The use of heat in social, political, medical, and spiritual practice has deep roots in humanity. Cultures around the globe and throughout history have used hot rooms to create an environment for therapeutic activities. The Scandinavian and Turkish traditions of the sauna and steam room are the most popular in America and throughout the world. No matter what style or tradition, the use of heat produces very specific responses in the human body. And with repeated exposure over time, these conditioning responses help promote healthy physical development. In this post, we’ll take a look at the Swedish bastu in order to explore the therapeutic benefits of sauna in action.
What Are the Benefits of Sauna, and How Does It Work?
Sauna provides a wide range of health benefits, as it helps to condition many systems and tissues throughout the entire body. Similar to exercise, the use of a sauna is not about an acute therapeutic response, but actually a development conditioning influence. It is not because you lift a weight once that you become stronger, but because you routinely lift a specific weight a specific number of times and repeat the activity—slowly progressing the challenge to stimulate the development of strength. It is the same for exposure to a hot room.
To demonstrate this process in action, let’s take a look at the traditional Swedish bastu—which exemplifies the most common form of Scandinavian dry sauna. The high heat and low humidity of bastu produce some very specific adaptive responses, which can be used to elicit healthy development.
The human body has robust and complex coordinated systems for regulating body temperature. By exposing yourself to the dry heat of a bastu, you involve the central and peripheral nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the hormonal system, the blood sugar and mineral regulating systems, the hydro-regulating system, and the detoxification system. All of these systems act in coordination to regulate the response to the dry heat. Thus, they are all affected. The joints, skin, muscles, and all of the organs will be stimulated and developmentally conditioned by exposure to the sauna environment over time.
Cardiovascular Benefits of Sauna
To give a specific example, let’s look at how sauna influences the cardiovascular system. When you’re exposed to heat, your heart must continually pump blood away from your core so that excess heat can leave your body through the skin. This increases the workload on your heart, stimulating it to beat harder and faster. Over time—through repetitive exposure within appropriate limits—this trains your heart to work more efficiently. Thus the sauna can be used to improve cardiovascular function and help maintain heart health.
For more info on the cardiovascular benefits of sauna, stay tuned for my upcoming blog post: The Use of Sauna for Heart Conditioning.
A Word on the Different Styles of Hot Rooms
The word sauna has been adopted by the international community from the Finnish language. However, the use of a hot room similar to the Scandinavian model is by no means uniquely Finnish. In fact, it is rarely practiced in a way that is truly in the Finnish tradition. As previously mentioned, the most common dry Scandinavian sauna is probably best exemplified by the traditional Swedish bastu.
Keep in mind that the different styles of hot bathing produce different responses in the body. Choose which style is right for you based on your individual goals for physical conditioning.
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