tinnerman wrote in “Health Benefits of Sauna,”on the North American Sauna Society website. “Due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, cold showers send electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain which results in an anti-depressive effect.”
It’s a Cultural Experience
Many different cultures have their own version of the sauna. You’re probably already familiar with the Turkish hamam, or steam room, in which ambient steam is used to help open up the mucous membranes in the body, thereby helping you breathe. In Korea, you’ve got the jjimjilbang, a segregated public bathhouse filled with hot tubs and kilns (thermally insulated chamber) filled with jade, salt minerals, and other healing properties. Russians have the banya, or bathhouse, which is similar to the Finnish sauna, apart from the fact that there is a wooden cauldron inside, with a ladle that you use to pour warm water over your body. Commercial Russian “banyas” take a cue from Roman thermaes in that they consist of a complex that includes swimming pools, a wet sauna, a dry sauna, and even a restaurant, so that people may congregate and spend the entire day there.
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