From Savu to Infrared - The History and Health Benefits of Saunas
By C.J. Gustafson
The health benefits of saunas are not a recent discovery. The use of steam or smoke baths to cleanse the body and reduce stress has been a part of religious, social, and family traditions in numerous cultures for thousands of years. Native Americans, Russians, Romans, and Mediterranean cultures all had some sort of bathing facilities and rituals that played important roles in both private and public life in those communities. But it is the Finns who are credited with developing the modern sauna.
The Finnish Savu
Historical evidence and records indicate that the Finns built the first wooden saunas over 2000 years ago. The early Finnish sauna was dug into a hill or embankment. As tools and techniques advanced, they were later built above ground using wooden logs. Rocks were heated in a stone fireplace with a wood fire. The smoke from the fire filled the room as the air warmed.
Once the temperature reached desired levels, the smoke was allowed to clear and the bathers entered. The wood smoke aroma still lingered and was part of the cleansing ritual. This type of traditional smoke sauna was called a savu, which means smoke in Finnish.
The Evolution of the Sauna
Eventually the sauna evolved to use a metal woodstove, or kiuas (ke-wus), with a chimney. Air temperatures averaged around 180F but often exceeded 200 degrees in a traditional Finnish sauna. Steam vapor, also called lyly (lou-lu), was created by splashing water on the heated rocks.
The steam and high heat caused bathers to perspire, thus flushing away impurities and toxins from the body. The Finns also used vihtas (veh-tas) or bundles of birch twigs to gently slap the skin and create further stimulation of the pores and cells.
The Finns also used the sauna as a place to cleanse the mind, rejuvenate and refresh the spirit, and prepare the dead for burial. The sauna was an important part of daily life, and families bathed together in the home sauna, but the genders didn't mix in public saunas. Because the sauna was often the cleanest structure and had water readily available, Finnish women also gave birth in the sauna.
When the Finns migrated to other areas of the globe, they brought their sauna designs and traditions with them, introducing other cultures to the enjoyment and health benefits of saunas. This led to further evolution of the sauna, including the electric sauna stove, which was invented and implemented in the 1950s and far infrared saunas, which have become popular in the last several decades.
Infrared saunas use a special heater that generates infrared radiation rays similar to that produced by the sun. Unlike the sun's UV radiation, infrared is said to be beneficial to overall health. In an infrared sauna, the electric heaters warm the air and also penetrate the skin to encourage perspiration, producing many of the same health benefits of traditional steam saunas.
Today there are a wide variety of sauna options. Heat sources include wood, electricity, gas and other more unconventional methods such as solar power. There are wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas, steam saunas, and those that work with infrared waves as described above.
You can have a sauna in your home or apartment, in your backyard, on your rooftop, or even in a vehicle or on a pontoon boat. The possibilities are endless and creating innovative and sometimes quirky designs has become part of the appeal of sauna bathing. But for most people, it is still the health benefits that are the main attraction.
A Wide Array of Health Benefits
As saunas have gained in popularity, the health benefits have become more widely documented. Perhaps the most recognized benefit is the cleansing action caused by heavy perspiration.
Sauna enthusiasts say that sweating caused by the high heat in a sauna can remove toxic chemicals, alcohol, cholesterol, cellulite, nicotine, and even heavy metals such as mercury. Not only does perspiration remove toxins, it opens and cleanses skin pores creating healthier skin and an improved complexion.
In addition to cleansing the pores and cells, the heat from saunas is said to stimulate white blood cells and improve circulation, which in turn promotes healing of infections and tissue injuries. It also eases the pain from arthritis and other joint disorders. Some people believe the high heat, especially that from infrared saunas, can even be used to alleviate cancer symptoms.
Some say a sauna will increase metabolism and encourage weight loss. Studies show that a person can burn 300 - 400 calories during a 20 to 30 minute sauna. In addition, even a brief sauna elevates heart rate and cardiac output, helping to improve cardiac fitness.
Repeated use of saunas is said to restore a person's ability to sweat. Steam saunas are known to open nasal passages and alleviate sinus discomfort. A sauna, followed by a refreshing shower and cool down period has been known to help improve sleep patterns. The list of physical health benefits of saunas is extensive.
In addition to these physical benefits, saunas help promote relaxation by easing muscle tension and aches, and promoting an environment with no distractions or demands. Used on an individual basis, a sauna can provide the perfect opportunity for solitary reflection. Group participation can lead to intimate conversations and bonding.
It is important to note that the high heat and heavy air can be uncomfortable and possibly dangerous for certain people. Pregnant women, and people with cardiovascular problems, Multiple Sclerosis, and other related health concerns should talk with their doctor before using a sauna. And although a sauna is said to help remove alcohol and other toxins from the body, those under the influence of alcohol or drugs should not use a sauna due to concerns with interactions as well as danger of passing out.
For thousands of years, saunas and sweat baths have been used to improve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. They have also played an important role in social interactions. Today's saunas have evolved to offer a wide variety of technologies, designs, and personal adaptations. But the overall enjoyment and health benefits of saunas continue to appeal to millions across the globe.
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