Benefits of sauna

Originally Published: October 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 14, 2007
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Dear Alice,

I see people using the sauna after a workout right before a shower. What good does a sauna do?

—More sweaty?

Dear More sweaty?,

Sauna enthusiasts laud the health benefits of "sweat baths," attributing them with healing, preventative, and cleansing properties. The sauna of Finland is a tradition that some researchers date back over two thousand years. The Finns attribute their endurance and longevity to the tradition of sauna.

Basically, what happens to the body during a sauna is quite simple — your metabolism and pulse rates increase, your blood vessels become much more flexible, and your extremities benefit from increased circulation. Physical fitness fans will recognize that some of these changes can also be achieved through strenuous exercise. Not to say that a sauna would put you in excellent physical condition without moving a muscle (don't some of us wish!), but that it brings about the same metabolic results as physical exercise.

The effects of the sauna are numerous and varied. Proponents of dry heat bath mention a feeling of psychological peace and contentment as well as physical rejuvenation. Many people claim that the sauna relieves the symptoms of minor illnesses such as colds, revives the muscles after tough physical exertion, and clears the complexion. The sauna experience will often leave you feeling very much alive. Your senses will be sharpened, and your tactile sensitivity heightened.

Another aspect of the sauna that needs to be considered is your mental state prior to taking one. Many people attest to the healing powers of the sauna concerning mental depression and anxiety. They say that after leaving the sauna, the mind is in a relaxed, lucid state, free of the worries of the everyday world. Also, when the body feels soothed and energized, the mind and emotions often follow suit.

Some basic tips before entering the sauna:

  • Don't drink alcohol, as it works as a depressant, where the blood is moving slowly and the nerve endings are literally shutting down, and counteracts the benefits of the sauna.
  • Older people need to avoid or limit their time in the sauna.
  • People with heart ailments or respiratory diseases need to avoid the sauna, and anyone with chronic ailments needs to check first with his or her doctor.
  • Don't eat prior to the sauna.
  • Avoid drug use and the sauna — tranquilizers, stimulants, and other prescribed drugs alter the body's metabolism and could produce dour effects in the heat.
  • If you experience dizziness, problems with breathing, or a general feeling of ill health, leave the sauna immediately.

If you do decide to use the sauna, start gradually. Stay in only as long as you are comfortable, increasing the time with each visit. The Finns respect the sauna to such a degree that their ministers of government often conduct business in and around the sauna. They also believe that a person, upon leaving a fulfilling sauna, will be clear of mind and untroubled. Who knows? This may be Columbia's best and cheapest stress reduction technique yet!

Alice