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Holistic Benefits of the Finnish Sauna

Updated on February 6, 2013
This is a picture of the sauna when Mairela was first built c1947, the house was originally a log cabin built as a summer cottage but the sauna remains much the same
This is a picture of the sauna when Mairela was first built c1947, the house was originally a log cabin built as a summer cottage but the sauna remains much the same | Source

Sauna, Sweating and Suomi-Finland!

Sauna practice goes back many hundreds of years and spans many different countries and cultures. The advantages of the sauna and sweating are documented in the Ayurveda, around 568BC, as being important to health .

Here in Finland the sauna is a national institution, to the Finns the sauna was the place to cure all your ills, drive away evil spirits, the place you were born and the place you died. Sweat is also entwined in Scandinavian culture, in Norse legend the first giants were created from sweat of the frost giant Ymir's arm pit.
Every house, summer cottage, apartment block and company building in Finland has its own sauna. Even in the desert Finnish troops are seen to be constructing a sauna within hours of setting up camp. When my grandparents built the house I live in now, the first building to be constructed was the sauna.

There are many Finnish sayings which make reference to this National treasure.....

Jos ei terva, viina ja sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi.
If tar, hard liquor and sauna do not cure; the disease is fatal.

Nainen on kauneimmillaan tunti saunan jälkeen.
A woman becomes her most beautiful one hour after taking a sauna

Sauna se on köyhän apteeki.
The sauna is the poor man´s chemist.

Every sauna has a saunatonttu (sauna elf) who protects it from evil spirits whilst you are away and to make sure that people behave properly in it! This is mine…….
Every sauna has a saunatonttu (sauna elf) who protects it from evil spirits whilst you are away and to make sure that people behave properly in it! This is mine……. | Source

Health Benefits of visiting the Sauna

The physical benefits of the sauna are derived mostly from the sweating. Sweating is a very important bodily function which we don't do enough of in these sedentary times, yet our pores are more clogged than ever because of synthetic clothing, anti perspirants, skin creams and pollution. If the body cannot purge toxins then it protects us as best it can by locking away the toxins in fat cells and mucus where they will stay until the body is ready to detox.

During a Finnish sauna you lose approximately 1litre of sweat which contains mostly water but also excess salt and some heavy metals. In fact sweating is one of the most important ways for ridding the body of copper, lead, zinc and mercury absorbed from our polluted environments. Because the skin is so important as a elimination organ it is sometimes known as the third kidney!

The Wood-burning Lake-side Sauna at Mairela Retreat in Finland
The Wood-burning Lake-side Sauna at Mairela Retreat in Finland | Source

I know from personal experience that saunas improve the complexion and leave the skin soft and supple without the need for creams and lotions. It's my understanding that cellulite is formed from pockets of toxins that are stored away in fat cells to protect the body from harm and this would appear to be true because my cellulite has almost disappeared with a combination of a healthier diet, skin brushing and regular saunas. The healthier diet allows the body to recover and start to detox i.e. to release the stored toxins for expulsion. The skin brushing encourages the lymphatic system to move these toxins away from the cells and then the sweating gives the body an extra system for expelling them.

Your metabolism and pulse rate increase during a sauna which greatly increases the circulation. Increased circulation allows more substances to be taken away from the cells and released plus it also means that there is greater delivery of oxygen to the body tissue in particular the extremities. Bacteria, germs and cancer cells thrive in deoxygenated areas therefore pumping oxygen giving blood further is very beneficial in more ways than just warming up your cold hands and feet. If you have been exercising heavily a visit to the sauna will help the body to eliminate the lactic acid that has been formed, saving you from aching muscles the next day. The improved flow of circulation is also said to flush out the internal organs releasing more of the toxins held by the body which are then sweated out. Detoxing just doesn't get any easier or pleasurable!

According to the nature doctor Dr Vogel a weekly sauna will greatly help in reducing the tendency to embolism and thrombosis.Note: Although high blood pressure is lowered during a visit to the sauna the effects are not long term.

There are also great benefits for the respiratory system, so long as there is plenty of steam and the air is not allowed to dry out. I can actually feel my throat and lungs being cleansed by the inhaled steam. The sinuses are drained effectively too, so if I ever feel a little stuffy after flying or driving for a long time then I head down to the sauna. Do you remember filling a bowl with hot water, covering your head with a towel and steaming your face to shift a cold? Well this is the more relaxing way to do it!

