Author Nenah Sylver, Ph.D.

        BUY THE BOOK:
        335 Pages, $34.95

Excerpts from the Holistic Handbook of Sauna Therapy:

Table of Contents and Index

History of Sauna Therapy

Sauna and Alkalization

Sauna and Weight Loss

Sauna and Fever

Sauna and Pesticides, Heavy Metals

Sauna Building Materials

Sauna Clinic and Spa Locations







Return to book overview page

Call (530) 541-7200 or Place Your Order Online

335 Pages, $34.95   

The Holistic Handbook of Sauna Therapy
By Nenah Sylver, Ph.D. 
335 Pages, $34.95

Chapter 1

The History of Saunas

The sauna is Finland’s medication . . . and a poor [person’s] apothecary. (Finnish Proverb)


ll over the world, whenever people hear the word “sauna” they think of the Finns. “Sauna” means “bathhouse” in Finnish. Pronounced “sow′-na” (or sometimes “saw′-na” in English), it is the only Finnish word used by English-speaking countries. “Sauna” has been borrowed by many other languages as well. This is appropriate, because the Finns seem to have been the most influential of anyone in spreading the 2000-year-old tradition of sauna bathing across the globe. Some researchers believe that the sauna was invented during the Byzantine or Scythian empires, carried by the Slavs when they migrated to the lands of the ancestral Finns, and then brought by the Finns when they relocated to the rest of Scandinavia and to Russia, Germany, Australia, Canada and the United States. Whether or not the Finns actually invented the sauna, they are rightly credited with being the worldwide connoisseurs of body heating.

Although people associate the sauna with Finland, sometimes they are not always clear about what comprises a sauna. In The Finnish Sauna: Peace of Mind, Body and Soul, John O. Virtanen, who was born in a sauna in his native Finland, writes that it is a “common mistake” to equate the Finnish sauna with a Turkish or Russian steam bath. “In an authentic Finnish sauna, the heat emanating from the special stones feels velvety soft to the skin, and it is more penetrating than the heat in a cloud of steam. The difference is so important that sometimes a person must experience more than one sauna to fully appreciate the distinction between genuine and imitation saunas.”1 Nevertheless, since many people do associate the two—or alternate between both when they visit spas or receive medical treatments— throughout this book I will be discussing the wetter modalities along with pure saunas.

In all of history, in virtually every culture in the world, the wealthy did not consider their houses complete unless they were equipped with a body heating facility. Following is a brief overview.

Popularity in Early Cultures


According to some estimates, the Finns have been using saunas for 2000 years. “The very oldest saunas,” the website of the Finnish Sauna Society reads, “were probably only pits dug in a slope in the ground and primarily used as dwellings in winter. . . .Buildings used as both a sauna and a home were still found in Finland as late as in the 19th century. These were exceptions, though . . . [due to] either poverty or temporary use of the building. Other than the very earliest times, saunas have always been separate from homes.”2

These early structures in the earth were lined with either stone, wood, or both. An article called “Traditional Use of the Sauna for Hygiene and Health in Finland” explains how these sauna pits were used.

[An Arab traveler] visited the Mordvians [sic], a tribe related to the Finns. [The traveler] Ibn Dasta wrote that “this tribe lives during the winter time in dwellings dug in the earth. And into these cellars moved whole families; they take some wood and stones with them and heat the stones in the fire to the point that stones get red. Then they pour water on them which makes the water turn to vapour, which warms up the room to such an extent that people take their clothes off.”3

Water, when poured onto hot rocks, creates a sudden burst of vapor called a löyly (pronounced low-lū; the “low” rhymes with “cow”)—which in Finnish means “spirit of life,” as Mikkel Aaland writes in his book Sweat. 4 This process moistens the air by as much as 40%—not enough to see vapor, but enough to prevent dry hot air, which can irritate the lungs.

Often, in between sweat cycles, Finnish sauna bathers completely immerse themselves in water (usually cold, but occasionally hot). They are known for taking freezing cold showers or rolling in the snow; but any cold tub, cool sponge bath or rubdown with ice will do. Ancient peoples intuited what modern science has recently learned: that there are many therapeutic benefits of alternating heat with cold. I will discuss this later in various parts of this book.

