Dr Weil on sauna and your health

Question

I've heard totally varied opinions on the benefits/hazards of saunas and steam baths. What's your opinion?

Answer January 28, 1997

To me, the benefits far outweigh any hazards. If you're in reasonable health, the benefits of a sauna or steam bath are great. If you have high blood pressure or heart disease, saunas may be good for you, but you'll want to be cautious; check with your physician first, and go easy. And with either of these conditions, it's not a good idea to jump right into cold water afterward, as Finns always do.

When you take a sauna, the heat pumps up blood circulation near the skin and stimulates sweating. The Finns say a proper sauna elicits about a quart of sweat per hour. I generally encourage sweating. It helps the body rid itself of unwanted materials and improves general circulation. In medieval times, healers relied on saunas to cure illnesses, and priests used their heat to chase away evil spirits.

In the United States there's a lot of concern about pregnant women taking steam baths or saunas. A study published four years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association found some association between neural-tube defects and heat exposure from saunas, hot tubs, and fever during the first three months of pregnancy. (Neural-tube defects include anencephaly and spina bifida, both disastrous abnormalities.) The biggest problem was hot tubs, which pregnant women should approach cautiously.

Interestingly, though, in Finland it's not uncommon for doctors to give the OK on saunas from conception all the way up to the day of delivery - and there, neural-tube defects are very low. In fact, in Finland saunas were once a traditional place for childbirth. It's worth noting that Finnish women tend to stay in the sauna for six to twelve minutes, and they shorten that time during pregnancy. Also, saunas raise the body's core temperature insignificantly compared to hot tubs.

Finnish saunas also tend to be different from most US versions - unless these are run by Scandinavians. In Finland, saunas are usually heated by a wood stove. First there's a dry phase that can get hotter than 200 F. Then the participants splash water on the stove and spend some time in the steam. Many US saunas employ an electric stove, which you can't put water on. So you're just exposed to dry heat, which I find irritating to my respiratory passages. Some saunas in health clubs are set to a lukewarm temperature. Turn up the heat.

Even if you're in a very hot steam bath or sauna, it's mostly the temperature of the surface of your body that goes up. As it increases, blood vessels dilate, and circulation in the skin climbs. As resistance to blood flow through your veins and capillaries drops, your blood pressure goes down. Then your heartbeat increases to keep blood pressure normal.

Finns always follow a sauna with a plunge into cold water. I find this incredibly refreshing and enjoyable, and healthy as well. Then you relax afterwards.

The main risk of a sauna is staying in too long and fainting from overheating. People who are most susceptible to this are those with heart disease or who have been using drugs or alcohol. It really isn't a good idea to combine drinking or other drugs with a sauna or hot tub. Children should not use saunas without supervision.

Also, be sure you drink plenty of water, to replace the water you're losing.

By the way, the correct pronunciation is sow-na, not saw-na.

Dr. Weil

Original article