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Health benefits of sauna according to research and Estonian traditional medicine

In Estonia, a country with many centuries of sauna traditions, sauna has always been used to support good health and as a remedy for different health conditions. There must be a reason why sayings like "sauna is the doctor of the peasant folk" and "sauna is the doctor of the poor man, steam the medication" in different forms were spread in many parts of Estonia. Let's take a closer look at which kind of health benefits sauna offers according to Estonian sauna traditions and also modern medical research.

In her book Eesti Saun, Tamara Habicht provides interesting insights to the history of sauna as an essential part of folk medicine in Estonia. For centuries for Estonian peasants it was natural to heal themselves mainly with the help of folk wisdom passed on from generation to generation. Sauna had an important part among home remedies for many of the most common health issues. In addition, going to the sauna regularly was thought to improve health and help to live a long life. Whenever bones or joints were painful, muscles strained and stomach aching from hard physical work in the fields, sauna was known to give relief. Even when the diseases and symptoms seemed mysterious, it was always considered a good idea to go sweating in the sauna and beat the body with birch twigs. Beating with twigs was and still is the most popular sauna procedure in Estonia. Besides birch twigs, some other plants were used for beating, for example, juniper, oak, fern and nettle. Each one of these plants with their particular properties were considered to have specific benefits for different health problems.

Modern science has put the folk wisdom to the test and attempted to verify if sauna really does have all these positive effects on the body. Luckily, evidence from different studies confirms many of the sauna’s health benefits. An extensive review published in 2018 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that frequent sauna bathing (80-100 °C) may be associated with reduction in the risk of:

  • vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neurocognitive diseases;
  • nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases;
  • mortality.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that sauna bathing alleviates arthritis, headache and flu and contributes to better overall health.

According to another review from The American Journal of Medicine, sauna bathing could improve breathing and lung function in people with problems of the respiratory system, as well as alleviate pain in patients with rheumatic disease. With some skin conditions, such as psoriasis, sauna can help remove thick scales and provide relief for the skin. For certain other skin conditions it might have an unwanted effect, for example itching.

So, why does sauna have such a positive impact on our bodies? The intense heat of the sauna creates unusual conditions to which the body responds with processes that under normal circumstances would not occur in such ways. The body starts stimulating blood circulation, respiratory, cardiovascular and immune functions and producing more endorphins, which allow many of the above-listed positive changes to take place. The beneficial effects of sauna bathing have actually been found to be similar to those of physical activity.

To get all these wonderful benefits from your sauna sessions it is important to calibrate the sauna bathing to your own personal health condition of the moment and not follow anybody else’s lead. Going to the sauna should always feel pleasant and enjoyable. Stick to temperatures that make you feel good and take breaks whenever you need to. Exaggerating with sauna could bring the opposite effects of what you wished to achieve. In general, sauna bathing is considered safe for people in good health. In case of certain diseases or special conditions, for example, pregnancy, you should be more cautious. When you are not sure if sauna is safe for you, consult with your doctor and listen to your body.

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