Finns prefer the traditional wood burning stoves, as do I, because the heat is much nicer as it's not a dry heat and the aroma of the wood is an added bonus. The fire heats up rocks placed on top of the stove and the steam is produced by pouring ladles of water onto the rocks. Research has now established that this steam production causes a large amount of negative ions to be released which makes the air cleaner and refreshed....it's the same effect as walking along the shore by the sea with the waves crashing or the clearing effect of a thunderstorm. In general too few negative ions and too many positive results in anxiety, tension and fatigue. The negative ions work by attaching themselves to particles in the air which makes them heavy and they fall down, thus we are no longer breathing them in. It's how ionizers work as you'll notice that the area around an ionizer is filthy!

Taking A Dip Through The Ice During A Sauna
Taking A Dip Through The Ice During A Sauna | Source

You can super increase your circulation by jumping into the lake after you have heated up in the sauna, or rolling in the snow if it's the right time of year or maybe taking a dip in an ice hole! My youngest daughter regularly jumps into the lake several times during her sauna and the sparkle she gets in her eyes is supernatural….it's nothing that you could get from a bottle. I'm more of a slow climb down the ladder type person but I have done quite a few naked snow angels!! I've read somewhere that dipping in an ice hole gives you a natural high! Whilst I don't see anything natural about climbing naked into an ice hole when in Rome...

Inside the Sauna Room with a Birch Twitch
Inside the Sauna Room with a Birch Twitch | Source

Another way that the Finns increase circulation is to make twitches from birch twigs that they soak in warm water then slap themselves with during a sauna. This also encourages the release of toxins from the body and tones the skin and muscles. It isn't as bad as it sounds and is certainly healthier for the skin than scrubbing it whilst it's wet as that stretches the skin. The birch tree is also a very healing plant, the leaves are very good for clearing the kidneys, especially the young leaves which can be eaten and they are a very natural way to Spring clean your system after the long winter

Sisters take note: Menopausal problems caused by the bodies adjusting hormone levels can also be lessened with regular saunas as the pituitary gland is stimulated by the heat, as are the adrenals and the ovaries. Menstrual cramps can be eased by the relaxing effects of the heat and the sweat helps to eliminate water retention.

Pine Cones In The Fire
Pine Cones In The Fire | Source

Mind Medicine

The mental effects of the sauna include the relaxation and mental cleansing from the negative ions but there is something more about the whole experience. A sauna can be a social event too. I attended a woman health evening where we all gave talks on our various 'skills' and then we all went off to the sauna together, it was a great way to end the evening and very relaxing. Many businesses have saunas in their building and it's not unheard of for meetings to take place there. Discussions run more smoothly in the sauna environment which I believe comes from the symbolic act of taking off our clothes, like we are removing our masks and putting them aside for a while to reveal the real person inside.

The warmth and the low level lighting making us feel safe, almost like being back in the womb. We also feel safe because everyone else is the same, it puts me in mind of the old interview technique for nervous people, to imagine your interviewers sitting there naked! I know that after an initial period of adjustment people have opened up to me much more whilst sitting next to me in the sauna than they do on the healing couch.

I was on a course where the lecturer spoke about sacred water imbued with moonlight and I couldn't help thinking about swimming in the lake after a sauna when the moon is reflected across the water. My friends have told me about the special feeling that you get when you swim through moonlight. Maybe I'll have to try it one night

The Autumnal Sauna
The Autumnal Sauna | Source

Aromatic Additions

Another way to make the sauna experience even more special is to add aromatic oils to the water used on the heated rocks to produce the steam. The favourite here is birch oil as the birch tree is the traditional wood burnt in the sauna and birch twigs make the twitches.
Birch oil has the same healing properties as the sauna so it is a great addition to your sauna water helping with dermatitis, dull or congested skin, eczema and psoriasis, poor circulation, the elimination of toxins from the muscles, easing arthritis, rheumatism, muscular pains, oedema and cellulite. The birch oil works in a similar way to the fresh leaves or the infusion by stimulating the kidneys.

I also use ylang ylang as it has a euphoric and sedative effect on the nervous system. It helps with anxiety, tension, shock, fear, panic, impotency and frigidity.

It is particularly useful with rapid breathing and rapid heartbeat, helping to reduce high blood pressure. Although ylang-ylang on the skin balances the secretion of sebum and has a stimulating effect on the scalp, I feel that the sauna isn't the place to use oil directly on the skin as it is better to leave the pores unclogged for maximum sweat release.

Another favourite is lavender oil vapour which is great for many things including allergies, anorexia, dizziness, sleeplessness, headaches, depression, trauma, anxiety, hysteria, fear, irritability, nervous tension and can also help to lift depression, help in crisis situations and times of stress and ease tense muscles and muscle spasms. If you are having trouble sleeping then a sauna combined with lavender is highly recommended. Sauna activities cause the blood to be drawn from the brain, which if practised before going to bed will make restful sleeep possible.

