Spending time in a sauna is a relatively safe and, many would argue, a health-promoting activity. The world was shocked in August, 2010 when a man died in that year’s World Sauna Championships in Finland. There were more than 100 participants in the championship, which was setup in 1999 to celebrate a tradition that goes back hundreds or possibly thousands of years. The deadly accident served to highlight the fact that saunas should only be used in moderation as the human body can only take so much heat. There is also little scientific evidence to support the health benefits of saunas outside of relaxation and questions remain about what even moderate sauna use might do to our bodies.
How the Human Body Responds to Saunas
The human body normally responds to heat by expanding the blood vessels, which then allows more blood to be delivered to the skin, where extra heat escapes. Cooling then comes from the evaporation of sweat, which begins when the core blood temperature rises by about a degree. Simultaneously, blood pressure drops, heart rate goes up, and the heart pumps as much as three times more blood.
Unfortunately, this natural mechanism doesn’t always work. If a person remains too long in an overly hot sauna (even five minutes can be too long), the body is at risk for losing too much fluid, which can hinder the skin’s ability to sweat and the heart’s ability to keep up with demand. Combined with the drop in blood pressure, dehydration and severe heat exhaustion will often cause fainting. Fainting in a sauna can lead to serious burns when the skin comes in contact with very hot surfaces. Heart attacks and a complete shutting down of the kidneys or other organ systems are also possible.
- Avoid alcohol use before or during time in a sauna as it could affect your heart.
- Do not sit in a sauna alone.
- Limit time in the sauna to no more than 20 minutes. Exit the sauna sooner if you start to feel unwell.
- Only enter certified saunas that limit temperatures to 194°F.
- Take breaks as needed or at least every 20 minutes.
- Keep yourself well hydrated: drink a glass of cool water before entering the sauna and two to four glasses after you exit the sauna. Mineral water or a sports drink can be useful to help replace electrolytes lost through sweating.
- Leave the sauna immediately if you start to feel unwell.
- Remove jewelry including rings and small earrings as they can heat up quickly and cause a burn or other skin irritation.
- Avoid saunas if you are very old or young, pregnant, have a history of heat intolerance, or have any kind of condition that might affect your heart, including diabetes or high blood pressure
- If you are unsure about whether your health condition would make it unsafe for you to use saunas, ask your doctor first.
- Avoid the sauna if you just finished exercising. Let your heart rate come down to resting levels before entering a sauna.
- Take it easy after exiting the sauna. Lie or sit down for at least 10 minutes and then take a cool shower to help bring your body back to normal temperature.
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