The Health Benefits of Sauna
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It feels so wrong to admit this, but I lived in Finland for 9 months and didn’t step foot into a sauna at all in that time. Well, that’s not completely true. I frequented a public pool and went in the sauna in the women's locker room two or three times, just for the sake of trying sauna in Finland. But I don’t think that kind of sauna experience counts. Anyway, the true cultural art of sauna was lost on me and I failed to make an effort to understand it.
Flash forward to today and I’m desperate to get to a sauna. If you’d have told me back in Finland how healthy sauna is, I would have sought out the experience as frequently as possible. Although I don’t think I could ever muster up the courage for the combo of sauna and ice swimming there, no matter how healthy it may be! Growing up in the U.S., sauna was presented to me as a dangerous practice. The sauna at the public rec center where I learned how to swim had warning signs for people who are pregnant or have health conditions. And children under a certain age were not permitted at all. It just didn’t seem like a good idea. But now, I’ve been listening to the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) Wise Traditions podcast, and learning all about the health benefits of passive sweating. Many of the podcast interviewees mention the benefits of sauna. But the episode that really brought it to light for me was “Benefits of Heat & Light Therapy,” in which SaunaSpace owner Brian Richards discusses infrared light therapy. His products are beautiful, have incredible craftsmanship, are portable and emit no EMF rays. And apparently near infrared saunas have the most health benefits, in comparison to dry or steam saunas. Check out the WAPF podcast mentioned above or this post from Wellness Mama for additional information about the health benefits and sauna comparisons.
The most intriguing aspect of sauna for me is the supposed ability to detox from heavy metals. I took a hair mineral analysis test last year, which showed a high amount of mercury toxicity, along with arsenic, lead, thorium and aluminum. And I definitely feel the toxicity. I have chronic neck and shoulder tension, along with other various aches and pains. No matter how much I stretch, go to the chiropractor, get a massage, or practice other healthy choices, such as diet and exercise, the pain doesn’t go away. Some of this pain can surely be attributed to the lasting affects of poor posture, as well as wearing cameras and heavy backpacks on my shoulders throughout my life. But I hypothesize that the pain could also be caused by heavy metal toxicity.
Where could I have picked up a heap of toxins? Well, we live in such a polluted world, so much of it coming from the air we breath and water we drink and bath in. I heard in one recent episode of Wise Traditions, “The Dangers of Glyphosate,” that our food, both organic and conventional, is irrigated with water full of toxins like chlorine, fluoride and glyphosate. To top it off, I had two fillings in my mouth when I was ten years old, which were probably mercury-based. One of the fillings was infected when I was in high school, so I had a root canal. I switched dentists a few years later, and the new dentist said the root canal wasn’t done well and he redid it. Then I had it redone a third time in 2013, with a crown put on it. Who knows how much mercury got into my system with all of that drilling. Additionally, I wore contacts for 16 years. Apparently contact solution has, until recently, had mercury in it. And just think about other daily toxins we come across, such as second hand cigarette smoke, car fumes, off-gases from things like spray paint, air fresheners, conventional cleaning supplies, antibiotics, plastic BPA, synthetic estrogen, etc. Even the artificial materials used to make our clothing are detrimental to our health. This list goes on and on. And it doesn't help that I spent much of my high school and college years with film and print development chemicals in the darkroom. No matter how many healthy lifestyle choices I now make in my 30s, I’m still bogged down by toxicity and therefore curious to try detox protocols.
I thought very seriously about purchasing a SaunaSpace 4 Light Panel, which has a price tag of $999. But I decided I should first give the sauna experience a practice run before making such an investment. I found a spa 18 miles from home with an annual infrared sauna membership of $99, and a fee of $10 for each session. But if I’d want to use the sauna at the standard recommended rate of 3 sessions per week, it would end up costing $1659 for one year, not including $20 in travel fees to and from the spa. This makes the home purchase of SaunaSpace way more valuable, and way more convenient.
However, instead of going for either option at the moment, I landed on joining a gym. Wiehan has had a gym membership for a year, to access swimming lanes for his triathlon training. It’s an additional $30 per month to add me to his membership. That means that I now have daily access to a dry sauna for just $360 annually. This fee, of course, also includes access to other gym benefits such as a pool (both indoor and outdoor), gym equipment, group classes, even a small indoor track. This is definitely the most valuable bang for my buck at the moment, but it doesn’t beat the convenience of home sauna use. Eventually, I may opt for the SaunaSpace. But for now, while not the fanciest option, I have the ability to test out sauna use at a very low investment.