The Spring Sauna Showing The Bright Vibrant Green of the Newly Emerged Birch Leaves
The Spring Sauna Showing The Bright Vibrant Green of the Newly Emerged Birch Leaves | Source

Safe and Relaxing Sauna Guidelines

Drink and drugs and saunas don't mix. The relaxing atmosphere of the sauna coupled with alcohol can induce sleep and falling asleep in the sauna is very dangerous. Also drinking dehydrates the body but without the beneficial cleansing effects of sweating. Any stimulants raise the pulse rate which is also being raised by the sauna and this can produce unwelcome effects

Being young, old, pregnant or with a heart condition doesn't discount you from using the sauna, just listen to your body and find your own comfort zone.

Don't engage in sauna Olympics, stay at a temperature that you find comfortable and for a time that you find comfortable. For beginners I would recommend starting at around 60 degrees and staying in the actual sauna for 10 minutes at a time. If you are sharing a sauna with someone who prefers more heat remember that the lower benches are cooler.

Don't eat just before going to the sauna, this gives the body the maximum ability to eliminate toxins because it's not trying to digest food. As a general rule, your body cannot detox and digest food at the same time.

Wet the skin before entering the sauna and wash the sweat off the body when exiting, either with the warm water from the fire or by plunging into the lake. When you leave the sauna to get dressed, don't rush. If you get dressed too quickly without allowing the body to cool down sufficiently you will keep sweating and then when this sweat cools down you'll get cold.

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    • Yourglobalgirl profile image

      Yourglobalgirl 4 years ago from UK

      This is a very interesting article and very informative. I don't know how you manage to jump into cold lakes and snow afterwards though!

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 4 years ago from Finland

      Thank you! It took me many years before I reached the level of snow or lake dipping! Even now if I hesitate then it doesn't happen! But I always feel so totally amazing and healthy afterwards :-)

    • jtrader profile image

      jtrader 4 years ago

      The healing power of this type of setting has been observed in many different countries. :-)

      Thanks for sharing those Finnish sayings.

    • lovemychris profile image

      Yes Dear 4 years ago from Cape Cod, USA

      Mita Kulu!! What beautiful pics, and what a beautiful people. Anything Scandinavian is music to the soul.

      Interesting that American Indians have the same practice--

      Great hub, and great info......mystical in everyday life.

      There is a Swedish group here who do sauna as a practice, then go home and drink glug!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Of course I would so like a sauna right now....this is well done and very tempting...I do not have any little birch twigs nearby to smack myself with--although I found the idea a little kinky...:)

      And the whole jumping in the snow is something I have always watched with amazement. I lived in South Dakota where we had tons and tons of snow and when it was 32 I wore no coat...I guess that was my way of 'jumping in the snow."

      Reading this was second best to actually being their. Thanks for sharing....

      Sending Angels to you on day 8 of 2013. :) ps

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 4 years ago from Finland

      Thank you

    • Brandon Tart profile image

      Brandon Heath Tart 4 years ago from North Carolina Sculptor

      I used to live in Tallinn, Estonia for three years. I would cross the Baltic Sea from harbor to harbor where I would dock in Helsinki. From there, my fiancé, Marianne Jogi (Eesti naine [woman]) and I would travel to viro-joki. There, we would take a walk out into the gulf that separated Russia from Finland. There was a granite island on which the Seppa family "saun", as the Fins and Estonians call it, in which we would get piping hot before we jumped into the freezing cold water. VERY MUCH FUN, and beneficial to one's health. I am glad I found your hub, if for nothing more than to say that the Fins and Estonians are fanatical about their saunas!!!!! TO verify your hub's words, and from my personal experience... YES!!! Fins and Estonians take birch tree branches and bind them together. Afterward, they slap each other on the back, legs, arms and if you're willing, the face, too, in order to improve blood flow, holding the belief that when birch leaves' fluids break open on the skin, they release healthy vitamins to enhance health. Believe it or not, it does not hurt, but requires a great deal of trust invested in the one holding the limbs... voted up, and interesting because it brought back fond memories. I wish I could share some photos of the place with you... let me know and I will send you a few!

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 4 years ago from Finland

      Ha ha, the idea of birch twigs always sounds a bit odd until you try them out.

      Thank you for the angels x

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      So cool! I am trying to get to Finland this summer and I am eager to see these famous Finnish saunas. Great hub and congrats on HotD!

    • Hui (蕙) profile image

      Hui (蕙) 4 years ago

      Classical physical experience, feeling like one hundred percent mix with the true nature. All those part with plants, like birch leaves, lavender, so amazing...

