I like the locker-room sauna. Not only can a little post-workout steam nap make me feel like I’ve been more productive than I was (it’s the total time spent at the gym that counts, right?), but I love the heat and that euphoric, loose-muscled, slightly loopy feeling you get. And I swear that 15 minutes in the sauna can relieve my headaches. But I had only vague ideas about what saunas are actually intended for—sweating out toxins? Losing water weight? Releasing muscle tension? At the risk of sounding annoyingly Seinfeldian: What’s the deal with saunas?
Saunas are supposed to have both short and long-term therapeutic benefits—thought they’re not safe for everyone; people with certain types of heart disease or seizure disorders should stay away. Staying in the sauna too long can also be bad, leading to dehydration, loss of electrolytes and heat stroke. But in general, saunas are safe for people of all ages. “As a rule of thumb, if a person can walk into a sauna, he or she can walk out of it,” notes the Canadian Sauna Society, though “misuse and abuse of the sauna are another matter.” [If you're still concerned, here's more on sauna health hazards and how to minimize them.]
The sweating and increased body temperature involved in sauna bathing can be good for your skin, your muscles and reducing overall stress. And the heavy sweating does help rid your body of toxins. Saunas have also been shown to reduce the incidence of common colds, enhance athletic performance and help treat:
• Obesity (“in obese patients, the body weight and body fat significantly decreased after 2 weeks of sauna therapy,” researchers note).
• High blood-pressure (as your temperature rises, your blood vessels expand)
The good people of the University of Helinski (saunas were invented by the Finnish) have put together this little guide on ‘How to Enjoy the Sauna,’ in which they note that sauna is a ‘sweat bath’ that most people go about in “totally the wrong way.” Check it out for tips on how warm the sauna should be and how long you should stay in. For additional sauna history and tips, see here.
One final word of caution: While the sauna might seem like a good idea for nursing a hangover, it’s not—according to researchers from the Finnish State Alcohol Company, “Sauna bathing and heavy drinking, and also sauna bathing during hangover phase undoubtedly create real health risks. Alcohol intoxication and particularly the hangover phase exposes a person to cardiac arrhythmias, and sauna may further increase the arrhythmia-risk.”