As of writing this post, I’ve been in the sauna just three times. The first time, I assumed there would be a heat resistant timer in the sauna, so I didn’t think to check a clock before stepping in. I don’t know how long I was in there, but it was probably about 15 minutes. It was pretty uneventful. But I wanted to take it really slowly. The second time, I checked the clock outside the sauna and aimed for a 20-minute session. At first, the dry heat felt really uncomfortable for my nose and mouth. But that discomfort goes away after 5 minutes or so. It requires a sort of meditative state, to sit still without a cellphone in hand. No distractions. Letting go of the constant drive to be productive. Right now, my only responsibility is to sit here and let my mind rest and allow my body to heal itself. Day in and day out, slowly. Not a quick fix. Time... patience.
About ten minutes into my second session, I felt one sweat bead roll down my abdomen, then down the middle of my back. And by the time I was 15 minutes in, the sweat was dripping from everywhere. It felt amazing and I wanted to continue the detox, but I took it slowly, and ended this session at 20 minutes. I felt a little dizzy stepping out into the fresh air. My right hamstring tensed up and my heartbeat increased. I felt like I could potentially pass out, so I drank a lot of water and cooled down in the shower.
For my third gym session, I went for a swim before the sauna. I was very fit with swimming 2 years ago when we lived in South Africa and I had a very affordable membership to a gym with a pool. But I basically haven’t been in a pool since then, except for several visits to the above mentioned rec center when we first moved back to the U.S. All that to say, swimming 50m at a time was exhausting, and I only managed 5 intervals, for a total of 250m. It felt like a great exercise though, and I'd love to build that fitness back up this summer.
After the swim, I headed back to the locker room for my third sauna session. I found it difficult at first to get comfortable and relax mentally. But just around ten minutes in, the sweat began again. I felt a little light headed, but stuck with it and made it to 25 minutes. Again, when I walked out of the sauna, my muscles tensed up and then my heartbeat picked up. But this time I was really on the verge of passing out. I made it to my locker and pulled out an Epic Bar, always packed in my backpack, gym bag or purse, for emergency hypoglycemic moments just like this one. I scarfed it down, drank some water, and looked down at the beads of sweat coming from every pore in my body. Fascinating! But it’s definitely a practice to enter into with caution, gradual time increases, proper hydration and electrolyte consumption, and even a check with the doctor, to make sure it’s okay. I’ll be more careful with my food and beverage intake in the future. On the drive home after this session, I dug into my lunch bag for some leftover turnips, carrots, berries, a rice cake and some buttermints.
The thing about sauna is that it’s basically like a self-induced fever. Your body warms up, killing off and sweating out the toxins. I used to think that you could get the same effect from sweating through a work out, but apparently not! Apparently your body is too busy dealing with flight mode during a workout to do any detoxing. But when you sweat passively (sweating while at rest), your body can concentrate its efforts fully to detox. As with any of my health choices, I am always open to testing something out and watching to see how my body reacts. Let’s see if sauna has positive, long-lasting affects!
Update (June 18, 2018)
Since first writing this post, I’ve used the gym sauna a few more times. And while it’s the most cost-effective for me at the moment, I have to point out the three biggest advantages I see in purchasing a home sauna. You can use a home sauna on a more consistent basis, like setting aside 30-minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, without having to drive anywhere to use it. Because I’m driving 40-minutes round-trip to the gym, I feel the need to maximize my time there, so I’ve been swimming before using the sauna. This has been very positive for my cardio strength, but negative for my skin and hair, with so much contact with chlorinated pool water. Additionally, when showering after the sauna, I have no idea what’s in the shower water at the gym, unlike my highly filtered and purified well water at home. And lastly, a public sauna means interruptions to the meditative experience. Last week, while I sat in the sauna for 30-minutes, one person after another came in for 5 minutes at a time, and two young women came in at one point wearing leggings, sports bras, and sneakers. Minimal clothing - or no clothing at all - should be worn in a sauna, and especially never shoes. The idea is to keep as many germs as possible outside of the sauna. But be sure to sit on a towel for cleanliness, and perhaps cover up with another towel, depending on your level of comfort. When you have a home sauna like SaunaSpace, you have the flexibility to use the sauna on a more regular basis, and you have much more control over the level of your shower water filtration, as well as the overall cleanliness and peacefulness of your sauna experience.
Do you love sauna? Have you experienced health benefits from this ancestral tradition?