      Our modern human beings need to go back to the embrace of where we are from.

      Great hub! Congratulations!

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Congratulations on being the hub of the day! What an honor and you earned it! I love saunas and my husband and I have been talking about adding one someday to our home.

      I used to have a health club with a sauna and oh, how I miss that.

      Wonderful advise and you shared a great wealth of knowledge. Voted up!

    • greencha profile image

      greencha 4 years ago from UK

      Sounds wonderful,book me in....

    • MJennifer profile image

      Marcy J. Miller 4 years ago from Arizona

      This is a terrific hub, and well deserving of the hub of the day recognition you received. I had a couple of Finnish friends when I was younger and I recall them talking about the saunas. This hub makes me miss those two girls and the things I learned from them about their home land.

      I'm looking forward to reading your other hubs, Sara!

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 4 years ago from Finland

      Thank you all so much for your lovely comments, you're all welcome to come on over for a sauna session any time! Especially now when we've lots of snow for rolling in :-)

    • Kejanny profile image

      Kejanny 4 years ago from Port Moresby

      Very interesting and informative hub that deserve the Hub of the Day status. Congratulations!

    • CZCZCZ profile image

      CZCZCZ 4 years ago from Oregon

      Excellent hub and congrats on getting Hub of the Day honors. I am a big fan of the sauna and try in and use one a couple of times a month, wish I had access to one on a regular basis.

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

      Sara, This hub page is beautifully done. What a treat! I live near a Finnish community here on Vancouver Island, and have experienced the traditional suana, and it is everything you say it is. I think it would take some baby steps for the average person to jump into a frozen lake. I ended up with severe leg cramps from the cold ocean water, and it is warm in comparison. Thank you for this wonderful article, and congratulations! Regards, snakeslane

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

      Congrats on the hub of the day award. You certainly deserved it. Sauna is a good treatment to oneself. It relaxes the body and mind. Some of the relaxation centers and spas in Germany have sauna besides swimming pool. I have taken sauna many times before especially in winter and I always felt great afterwards. Thanks for sharing.

    • ZxRed profile image

      Red Dash 4 years ago from Philippines

      Wow! That's very informative. Congratulations!

    • Glass-Jewelry profile image

      Marco Piazzalunga 4 years ago from Presezzo, Italy

      Hello SaraGardner,

      Even in the mountain regions of Italy the tradition of Finnish sauna is deeply felt, but only in the western neighboring of Austria.

      Instead, on the Swiss side or the French Alps this tradition is not very consolidated.

      In South Tyrol, for example, each hotel and the vast majority of the houses have their own wellness area with sauna and steam bath.

      However, I am surprised by what you say about the mind medicine, in fact, despite the strong tradition of South Tyrol, the sauna is not considered absolutely a place for conversation and to get to know people.

      On the contrary, in the sauna is important that the silence is respected because it is considered a place of complete relaxation.

      Here in fact the sessions are held often lie and sometimes half asleep trying to reach a state of pleasant catharsis.

      Another important reason is that when you are immersed in a room at 90 degrees Celsius, it's really hard to talk because his throat and vocal cords are easily irritated at these temperatures.

      Very interesting information from North Europe. Thank you.

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 4 years ago from Finland

      Thank you Glass-Jewelry,

      Of course we all have our own unique ways for relaxation.

      We don't usually lie down in the Finnish sauna I think because of the sudden changes in blood pressure and because of course the steam rises.

      The Finnish sauna never has a dry heat, if the vocal cords become irritated that would suggest that the air is too dry so more steam is required. If my sauna isn't humid enough I thrown buckets of water over the walls and the seats as you are quite right, the throat and lungs get easily irritated by a dry heat.

    • jimmar profile image

      jimmar 4 years ago from Michigan

      I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there a many people of Finnish decent. don't live there anymore. I always like the sauna and hope to build a wood fired sauna some day, soon I hope. Then I will feel Suomi kutsuu, once again. I enjoyed reading, very informative. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Greg Finland 3 years ago

      Great article by yourself

      The Finnish sauna culture is sacred dating back over a thousand years

      Women gave birth in them,the dead were kept and prepared for burial in them

      The sauna room was the hub and centre for most homes

      Smoke sauna is better as it only gives of negative ions

      The result is you feel lively and fresher

      http://www.nectareal.com

    • SaraGardner profile image
      Author

      Sara Gardner 3 years ago from Finland

      Thanks Greg! The smoke sauna is awesome, you are right, it's a really soft and intense feeling to be in one, very spiritual.

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