every culture has its own way of using heat for relaxation and ritual; ancient
Roman baths, modern Turkish steam baths, and trendy American hot tubs are but a
of the oldest - and hottest - of these techniques is the sauna. Saunas have
been used for thousands of years in Finland, where nearly a third of all adults
use them regularly. And saunas are increasingly popular in the United States,
where more than one million are in use.
popularity is one thing, safety another. Are saunas good for your health, or
modern sauna is a simple room with wooden walls and benches. Heat is usually
provided by a rock-filled electric heater - and it gets plenty hot. The
recommended temperature rises from about 90 degrees at floor level to about 185
degrees at the top.
Turkish baths, Finnish saunas are very dry, maintaining humidity levels of 10
to 20 percent. Water drains through the floor to keep things dry.
sauna bathers usually stay inside for 5 to 20 minutes. People in the know
always remember to drink plenty of fluids after their saunas.
dry heat has profound effects on the body. Sweating begins almost immediately.
The average person will pour out a pint of sweat during a brief stay in a
sauna, but it evaporates so quickly in the dry air that people may not realize
how much they perspire. Proponents say saunas can help rid the body of toxins
and increase circulation and metabolism. Skin temperature soars to about 104
degrees within minutes; internal temperatures rise more slowly and usually stay
below 100 degrees.
pulse rate jumps by 30 percent or more, allowing the heart to nearly double the
amount of blood it pumps each minute. Most of the extra blood flow is directed
to the skin; in fact, the circulation actually shunts blood away from the
internal organs. The change in blood pressure is unpredictable, rising in some
people but falling in others. Changes resolve quickly after people cool down.
a sauna may help you relax, your heart is working hard while you sit on your
bench. Is that safe?
Heart Of The Matter
of the information about sauna safety comes from Finland. A study of 1,631
heart attacks in Helsinki found that 1.8 percent developed within three hours
of taking a sauna. In another investigation of all 6,175 sudden deaths that
occurred in one year, 1.7 percent occurred within 24 hours of taking a sauna -
and many of those were related to alcohol.
researchers investigated sauna safety in 16 patients with coronary artery
disease. They compared the effects of a 15-minute sauna with a standard
treadmill stress test. None of the patients developed chest pain, abnormal
heart rhythms or EKG changes with either type of stress. Heart scans did show
impaired circulation to the heart muscle of most patients, but the
sauna-induced changes were milder than the exercise-induced abnormalities.
appear safe for patients with stable coronary artery disease, and a small study
from Japan suggested that two weeks of daily saunas may even improve vascular
function in patients with stable congestive heart failure.
heart patients should check with their doctors before using saunas. People who
can perform moderate exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes or climbing three
or four flights of stairs without stopping, will likely get an OK, but patients
with poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, unstable angina
and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease will be advised to stay cool.
saunas affect many parts of the body, most changes are brief and mild. For
example, elevated scrotal temperatures reduce sperm production, but there's no
evidence that regular saunas impair fertility.
dry air does not harm the skin or lungs; in fact, some patients with psoriasis
report relief from itching, and asthmatics may experience less wheezing.
in all, saunas appear safe for the body, but there is little evidence that they
have health benefits above and beyond relaxation and a feeling of well-being.
few simple precautions are important for healthy people and heart patients
alike. It is important to avoid alcohol before and after your sauna. Avoid
anticholinergics (which may be used to treat asthma) and other medicines that
may impair sweating and produce overheating.
overdo it; 15 to 20 minutes of a sauna is a reasonable limit for most folks.
Cool down gradually afterward; although some cultures advocate a cold plunge,
this produces considerable circulatory stress and should be avoided.
two to four glasses of cool water after each sauna.
all, listen to your body. Don't take a sauna when you are ill, and if you feel
unwell during your sauna, head for the door.