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A Room Full of Dry Heat

Sauna - A room full of dry heatIf spirits tar and the sauna can avail nothing, then there is no cure.
--Old Finnish Saying

A writer named Constance Malleson, after a prolonged tour of Finland in the late 1930's, wrote, "The sauna…is an apotheosis of all experience; purgatory and paradise; earth and fire; fire and water; sin and forgiveness. It is lyrical ecstasy. It is resurrection from the dead. It is eternal new birth…You are healed, you are made new."

Sauna, a Finnish word which simply means "bath house," is a 2000 year-old practice that has rapidly warmed its way into the American experience since the 1950's. In Finland, a country with only five million people, there are an estimated 700,000 saunas, or one for every seven people! In addition to the Finns, various forms of the sweat bath has been used by the Greeks, Romans, Russians, Slavs, Turks, Africans, Germans, Eskimos, Irish, Mexicans, Mayans and North American Native Americans.

A few months ago, we purchased an infrared sauna and set it up on our deck. Since then, we can hardly keep the anticipatory smiles off our faces as the sun goes down and the evening brings cooler air. Taking a sauna was always a physically refreshing and mentally relaxing experience, but what I never looked forward to was the feeling of suffocation in the hot air of the sauna room. The technology of the infrared sauna has taken care of that concern. More about this later.

For many of the past 50 years, the only place most of us could find a sauna was in a health club or commercial spa. Although I had experienced steam rooms, the first sauna I experienced was in the early 1980's in the Volcano rain forest. The butt end of a small wood-burning stove stuck through the wall into the sauna room. We would stoke the fire from the outside and it got almost uncomfortably hot in the room.

The modern infrared sauna provides a thermostatically controlled dry heat between 160 and 200 degrees enjoyed in an insulated wooden room (usually cedar) with less than 30 percent humidity. Taking a sauna begins with sitting in the sauna room until the sweat begins to flow in steady drops. The next step is a cold shower, followed by a plunge into a cold water tub (or river) or a roll in the snow. This temperature contrast seals the pores so excreted toxins cannot be reabsorbed and enhances circulation. The hot/cold sequence may be repeated two or three times, or until you are so relaxed and "wet noodley" that you can hardly move. Although most newcomers to saunas are reluctant to take a cold plunge after getting so nice and toasty, after a few times, the hot/cold experience feels so good it almost becomes addictive.

Many health benefits are attributed to regular sauna baths. Perhaps the main benefit is skin and liver cleansing of toxic wastes through induced perspiration. A daily sweat can help reduce levels of toxic metals absorbed through environmental exposure like lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel, as well as sodium and sulfuric acid. One study noted that regular saunas may help lower cholesterol.

A sauna bath also tonifies the cardiovascular system by making the heart pump harder, speeding oxygen, nutrients and immune system cells throughout the body. In response to increased heart activity, blood vessels dilate, relieving pain and speeding healing of sprains, strains, bursitis, arthritis and muscle pain.

Reduction of stress and muscular tension is another a prime benefit of a sauna. Many regular sauna users also report heightening of mental awareness and an increased sense of well-being.

The sauna has historically been attributed with healing colds and flus, sinus congestion and other minor respiratory ailments. Recent research shows that increasing core body temperature creates an artificial fever that kills viruses and bacteria and strengthens the immune system by raising the level of white blood cells. A German researcher found that among marathon runners there was no incidence of cancer. He also found cadmium, lead and nickel in the runners' sweat and concluded that these athletes excreted cancer-causing elements by perspiring. Most of us do not exercise at the level of marathon runners and need to find a mechanism to create a regular sweat. The sauna is a perfect answer.

Because the sauna's heat eases tension in muscles, tendons and cartilage, it also provides relief from rheumatism and arthritis. Although some fat is burned during a sauna, the sauna will not help a person permanently lose a great deal of weight since most of the weight loss that occurs during a sauna bath is water, not fat.

In the past, sauna stoves heated the air in the room and the air heated the body. Modern infrared saunas warm body muscles directly, keeping the air at a comfortably warm temperature and allowing for ventilation so there is never the feeling of suffocation. Because people are able to use infrared saunas for a longer stretch of time, they are able to reap greater benefits than those garnered through the use of high temperature saunas. Infrared is the same type of heat used by physical therapists oriental medical practitioners to treat muscle injuries and strains. Infrared heat is like being warmed by the sun, without its harmful aspects.

There are just a few incidences where caution is advised in using saunas.

- Folks over 60 are in a high-risk group for undiagnosed heart disease and should get a thorough exam before embarking on a sauna adventure.

- Other people who should check with a physician before using a sauna include those on regular medication and those who are obese, pregnant or have thyroid, kidney or respiratory problems, diabetes or high blood pressure.

Finally, remember to keep well hydrated before, during and after your sauna.

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