The Finns developed the practice of slapping the skin with a vihta (or vasta)—a whisk of twigs and leaves usually made from birch but sometimes other woods—to stimulate the circulation in the capillaries and tone the skin. Often the vihta was dipped into a bucket of warm water before being applied to the skin. Today, people use a washcloth, scrub brush, or brush the skin with a loofah “sponge”—the rough, fibrous sponge-like inner portion of the loofah gourd.

The sauna was utilized in many ways by the versatile Finns. It was an ideal smokehouse. The frequent heating and sterile coat of soot (charcoal) on the walls rendered it more hygienic than other parts of the home, which made it ideal for simple medical procedures such as wound cleansing. The sauna was also a popular place to give birth, as the warmth was welcomed and needed by both mother and newborn.

Before Finland became a sovereign nation, it was controlled by France and then Russia—which, in the 1800s, heavily censored or outright banned political discussion and printed material. Under those circumstances, the sauna had yet another use, that of a political meeting place.


There is a very old Egyptian document, dated at about the 17th century BC and called the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which scholars have reason to believe was copied from yet another, much older manuscript from about the 30th century BC. The Egyptian Orthopedic Association’s website describes the painstaking medical chronicling contained in the papyrus:

There are 48 cases in all, starting with injuries of the head, then those of the face, temporal region, mandible and chin, cervical vertebrae, clavicle, humerus [sic] and sternum. In every group of cases such as the eight cases of the head he [the author] starts with the simpler, more superficial and less dangerous cases, going on to describe lesions which are deeper, more complicated and more dangerous. The writer was undoubtedly endowed with a rare talent for classification.5

Another remarkable aspect of the Papyrus is its recommendation of the use of heat for tumors: If thou examinest a man having tumours with prominent head in his breast, (and) thou findest that the swellings have spread with pus over his breast, (and) have produced redness, while it is very hot therein, when thy hand touches him...Thou shouldst burn for him over his breast (and) over those tumors which are on his breast.6


An Aryuvedic medicine document from India, dated at 568 BC, is slightly reminiscent of its ancient Egyptian predecessor. As described by Virtanen:

Generally, it was considered important to perspire before bathing....The Indians classified thirteen methods of inducing perspiration. Among them, for example, was covering a sore with hot cow manure, sand, or some similar substance in order to raise the temperature of the affected portion of the body. The use of steam was also commonplace. In one form, heated pieces

of iron or hot rocks were dropped into a pan of water placed beneath the sickbed.7 In India today, and at some spas and clinics in many parts of the world, a favorite way of heating the body is massage with smooth hot stones covered in warm oil. Besides the benefit of heat from the stones, oil conditions the skin and massage helps relax the body.

Ancient Greece and Rome

For many of the world’s peoples, dry saunas and the therapeutic benefits of bathing in wet pools coexisted under one roof, or side by side as complementary therapies. (See the section in this chapter on “Hydrotherapy in Austria” on page 11.) The warm Mediterranean climate spawned the famous baths of ancient Greece and Rome—architectural masterpieces carved from magnificent marble whose adjoining pillared rooms featured steam chambers, hot baths, and cold pools. We know about body heating in ancient Greece thanks in part to Herodotus, who was among the first to chronicle their use of therapeutic steam. “The steam baths,” Virtanen describes,

were usually heated by open fireplaces made of charcoal pans filled with hot rocks over which water was poured to make steam. This sort of bathing was common among athletes. Rather sophisticated gymnasiums had special areas for cold baths, warm baths, massage and dressing. Those buildings were usually round and built so that the roof narrowed toward the highest point leaving a bronze plate that could be opened and closed for ventilation.8

The Greeks also used steam therapy for mourners at funerals. Bathhouses were created from three tall sticks in the ground, meeting at the center like a teepee, around which a woolen blanket was wrapped. “The bather then entered and threw hemp seeds on the hot rocks, creating steam,” writes Virtanen. “The bather howled with fear, or was it joy?”9

Roman baths, writes medical doctor Sidney Licht in Therapeutic Heat and Cold, had many “special rooms, with water or air baths at different temperatures, and these were used in varying patterns of increasing and decreasing exposures to heat and cold.” People too weak for a full, heated bath were given a “partial” one. “Although the baths were used largely for cleansing and pleasure, physicians did prescribe the various forms of available heat for hygiene and in illness.”10 The very wealthy were given baths of heated milk or oil, while the poor people had to be content with plain water. So much water was used—for fountains as well as the bathhouses— that the aqueducts bringing it to Rome were spacious enough to accommodate a man on horseback.

