Sauna Bath

Nearly 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 few examples.

One 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.

But popularity is one thing, safety another. Are saunas good for your health, or harmful?

Inside The Box

The 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.

Unlike Turkish baths, Finnish saunas are very dry, maintaining humidity levels of 10 to 20 percent. Water drains through the floor to keep things dry.

Inside The Body

Experienced sauna bathers usually stay inside for 5 to 20 minutes. People in the know always remember to drink plenty of fluids after their saunas.

The 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.

The 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.

Although a sauna may help you relax, your heart is working hard while you sit on your bench. Is that safe?

The Heart Of The Matter

Much 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.

Canadian 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.

Saunas 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.

Still, 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.

Other Organs

Although 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.

The 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.

All 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.

Sauna Safety

A 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.

Don't 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.

Drink two to four glasses of cool water after each sauna.

Above 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.

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