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Heat Exposure Therapy: Saunas

As I write this in my office on a measly 10-degree day in late January, I think of all the places I would rather be. Florida. California. Texas. Mexico. While the change of scenery would be refreshing, the most exciting aspect of each is the temperature. The idea of anything above 40 degrees is making me salivate, and while I cannot fight the natural swing of seasons, I will continue to seek out solace in the cold. There is no better way I can think of (nor find) than sitting sweaty and naked underneath a towel on a wooden plank with a bunch of strangers. That is right, my friends, we’re talking saunas. 

Scandinavians have used saunas for hundreds of years by people of all ages and gender. Their pleasure soon turned to research as they discovered that not only were they toasty warm and more relaxed, but they also saw health benefits in the long and short term. While much research still needs to be done (especially some that includes women, for one), the evidence suggests these health benefits include the reduction of risk in vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, and neurocognitive diseases; nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases (including the flu); treatment of specific skin conditions; and a decrease in chronic pain conditions such as rheumatic diseases and headache. Before we get into the nitty-gritty details of why this may be the case, let us discuss your heat exposure therapy options.

Options for Exposure: 

A typical sauna looks like a small wooden room heated between 158-212 degrees Fahrenheit and can raise your skin temperature to roughly 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As your skin temperature and your heart rate rise, your body will attempt to keep it cool with, you guessed it, an abundance of sweat (more or less, depending on your heat tolerance and activity levels).

  • Traditional Finnish Saunas: Usually use dry heat with a relative humidity between 10-20%.
  • Wood-burning Sauna: Low in humidity, high in temperature heated by wood and sauna rocks. 
  • Electrically Heated Sauna: Like wood-burning saunas, they are high in temperature and low in humidity. They have an electrical heater attached to the floor that heats the entire room.
  • Infrared Room: Far-infrared saunas (FIRS) are heated by unique lamps using light waves to heat a person’s body and not the room. While the temperature is typically lower than traditional saunas (140 degrees Fahrenheit), the person will sweat similarly.  
  • Steam Rooms: Also an alternative people seek out. Instead of dry heat, they use high humidity and moist heat, usually around 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. Due to the moist nature of these rooms, public steam rooms may be a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, which can cause potential health issues such as skin conditions or breathing constrictions. 

There are also more affordable options such as tent-saunas and sauna “sleeping” bags (no, really).

Let’s Talk Benefits of Saunas

I know what you all want, and that is a list of the benefits to see the worth of sweating in public. I get it. It is not a glamorous act. I personally like the heat but the awkward eye contact in your birthday suit is cause for pause. So let me break it down for you: 

Relaxation is the number one reason people began to seek out heat exposure therapy.

It makes us feel calm, some say even euphoric, and ready for shut-eye. The reason for this is beyond what the comfort of a hardy blanket can accomplish. It is due to the fact that your sympathetic nervous system reacts to heat exposure by working to maintain a temperature balance in your body.

Your endocrine glands respond to this reaction which releases hormones into your bloodstream. These endocrine hormones help control mood, growth and development, metabolism, reproduction, and functions of your organs. All of this is to say; it is good to keep this active.

To add to this relaxation effect, I recommend using the opportunity to practice meditation or mindfulness. Put the phone away, put your plans on hold, and just be in your body and notice the sensations you are experiencing. This will improve your mental cognition, mood, and even your sleep

The pressure that this type of heat applies to the body also relaxes and soothes beyond your soul and into your muscles and joints.

This can help you to shed tension, but it also helps alleviate pain and inflammation, which is why many athletes like to save this for their post-workout regime as it promotes muscle release and eliminates lactic acid and other toxins that may be present or built up.

This all happens because the body releases endorphins due to the high heat which can give many people that euphoric “runner’s high” type sensation. As the body begins to relax and the heat rises, your blood vessels dilate, allowing for increased blood circulation speeding up the body’s natural healing process. 

Arguments have also been made that the appearance of the skin improves, especially when LED lights are introduced to the mix for the ultimate spa treatment.

Not only do people see improved signs of anti-aging and acne relief, but as your heart rate goes up and your muscles dilate, there is an increased blood flow to the skin that benefits overall circulation. This is because blood vessels near the skin dilate, and “cardiac output and circulation” increases.

Sweating also rinses the bacteria from the epidermal layer and sweat ducts, improving circulation and leaving behind a silky smoothness as no product can. So, for those that find themselves dripping more than they would like to admit, enjoy the perks of detoxification and the shedding of dead skin cells as your skin truly indulges in the humidity! It is said that those that live in humid areas or have oily skin genuinely benefit in the end as our largest organ thrives on these environments for elasticity and fullness. Bring the heat on! 

Quick Myth-Buster

People have also tried to claim that saunas are madhouses for burning calories, but the unfortunate truth is this is a bit exaggerated, as we know there is no quick fix to lose weight or burn massive amounts of calories without hard work.

Those who are not accustomed to the heat and cardiac pressure will see more signs of fatigue and perhaps burn more calories (sauna at your own risk, but be warned to take it in increments). While it should not be your ultimate goal for jumping in the tank, it is a minor benefit that should be acknowledged as a precaution.

Check in with yourself throughout, and keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t need to sit in it at max heat for 20 minutes on your first day, but you will get there if you keep at it, and the benefits will continue to show up in their way. 

Heat, Heat, Baby

Saunas have proven to support mental wellness, improve types of high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues, increase exercise tolerance, reduce oxidative stress, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and so much more. It will work as a sweaty detoxifier, a sensational meditation room, and a cherry on top of your workout regime.

On days like today where the sun isn’t shining on my face, and there is no natural heat to be found, I turn to the sauna and thank the Scandinavians in their infinite wisdom for leading us all to glory. If only we could all place our physical and mental wellness so high on our list of priorities that we ensure even our homes are suitable for these practices. I hope you all take the time to find your local sauna (perhaps at the gym, a bathhouse, or a spa) and dip your toe in the natural wonder that is our body. Allow yourself to connect with your breath and surrender to your surroundings. Do so safely, do so with an open mind, and reap the rewards of the ultimate self-care

About the Author

Danielle Tulipano

Danielle is a born and bred New Englander who graduated from Ohio State University just so she could lose the accent. Nowadays, she works at a private college in Boston, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Yogi, and obtains many skills from her adventures as a craft cocktail bartender. She is passionate about all things literature, art, travel, and mental and physical wellness. She aspires to maintain a life that allows her to continue to meet new people and hear their stories.