Why do people willingly enter a small room where it’s so hot sweat literally pours off their bodies?
People have been doing just that for a very long time. Although the origins of saunas aren’t clear, most people seem to agree they were developed in Northern Europe around 4,000 years ago. Saunas are popular, too – they’ve traveled far from their roots in Finland and other Baltic countries to becoming mainstays in gyms, hotels, and even houses. Infrared saunas, which use infrared light to directly heat users instead of the air around them, have become increasingly popular in recent years.
The health benefits of saunas have been known for a long time as well, which is why so many enjoy a good sweat. But it might be surprising to hear saunas don’t just seem to improve physical health, they offer real benefits to mental health as well.
How? It all started with a doctor who deliberately made his patients sick.
Healing With Heat: A Short History
Julius Wagner-Jauregg was an Austrian doctor who pioneered a treatment for psychosis called “pyrotherapy.” Basically, Wagner-Jauregg gave his patients small doses of bacteria and viruses which caused them to experience high fevers. Although his initial efforts weren’t successful, later attempts using malaria parasites to treat neurosyphilis (at the time considered a fatal, untreatable disease) were.
His efforts earned him the 1927 Nobel Prize for medicine. As for Wagner-Jauregg’s efforts, they’ve been supplanted by modern antibiotics and other measures. However, there is something to his theory about raising body temperature to treat neurological symptoms.
Let’s be honest: while sweating can be uncomfortable and gross in some settings, it’s actually a way the body protects itself. Sweating doesn’t just cool us down when we’re hot, it also removes toxins, increases circulation, and even helps the skin protect itself from bacteria. This is especially the case for the kind of sweat generated by exercise or well, saunas.
As for mental health, well … the idea of saunas being a benefit probably sounds a little strange. But there are plenty of ways saunas have been shown to benefit mental health.
5 Mental Health Benefits From Saunas
Saunas Improve Depression. A study conducted by the Center For Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin found raised body temperatures seemed to work as a treatment for depression, with over half of the study’s subject reporting a decrease in their depressive symptoms after spending time in saunas. How?
When we say saunas are stressful, we don’t mean it the way it sounds. By stressful, we mean saunas make the body work harder – the heat can double the heart rate. In response to this stress, our body produces euphoric hormones to help us cope with it. These hormones help us deal with pain, relax, and elevate our moods. Studies have shown these changes to our hormones may be permanent, too.
Saunas Seem To Improve Anxiety, Too. A study in Japan involved 45 volunteers who took surveys measuring their anxiety, anger, fatigue, and other emotions before visiting a sauna. Afterwards, the volunteers took the surveys again. Interestingly, all of the volunteers reported feeling less anxious and more positive after their sauna session.
Saunas May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s. Finnish researchers spent 20 years studying nearly 2,500 men aged between 42 and 60 years old. Men who engaged in sauna sessions two to seven times a week seemed to have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
Saunas May Actually Help Your Brain Speed Up. Our nerve cells are surrounded by something called the myelin sheath. Myelin is a white fatty coating which helps increase connection speeds between nerves. Heat stress – such as the kind experienced in sauna therapy – encourages the increase of the hormone prolactin, which in turn stimulates the growth of myelin.
Example? The subjects of a Finnish study were found to have a 10-fold increase of prolactin after three sauna sessions.
Saunas May Reduce Headaches, Too. A study conducted by New Zealand pain researcher Giresh Kanji, PhD, examined 37 people who had chronic tension headaches. The subjects were divided into two groups – one was given literature and advice about their headaches, and the other group received both literature and regular sauna sessions.
After two months, the two groups were interviewed about their symptoms. The group who received the sauna sessions reported far more positive results than the other group, along with better sleep, fewer depressive symptoms, and cluster headaches.
Sauna Therapy May Be Important Source Of Relief Many Miss
It can be easy to dismiss saunas as something for Europeans, or a recovery method for athletes. That’s wrong – saunas appear to have many genuine mental and physical health benefits. Far more than just a luxury treatment, regular saunas may be part of a happier, healthier life.
Sculpt Spa offers infrared sauna therapy as part of its range of treatments. Unlike traditional saunas, infrared saunas heat people directly instead of the air in the sauna. This allows infrared sauna users to experience a deeper sweat in a more comfortable environment.