We all know about the benefits of cold therapy and we’ve been trying to Wim Hof our way through Winter with cold water plunges. But what about the other extreme, the benefits of heat therapy? In Finland, they swear by saunas which feature in many homes, offices and even the Parliament House. With a population of 5.5 million and an estimated 3.2 million saunas, they are an important part of Finnish life. Women even gave birth in saunas as they were the most sterile room in the house! ‘The sauna is the poor man’s pharmacy’ is a Finnish proverb, but can we really sweat our way into optimal health?
So what is it about these wooden heat boxes that make them so therapeutic? Firstly they promote relaxation, every single spa has one after all! Usually dimly lit, they encourage a sense of peace and tranquillity (hopefully without the use of a mobile phone!). Secondly, heat has long been known to help ease pain and inflammation, blood vessels dilate in the heat and blood flow increases, boosting circulation, eliminating toxins and creating the perfect place to soothe aching muscles.
And all that sweating? Well, not only can this improve circulation and clear out clogged pores but very much like the cold, heat is a potent stressor on the body. This stressor increases our metabolism and triggers a state called hormesis which activates our survival mechanisms and helps repair cellular damage. It therefore helps our bodies become stronger and in turn we live longer.
Dr Susanna Søberg, a Metabolic Scientist and author of ‘Winter Swimming: The Nordic Way Towards a Healthier and Happier Life’, believes that contrast therapy is optimal for health, combining cold immersion and sauna heat within a single session. She says in a recent Instagram post, ‘The combination of the contrast in temperature forces your body to activate and reactivate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which challenge hermetic stress, increase nerve signalling, metabolism, expression of Heat Shock Proteins (repair cell damage), inflammation and endothelial layer (improvement in circulation).’
And as tempting as it is to end one of these combined sessions in the sauna, it’s actually best to end in cold immersion to force our body to do all the hard work to heat itself back up. All that shivering enhances our metabolism and helps to activate brown fat thermogenesis (the good fat).
It’s no wonder that saunas have started popping up all over the UK coastal regions, it’s the ideal place for both heat and cold immersion. The famous Sandbanks, in Poole, Dorset now has its very own, The Saltwater Sauna, a hugely popular haunt amongst the locals with stunning, panoramic views of the coastline. Sam Glyn-Jones, its Founding Director, believes the combination of heat and cold therapy ‘is a biohackers key to unlock sustainable wellness and longevity and we believe is about to become a mainstream practice in the UK.’ It seems the Finnish sauna culture is starting to catch on.
Not only is the sauna beneficial for physical health, it is also a social activity which unites people offering a sense of community; an important element for our mental health. And the beautiful scenery helps us to reconnect with nature providing a deep sense of well-being.
But what about those of us who can’t stand the heat? Well there’s good news with the introduction of infrared saunas – they have all the benefits of the traditional sauna but less of the air heat. They work by using light to create heat and it warms the body directly whereas a traditional sauna heats up the air. This makes an infrared sauna a much more comfortable and relaxing option allowing for much longer heat exposure which potentially increases all those fantastic health benefits. A win all round!
So definitely don’t give up the cold water therapy this winter but add in a sauna and you’ll reap the benefits!
words by Francesca Londono-Richards