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Feel the heat: Besides being relaxing, taking a sauna offers health benefits

DULUTH, Minn. — Scott Burnes of Duluth has spent a lot of time in saunas.

He has asthma, and the hot air helps his breathing; it opens and cleanses his pores. "It just made you feel good. It's really relaxing," he said.

And there's science behind that.

"Sauna has the same effects on the body as physical exercise," said Dr. Anemona Anghel, interventional cardiologist at St. Luke's. High temperatures lead to increased heart rate and dilation of blood vessels, which reduces the effects of cardiovascular risk factors.

She cited a study of men ages 42-60 who used a dry sauna several times a week. The effects were a significant reduction in the risk of fatal coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. Other health benefits are relief for patients with chronic bronchitis and asthma, like what Burnes experienced, and patients with rheumatic disease or psoriasis.

It's important to take some precautions when using a sauna. Dehydration can be a concern, but can be avoided by drinking plenty of plain water or Gatorade. Steer clear of soda, juices, caffeine and alcohol. The latter may increase the risk of arrhythmia (an alteration in heartbeat). Saunas are not recommended for patients with acute heart attack or aortic valve stenosis, Anghel said by email, citing instances of passing out, increased arrhythmia or even sudden death.

"Like any good medication, there are possible side effects to sauna bathing," she said.

Nevertheless, the side effects in general are positive: relaxation, stress reduction and detoxification through sweating. Some people might experience a rush afterward. Anghel compared that to what it feels like after exercising because the body experiences the same responses — a surge of blood to the skin and a rush of norepinephrine, a hormone that increases alertness.

While there's no best time of day to take a sauna, it's beneficial after working out to reduce pain and relax joints and muscles. Common sessions can last 10-15 minutes at 140 degrees up to five times a week, she said.

With regular exposure, people can build a heat tolerance the same way the body builds a tolerance to exercise. "The blood vessels become trained to dilate more rapidly," she said.

Burnes, 60, used to sit in a sauna for hours, but he doesn't recommend that.

"Start slow until you understand how it works, and allow yourself to get used to it," he said.

His tips are to drink water and to throw instead of pour water onto the hot rocks to avoid a splash or direct contact with the rising steam.

Growing up, he'd spend many hours each week sitting in a sauna. It was a space for bonding with his father and grandmother — it was part of his culture, and he attributes that to his surroundings.

"I grew up with a million Finlanders," he said, and saunas have a rich Finnish and regional background.


"It is the quintessential thing that represents Finnish culture," said Matti Erpestad of Duluth.

He teaches Finnish at the Nordic Center, and he's also a dual Finn/American citizen.

Many Finns immigrated to northern Minnesota in the late 19th and early 20th century. In any homestead, the first building erected was a sauna because it's the pivotal location of the whole Finnish way of life, he said.

"Originally, it's a place where babies were born," and when not in use, the sauna was the place to clean the dead. Today, many people in this area who don't have Finnish roots still embrace the tradition of using a sauna — and of pronouncing the word correctly.

In Finland, a basic way of saying it is a female pig is a sow. Put an "n" "a" on the end, and you're good to go, said Erpestad (who corrected the News Tribune reporter's pronunciation).

The principle aim of a sauna is to relax. It's a place Finns would traditionally go to clear their heads. "It's their best invention," he said.

Burnes agreed about their value and advised: "If you have the opportunity to experience a sauna, jump at it."

Sidebar: Sauna types

Wet saunas are heavy steam rooms that have 100 percent humidity, Dr. Anemona Anghel, interventional cardiologist at St. Luke's said by email. This moist heat prevents sweat from evaporating and cooling the body. The user can control the heat and humidity in the room by pouring water over hot rocks.

Dry and infrared saunas use dry heat. In infrared saunas, heat is delivered via electromagnetic radiation, which penetrates the body to raise its core temperature. This occurs without heating the room, unlike in dry or wet saunas. Temperatures range from 150-185 degrees in a wet sauna and 120-140 degrees in a dry sauna, she said.

Many people believe the best kind of sauna has a wood-fired stove and is located in a separate building on the shore of a lake, said Matti Erpestad, a Finnish language teacher in Duluth.

Whichever sauna type, an authentic experience is to get hot and cool down gradually about three times during each session, Erpestad said.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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