Holistic Benefits of the Finnish Sauna
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.
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!
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!
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...
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.
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
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.
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.