As might be expected, body heating and bathing were commonly used by the ill, frail, and post-childbirth women for therapy, cleansing and rejuvenation. But the communal bathhouse was often a social center as well— indeed, the only social center—of the village or town. Early Roman bathhouses, impressive in their own right (they were large enough to contain 35 dwellings), evolved into a giant sculptured complex with shops, a library, gymnasium, theaters for poetry readings and music, and even a restaurant and sleeping quarters for overnight guests. In short, the baths gave birth to a community where every social and recreational need was met. Interestingly, prostitution and various other forms of sexual behavior were allowed in various Mediterranean bathhouses as long as nobody complained, and depending on whether someone permissive was in political power at the time. This is an unusual exception that contrasts with the strict separation between sex and sauna bathing that has existed—and continues to exist— in most cultures.

In ancient Greece and Rome, as with many other cultures, a ritual was made of massages and oil rubs after the sauna.


The Islamic hamman in Turkey was a faithful, though smaller, model of a Roman bathhouse, built from marble and bricks and containing lavish water fountains. First intended as a place of hygiene, the hamman became a meeting place as well after Muhammad himself told his followers that the heat would enhance fertility. As in Greece and Rome, massage and shaving were administered by attendants. Aaland writes that the benefits of the hammam were so valued, and it was recognized as such an important part of Moslem women’s lives—especially since they “had virtually no other
opportunity to socialize with anyone outside the home”—that the men begrudgingly allowed them their visits “after an illness or after they had given birth.” Before long, the women’s “privilege” became a “right.” “If a husband were to deny his wife her visits to the hammam, she had grounds for divorce.”11 (The political and social climate in the Middle East is of course different today than when Aaland wrote Sweat in 1978; but even if this partial softening of attitude no longer exists, it is still a good illustration of people’s regard for the bath.)

Central America

Some researchers believe that the sauna migrated up through Mayan culture along the entire western coast of Central America into North America. In the Guatemalan city of Piedras Negras alone, archaeologists found several ruined buildings that they recognized as saunas. One excavation site yielded the remnants of a sauna that was 1200 years old.


Native Mexicans made their temescal from wood and perhaps mortar, with thatch for the roofs. A man named Fray Diego de Duran, author of a 1567 book called New Spanish Indian History, is quoted by both Aaland and Virtanen. Virtanen writes:

The temescalli, a low building into which at most ten people will fit, is heated with a fire. One cannot sit and can hardly stand, and the door is very low so that only one person may pass at a time [Aaland adds, “creeping on all fours”]. In the rear is a stove which is so hot that it is difficult to bear. These are called dry baths. The bathers sweat only from heat and not from the effect of any medication. Indians, sick or well, bathe there regularly. To the outsider this looks horrible, for after they have sweated for a time they emerge from the sauna nude, wash, and then pour ten to twelve buckets of water over themselves without any fear of chilling or sickness. If a Spaniard tried this method of bathing, he would surely faint and be paralyzed.12

Aaland, who apparently used a different translation of Duran’s words, adds: “Although this [procedure] seems terribly brutal, it is my opinion this is not so. When the body becomes used to this, it becomes quite natural.”13 Whichever translation is correct, it is clear that the Mexicans relished their saunas.

North American Native Cultures

Among the many other cultures that have also enjoyed body heating are the North American Eskimos and Native Americans—mostly from the central plains, southwest and eastern wooded areas—who built sweat lodges. Their portable lodges generally consisted of curved branches in a dome or igloo shape covered with animal skins. Other lodges were stationary, built with logs, bark, and sod cement. For all sweat lodge ceremonies, carefully selected large stones were heated in a fire outside the lodge; and after the rocks became intensely hot, they were carefully placed into a hollow in the dirt floor in the middle of the lodge. For those following native traditions, the sweat lodge was a place of purification, not only of the physical body, but of the spiritual and emotional bodies as well. Outer cleanliness represented inner peace and mastery of one’s emotional and mental energies, and vice-versa.

