This summer I spent an unforgettable fortnight in Finland, land of lakes and forests and some of the cleanest air in the world. And land of the sauna!
Saunas have become big in the American world of longevity, with many longevity gurus now regularly taking saunas. Why? Because a growing number of studies attest to the health-enhancing benefits of routine forays into a sauna. Much of the research has been instigated in Finland where sauna (pronounced to rhyme with downer) has existed forever. Every community in Finland once had its own sauna, where births, marriages and the laying out of dead bodies all took place. The sauna was a place for relaxing, for socialising, for getting clean and warm, and for all the important events that took place in a small community. Today the majority of Finnish homes have an in-built sauna – with one sauna for every two people. In fact there are more saunas than cars in Finland.
Unlike a steam room, a sauna reaches an average temperature of 75-80 degrees centigrade (much higher than a steam room), thanks to its hot rocks. The type of rocks are important, as is the wood which the sauna cabin is constructed from. The wood should be spruce or cedar and one of the nicest things about a Finnish sauna is the perfumes released by the timber as the cabin heats up. The original Finnish sauna (which we tried) has no windows, is heated only by logs and stones, and is beside a lake for a cold plunge. Here, you slap and stroke yourself with a ‘whisk’ made of freshly picked branches of prickly juniper or leafy birch. These act as exfoliators, cleansers (particularly the split leaves of the birch) and circulation improvers. But they also release their own plant chemicals, adding to the therapeutic aroma of the sauna cabin.
And if you’re wondering why my three daughters are wearing strange tea cosy hats (in the photo), it’s because these too are part of a traditional Finnish sauna – keeping our heads from getting too hot in the sauna or too cold in the lake. We adored these little hand-sewn hats made from old towels, and vowed to stitch our own when we got home (we haven’t… yet!).
So what’s the big deal about heating ourselves until we drip with sweat? And why is it all the rage in California?
Here’s why: the extreme heat of a sauna activates heat shock proteins which researchers think can maintain the healthy functioning of our cells. As we get older, the proteins in some of our cells start to misfold and collapse. They then clump together forming plaques, including the plaques thought to cause Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Heat shock proteins – triggered by a sauna stint and possibly by hot baths – appear to prevent the misfolding and collapsing of cellular proteins, as well as clearing out those that have already misfolded. Which is to say they keep our cells in good shape. Not only do saunas (possibly) help fend off dementia, but – according to studies – they also lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, improve heart health, and prompt our bodies to make Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a growth hormone that repairs muscle damage and helps the brain build new neurons. Saunas also appear to lower inflammation, improve insulin resistance and help make new stem cells. The heavy sweating helps release toxins, like mercury and cadmium which are released more efficiently through sweat than through urination.
If you’ve been in a sauna, you’ll have noticed that your heart rate increases. In a sauna, your heart can be working 60-70% harder than normal – much like doing exercise, except that you’re merely sitting on your back-side. Indeed, your heart rate can speed up to over 100 beats per minute (the equivalent of a run for most of us), explaining why sauna appears to be a boon for heart health.
A few sauna facts from recent studies:
- Regular saunas can reduce the risk of stroke by 60%
- One sauna session of 30 minutes can reduce blood pressure immediately
- After a sauna our heat shock proteins remain elevated for 48 hours
- A single sauna can raise our mood for 6 weeks
And it’s all because short bursts of extreme heat (quite unlike a heat wave which can chronically and dangerously stress the body) trigger a multitude of protective responses within our cells. Think of your body as an averagely messy home suddenly confronted with an imminent and important guest. We race around picking things up, refolding the crumpled laundry, vacuuming up the dog hair. Suddenly our house looks brand new ( ergh… perhaps, but you get the gist). Hot, cold, and hunger have the same effect, sending our body into panicked tidy-up mode as it attempts to keep us alive. Exercise and fever do something similar – which is why sitting in a sauna generates many of the same symptoms, while being much easier and/or more enjoyable. Actually, a sauna can yield a ‘runner’s high’ as our body produces endorphins, which might explain its track record for helping relieve depression.
Studies show that – like all things – sauna usage has a sweet spot. And it’s this: 20 minutes, 4 times a week, at around 78 degrees centigrade (that’s 174 f). People who sauna’d at the sweet spot saw a 66% reduction in their risk of Alzheimer’s, compared to those who only took a sauna once a week.
Regular sauna combined with regular exercise produced the best results when it came to good health. As longevity expert Rhonda Patrick says in this comprehensive podcast/YouTube programme on saunas, ‘it’s about improving quality of life… living healthier for a longer period of time.’ Patrick – who often works in the sauna – believes that sauna-ing reduces her stress, improves her focus and sharpens her creativity. There’s a good, up-to-the-minute summary of sauna studies and sauna benefits here.
While in Finland I took a sauna most days, followed by a cold plunge or shower. I found it both relaxing and invigorating. But to see the full benefits I’d need to be doing this week in and week out – not just on holiday.
The good news is that exercise still trumps saunas. And hot baths and cold showers appear to mimic much of the sauna/lake plunge effect. There’s a good layman’s piece on sauna, hot tub and hot baths here .
As for the delicious and therapeutic smell of the sauna and our juniper ‘whips’, I was delighted to read about the extraordinary effects of aromatherapy oils recently. When exposed to different scented oils (via a diffuser) for two hours a night, participants in this experiment improved their cognitive capacity by an astonishing 226%. The study authors believe that regular exposure to certain smells – they used eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary, lavender, rose, orange and lemon – could help fend off dementia. The participants – who followed this regime for six months – also reported sleeping better and feeling happier (we’ll report back on our own, less rigorous Age-Well trial next year).
This joyful and uplifting experience requires no sweating, sauna-sitting, or cold lake plunging. All you need is a diffuser and a few essential oils. Choose a different oil each night and set your diffuser to work for a couple of hours as you fall asleep. Be generous with the oil – which should be of a good quality – as participants given very small ‘doses’ saw little effect. The air of your bedroom needs to be pungently perfumed, and you should rotate the oils each night. You can read the full study here. I also like jasmine, chamomile and a blend from Tisserand called Siberian Fir which reminds me of sitting in my Finnish sauna! I generally use Tisserand and Neal’s Yard oils because of their high quality and easy availability, but please do share your favourite brands and scents. And if you experiment with rotating oils each night, let us know how you get on… Incidentally I’ve written about the power of smell and its connections with the brain here, if you’re interested.
A few other studies published over the summer confirmed what we at the Age Well Project have always maintained. These two were particularly musical to our ears:
- Full-fat dairy is good for us (in my house we’ve only ever imbibed full-fat milk, yogurt etc so now I’m feeling properly vindicated). Catch up here.
- Gentle walking is better than prolonged bed rest. Hospital patients who ambled for 20-50 minutes a day got better faster (and with fewer post-operative issues) than those who lay in their beds. More on this in my next post.
And for anyone interested in the all-round health benefits of walking, I’ll be on the panel of a Walking for Wellbeing seminar (titled The Walking Wonder Drug: The Impact of Walking on our Health and Wellbeing) hosted by the Ramblers charity on the 7th September. It’s on Zoom so can be watched from the comfort of home. Details and tickets here. Do join us!