Although the word ‘sauna’ comes from the Finnish ‘savu’, loosely translated as ‘smoke’, it wasn’t the Scandinavians who invented the sauna. The first traces of primitive steam baths dating from the Stone Age were found in East Asia. This means that saunas have long existed in some form or another. However, over the years, various cultures have developed their own different types of sauna.
The Finnish sauna is probably the one most familiar to us in Switzerland. But the range of different types is bigger than many people realise.
The Finnish sauna is the most well-known ‘conventional’ sauna here in Switzerland. The temperature varies between 80°C and 100°C and humidity is between 5% and 15%. In order to increase the humidity, water is poured on the hot stones, producing hot steam.
Banya translates loosely as ‘bath’. It has a temperature of 70°C to 110°C, but can also reach well over 100°C. As it is common to frequently pour water on the stones in this sauna, humidity can rise to up to 35%. A special feature of this type of sauna is what's known as ‘venik’, whereby the body is tapped (lightly beaten) with birch branches soaked in water. This has the effect of a massage and stimulates blood circulation.
Hamam is a steam bath from Arabia and originated as a cleansing ritual. The bather passes from one room to the next, each with different temperatures, in order to acclimatise the body to the steadily rising temperature and humidity. The temperature in the main steam bath is 50°C to 60°C and humidity is 65%. A visit to the hamam also includes rest breaks and a massage.
In the past, the caldarium formed part of the ancient Roman thermal baths. It is a steam and inhalation bath with temperatures of between 40°C and 50°C and humidity of almost 100%. The caldarium is gentle on the circulation and also suitable for children and the elderly. It’s also ideal for preparing the body for a hot sauna.
Due to its comparatively low temperature, a biosauna is particularly well-suited to novices and also to children. The temperature is 45°C to 60°C with a humidity of 40% to 55%. It’s not common here to pour water over the stones, but essential oils are added to ensure a pleasant fragrance.
This sauna works very differently to all the other saunas. Here, it’s not the room that is heated, but the body – by means of infrared rays. These rays warm the body from the inside and can penetrate into the subcutaneous tissue – which can ease muscle tension and doesn’t put as much strain on the cardiovascular system as other types of sauna. Temperatures vary from 25°C to 70°C.
The positive effects of taking a sauna come from the rapid temperature changes, similar to alternating showers.
- The switch from hot to cold stimulates circulation – the blood vessels expand and contract, blood flow is stimulated and the entire body is supplied with more oxygen. As the body temperature rises, a fever-like state sets in: the body reacts accordingly and stimulates the immune system.
- According to a finnish study regular saunas are said to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
- Taking a sauna after doing sport is said to stimulate muscle regeneration and thereby prevent muscle soreness.
- Stimulating the body’s blood circulation should also improve the skin condition as the skin is supplied with nutrients. Muscles relax in the sauna – which is of benefit to asthma sufferers, as the cramped respiratory muscles also relax and allow more air into the lungs.
Sauna with a cold
Regular sessions at the sauna strengthen the immune system and help prevent colds. However, taking a sauna is counter-productive if the cold has already broken out. When you have a cold, your immune system is weakened, which is why the body needs any remaining energy for recovery. For this reason, if you catch a cold, it’s better to wait until you have completely recovered before going to the sauna again.
What to watch out for when going to the sauna
Depending on the type of sauna, temperatures reach up to 110°C. During a sauna, the skin heats up to 40 to 42°C and the inside of the body becomes 1 to 2°C warmer. Things to pay attention to when taking a sauna:
- Drink enough
During one hour of sauna or two to three sauna sessions you will lose about 1 litre of sweat. It's therefore important to drink enough before and after the sauna. However, alcohol is taboo when taking a sauna.
- Don’t stay too long in the sauna
The recommended length of stay varies according to the type of sauna. For the hot Finnish sauna it is 8 to 15 minutes. In the cooler caldarium, you can stay up to 30 minutes. However, it is important to listen to your body.
- Consult your doctor
Cardiovascular patients should first clarify with their doctor whether a sauna is suitable for them. While the warmth of the sauna causes blood vessels to dilate and blood pressure to drop, it shoots back up again during the cooling phase. This has the effect of strengthening the heart for people who are healthy – but can be dangerous for cardiovascular patients.
- Remove all metal jewellery
This also includes glasses. If any pieces of jewellery heat up too much, they may burn your skin. Rings are an exception: because rings are in constant contact with the skin, the temperature balances itself out and the ring doesn't get hot.
World Sauna Championships
Did you know that from 1999 to 2010 there was an annual World Sauna Championship? It was held in the Finnish city of Heinola. However, the festive contest came to an abrupt end in 2010 with the death of one of the finalists and the other suffering severe burns.