Finland's capital, Helsinki, is home to a strange attraction...
The city has a Burger King with a built-in sauna room...
In 2016, Finnish designer Teuvo Loman thought it'd be a great idea to pack 15 people in a hot, smelly room... serve them greasy burgers and fries... and overcharge them for the experience (about $300 for a 3-hour rental). He even won an award.
While this Burger King sauna experience is likely to make you feel a little sick to your stomach, folks have enjoyed the benefits of saunas for millennia...
The Finns are credited with inventing the sauna over 2,000 years ago, after all. The Finnish language even includes "having sauna" as its own verb: "saunoa" – which sounds like SOW-noah.
The Finns aren't using Burger King as their sauna of choice... rather it serves as a gimmick to get a leg up on the burger-chain competition and as a lure for quirk-hungry journalists.
But they do like to enjoy the sauna at least once a week. And it's a habit more of us should take up.
Today, I'm going to answer some common questions about saunas and explain why you'll want to make it part of your weekly routine...
What exactly is a sauna?
A sauna is a small room or building that's intended for people to sit or lie in, relax, and experience sessions of heat which can be either dry or wet.
Sauna rooms are typically 150 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are controls inside the room so that folks can manage the temperature.
Often the interiors are made of unpainted cedar planking. Many saunas also have dense, non-porous rocks in them that rest on top of the wood-fueled heating element to absorb and radiate the heat around the room.
Are there different types of saunas?
As I mentioned, there are dry or wet saunas. The difference between a dry and a wet sauna is the use of water and the level of humidity. Dry saunas have almost no humidity. Wet saunas are sometimes like steam rooms. The style of sauna often varies by country and culture...
American readers are likely most familiar with the Finnish sauna. In some Finnish-style saunas, you can pour water on hot rocks to create a steam bath. The use of water and steam regulates the humidity and temperature, so you can tailor the experience to your own needs and desires.
The typical sauna experience in Russia, called the "banya," includes an extra step where you clean and massage your body by gently smacking yourself from head to toe with a bundle of soft tree branches called a "venik." In some Russian banyas, the men and women are not separated – but in most other countries, they are.
In Turkey, enjoying a public bath house – called a "hammam" – involves three steps that occur in three separate rooms. After undressing and donning your towel, you first warm up and wet your body in a marble hot room. Then, a masseuse rubs you down with a special silk cloth that takes the dead skin off your body. They may also pour a bag filled with bubbles over you and wash your hair. Then finally, you rinse and go cool off in a room with a much lower temperature.
And in Japan, a popular wet sauna is the "sento" or "onsen" (hot spring bath) which involves disrobing, cleansing your body with hot water, and then entering the communal bath.
In the late 1970s, infrared saunas – which use full spectrum light as the heating element – became available in the U.S. as an alternative to the traditional Finnish sauna. In addition to wood-burning and infrared saunas, electric and smoke-vented saunas are also common.
What are the benefits of sauna sessions?
When you're planning to enjoy a sauna session, taking a hot shower and washing with soap beforehand is recommended. This opens your pores and relaxes your muscles before you begin. And once your sauna ends, taking a cold shower or going for a swim helps you cool off.
Apart from relaxation, studies show some health benefits of saunas include:
- Improved heart function
- Decreased stroke risk
- Reduced risk of dementia
- Reduced inflammation and muscle soreness
Saunas with steam and humidity are also beneficial for folks with breathing difficulties like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
A 2015 cohort study of more than 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men found that attending a sauna bathing session two or three times a week reduced the risk of dying from a cardiovascular event (like a heart attack or stroke) by about 30%. Attending sauna sessions four or more times per week was associated with about a 50% reduced risk of dying from a cardiovascular event.
Do what feels right for you and start slow... A good rule of thumb to follow is to take the approach of the Finns: If you're too hot, you've had enough.
They focus on the relaxation aspect of saunas rather than counting the exact minutes. But generally, 15 to 20 minutes is sufficient for experienced sauna users.
If you're new to using the sauna, try starting with just five minutes at a time and see how that feels. After working out, give yourself a 10-minute cooldown period before entering the sauna so that you don't overexert yourself. Sweating through exercise and sauna use dehydrates you, so stay hydrated. (I've included a link to an old article of ours about the best way to stay hydrated, so check it out.)
Are there risks?
The main risk that sauna bathing poses is dehydration because saunas make you sweat.
Thus, folks who have difficulty regulating their body temperature – like pre-pubescent children, or adults with cardiovascular problems – should take extra precautions with saunas.
Spending less time in the sauna, hydrating, and cooling down gradually will allow you to safely enjoy the relaxation and health benefits of the sauna if you have ailments like heart disease or high blood pressure. Check any medications you're taking to see if they impair sweating or make overheating more likely before trying out the sauna.
Also, opting for an infrared sauna is a smart choice for some folks because it can be set for milder temperatures.
Q: Where can I find one? Can I create a sauna experience at home?
Some fitness centers and spas are equipped with saunas. Doing a quick Internet search or making a few phone calls to places near you can easily point you in the right direction. If you're going somewhere new, you may want to take a tour of the facilities first to check for cleanliness and accessibility.
And many folks opt to have a sauna installed at home for a few thousand dollars. Depending on your budget and the type of sauna you want, it's possible to buy one already made or build your own.
What We're Reading...
- Explore Helsinki's private saunas.
- Something different: The No. 1 way to hydrate (and no, it's not water).
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 11, 2022