Early Colonial America

The earliest non-native saunas in America were built before 1638 by Finnish and Swedish immigrants in the Delaware River Valley. In Alaska, which was widely colonized by Russians and Finns, saunas were built in the 1830s, either (it is speculated) by a wealthy Russian who had lived near the Finnish border, or a Finnish sea captain. The Alaskan Indians reported using Finnish saunas before 1867. “The last known sauna in Sitka, located at the foot of Castle Hill,” writes Virtanen, “was a modern type of Finnish sauna, rather than the more primitive smoke sauna; it included two rooms, the outer of which served as a dressing room.”14

In the 1880s and 90s, saunas were built in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states. “Americans who chanced to see the sauna in use were puzzled,” Aaland relates.

[The Americans were asking,] “What is this strange nocturnal

rite?” Farmers in Minnesota, neighbors to Finns, [were]

complaining to authorities that Finns were worshipping pagan gods in strange log temples—seen from time to time cavorting naked in the moonlight in what seemed to be ritualistic dances. A sauna went on trial in Wright County, Minnesota in 1880. An American homesteader . . . went to court in an attempt to rid the countryside of “that pagan temple.” . . . But it was proved to the judge’s satisfaction that the Finns were law abiding, American citizens of a staid Lutheran caliber when it was explained the sauna was a place for cleaning and not for worshipping pagan gods. The judge ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant thirty dollars for damages to his reputation plus forty dollars to have the sauna moved to a more isolated location.15

According to Aaland, some historians believe that Sauna was the first name of the city that became Philadelphia. Whether or not this is true, in the Philadelphia Navy Yard there is a plaque marking the site of the first sauna.


“Canadian use of the Finnish sauna dates principally back to the time of the logging camps in the rugged Canadian forests, although some kind of sweat baths existed in early times,” Virtanen states.

The story of the Canadian loggers defrosting themselves in their sauna parallels the story of the early use of the sauna in Finland. There, too, natural circumstances forced people to do exceptionally heavy physical work for their living. The physical stress and the cold environment created a need for the sauna, and the available timber supplied both the sauna buildings materials and the fuel.16


The Japanese have their own traditional hot room called a mushi-buro. Assembled from wood or clay, it is sometimes so small that one must crawl into it. A 19th century Japanese poet praises the benefits of mushiburo: “The power of this kiln bath equals hundreds of medicines.”17 To the Japanese, relaxation has been an important part of being healthy, the physically therapeutic effects of their heating chamber intertwined with emotional and spiritual aspects.


Saunas also have an honored heritage in Africa, where today, many of the original customs still survive. In Eastern Africa, Aaland reports, a tribal doctor will instruct his assistants to dig a hole, about the size of a grave. A fire is built in the hole and, after it has almost burned down, is smothered with large green leaves. The patient is then laid on poles over the hole until he is thoroughly smoked. Another Ugandan method is to shut the patient in a hut with a large fire until those outside decide to let him out.18


In some parts of the world, variations of dry body heating and bathing in pools of water evolved into steam baths. In Russia it was called the bania (or banya), a room of steam that was more humid than even the Turkish vapor bath. (In Moscow today, there are more than 50 banias that are so large, they can accommodate 70 people at a time.) The rooms were not as luxurious as their marble predecessors, but people wrote enthusiastically of the virtues of body heating. Like the Finns, the Russians used various sticks and branches to slap the body and bring circulation to the surface of the skin. Meanwhile, the Turkish bath was exported to America, Germany, Australia, and the British Isles.


In 1679, as chronicled by Virtanen, a stylish Turkish bathhouse was opened in London. The building had a domed roof embedded with round glass balls that allowed light to enter, marble on the walls, ten compartments containing benches, and pools of hot and cold running water. By the mid 1800s, there were several Turkish baths. Although some people insisted that the therapeutic baths were worthless, this may have been due to prudery rather than legitimate medical objections. There were plenty of supporters, Aaland writes:

Medical journals were full of glowing accounts for . . . the Turkish baths. Pamphlets were published, lectures held, and discussion groups assembled. General Sir George Whitlock said, “I was confined to my bed as a result of a kidney and liver infection, but after the third bath, I could ride my horse home at 3:00 in the morning all by myself.” Some doctors claimed the Turkish bath was a good treatment for mental illnesses. And Dr. Robertson from Essex said the bath was good for “constipation, bronchitis, asthma, fever, cholera, diabetes, edema, syphillus [sic], baldness, alcoholism, and not to mention the fact that the health of the average bather was improved.”19

Hydrotherapy in Austria

Hydrotherapy is used in conjunction with hot air heating so often, and is such a valued therapeutic modality in its own right, that it deserves a brief mention. Hydrotherapy treatments consist of baths, showers, moving or bubbling water in tubs, and compresses to promote healing and prevent disease. The water can be hot, warm, cool or cold, and different temperatures of water can be used in succession for different effects.

