Perhaps the title will anger or annoy some, but for a Finn, it is basically true. In this post I will explain why that is, and how people around the world are beginning to discover how important such a ritual can be!
Though I was born in Canada, sauna was a consistent and integral part of my life from very early on, for 25 years until I moved to Sweden. That was 12 years ago now. Despite a closer proximity to Finland, after a while, I realized that preserving that lifestyle might be more of a challenge than I’d thought. At the time, that’s what it seemed like – a “lifestyle”. I had to rely on finding them inside apartment buildings if I was lucky, or other random locations like a workplace that happened to have one, or during a vacation at some cabin. And for a while, I took the attitude that it would have to suffice.
Sweden does not have the same sauna culture as their neighbor across the Baltic, though there is certainly a bit of it. It might have a lot to do with the presence of the Forest Finns here for many centuries, who were given their own land to farm. Eventually, the Swedes grew to appreciate it too. They call it the “bastu”. Factually, it is common in various forms across the great north. In Russia they call it “banya”, but it is more or less the same with the exception that Swedes like theirs cooler, Russians like theirs hotter. The Finns? Well, they like theirs “just right”. 😉
Let me get to how I began to see how important the sauna tradition truly is, and how the Finns do indeed have it “just right”, from the frequency of use, to the temperature.
For a while, I lived in a terrible depressing northern climate. Luleå, in Norbotten at the edge of the Arctic Circle became, much to my own surprise, my home from late 2004 until late 2008. Those four years seemed like the longest of my life, and began a very noticeable decline in my overall health and well-being. I did have access to a sauna there, but not very regularly. As things got to their lowest point, even after leaving there, I had less and less access to regular sauna.
Once we got a home of our own, I immediately began to consider building a sauna for it. Then a couple of years ago we discovered a public sauna by the river completely by accident, and it helped to fill the void. With my wife I ended up going several times, until the locals came and ousted us – apparently I’d gone and made it too good of a sauna, when they preferred their lousy 40c/104F heat and I brought it up a few notches.
Occasionally during mountain vacations, and then one year in Finland, I went every day to make the most of the experience. On two of these occasions, I became sick with a cold or flu directly afterward. Sauna can induce an artificial fever, or enhance a real one which is developing. My fever was so high I had some quite intense hallucinations that night. I began to think about the frequency that Finns normally take saunas – around 2-3 times a week on average, and wondered if that might be ideal.
The evidence is growing that while sauna is one of those things that can easily have little to no benefit or even harm us when it’s done way wrong – see the incident involving the Russian and Finn who basically boiled themselves like hot dogs in a competition – more importantly, the reverse is even more true; when done right, it has health benefits that are practically through the roof. So the key is getting it right.
Recently, I’ve been getting confirmation on my 2-3 days per week theory through some slightly unlikely, but nonetheless welcome sources. As outlined in the interview in the video from the first couple of minutes in, sauna is especially good at releasing something called heat shock proteins. What happens with heat shock is that the cells “shrivel up”, but when they recover, they are actually stronger than before. The period of recovery in most people is approximately two days. So, it fits that we would need about 2 or more days in between saunas.
Here’s where it gets tricky:
Recent studies have found that 20 minutes or more, 4-7 times a week at 70c/158F or higher, produces maximum benefits. All-cause mortality was reduced more in these subjects than among those who went once per week, or even 2-3 times. My concern about this is first of all that those who go seven times per week to sauna must be extremely well off, not to mention very hardy physically. So one would think that plays into it. As I’ve noted, for myself going every day of the week was too much, especially when I hadn’t gone in a while. It is just too much of a shock to the body. So my own somewhat unscientific theory about what you want to do, is gradually increase frequency as your health improves… because it will!
The toxin removing sweats and increased heartrate, and even the artificially induced low grade fevers which sauna produces are all very good and beneficial things, regardless of your current state of health. An individual who has been somewhat worn down needs to take a cautious approach when reintroducing a sauna routine into their life, but when doing so, it can absolutely become something which makes them healthier, and I consider myself proof.
When I finally went ahead and got one, in the form of the Mobiba tent sauna, I used it approximately 50 times over the course of one Swedish winter, or more accurately from late September until April. What I found is that it helped stave off depression, it was a meditative environment, and it also kept my cold-blooded body quite a bit warmer over that period of rough weather. The thermal effects you get from sauna have a lasting effect on core temperature. The bigger result was that I felt noticeably better from day to day.
During the individual sauna session, I believe that the act of constantly going between the heat of the löyly steam and the cold air outside might build a better tolerance to the hard change of seasons or hotter and colder climates in general, and also that it strengthens the immune system and helps to protect us from other systematic issues.
So, when I was a child, sauna was just a way of life I inherited, as is covered in my previous sauna post – but now, it is something I, as an adult, have come to find is necessary for life itself to function at its best. And from the sound of it, it seems that others are beginning to catch on!
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