Water therapy has been used to lower fevers (one can be given a cold sponge bath on rubber sheets); relieve soreness, spasms and inflammation from muscles and joints (underwater exercise is used by physical therapists for people suffering from paralysis and muscle and joint problems); treat burns and frostbite (the person is immersed in water for long periods); ease labor pains (note the current interest in underwater births); and of course, help induce relaxation and eliminate stress. “The temperature of water used affects the therapeutic properties of the treatment,” according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine.

Hot water is chosen for its relaxing properties. It is also thought to stimulate the immune system. Tepid water can also be used for stress reduction, and may be particularly relaxing in hot weather. Cold water is selected to reduce inflammation. Alternating hot and cold water can stimulate the circulatory system and improve the immune system . . . .Adding herbs and essential oils to water can enhance its therapeutic value. Steam is frequently used as a carrier for essential oils that are inhaled to treat respiratory problems.20

In The Columbia Encyclopedia, a passage on hydrotherapy states that skin temperature water—approximately 93°F or 33.9°C—“prevents [the] loss of body heat.”21

The Roman physicians Galen and Celsus are reported to have used hydrotherapy in the first century AD for a variety of maladies, including joint pain, hysteria, convulsions, and kidney disease. However, the medical art of hydrotherapy as we know it today originated with Vincent Priessnitz, who was born in Austria in 1799. Priessnitz, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “is credited with a number of inventions still in use, including the sponge bath, the douche, and the wet sheet pack, and he is acknowledged as an important contributor to the rise of the health spa movement in Europe.”22

In Gräfenberg, Priessnitz built a large stone house to treat people with cold spring water in the form of baths, packs, and showers. By the end of 1839, the spa’s first year in operation, Priessnitz had seen more than 1500 guests. Of this number, 120 were European doctors who had come to study his therapeutic methods so that they could establish hydrotherapy centers in their own countries.

In 20 years, the Gräfenberg spa enjoyed such an extraordinary reputation, reports Priessnitz historian Dr. Miloš Kočka, that “the Emperor’s commission from Vienna declared Priessnitz’s hydrotherapy a ‘new remarkable discovery in the area of medicine.’” Hydrotherapy facilities were started at the Universities in Vienna and Munich by doctors Wilhelm Winternitz and Ed Schnitzlein. “The Prussian King enacted regulations regarding the approval for the establishment and managing of hydrotherapeutic institutes by doctors as well as by laymen under the supervision of doctors.” Moreover, Priessnitz “was so famous he received a letter from South America with an address of only: ‘Vinzenz Priessnitz—Europe.’”23 Monuments were built in many countries to honor this innovative healer, and by 1905, more than four hundred books had been published about Priessnitz and his hydrotherapy.

A number of people, including the British physician Sir John Floyer, are credited with helping to publicize the benefits of water treatments. However, the hydrotherapy movement was given an even more dramatic boost when Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp (born in 1821) was cured of tuberculosis through cold water applications based on Priessnitz’s methods. Kneipp wrote abundantly on the subject and opened a series of hydrotherapy centers known as the Kneipp clinics, which are still in operation today. The Spa that Priessnitz founded in Gräfenberg is still operating as well. Today, thousands of spas all over the world provide hydrotherapy as well as sauna bathing.

Worldwide Popularity in Recent Times

Sauna Treatments in Early Medical Science

By the 1800s, when the formalized medical profession gained a strong foothold across the globe, some early published reports of the benefits of hot air therapy became rather technical and scholarly in nature as opposed to anecdotal. According to Sidney Licht,

The first scientific clinical study in thermotherapy occurred in France before 1840. . . . Jules Guyot, a young Parisian surgeon, began in 1833 to meditate on the value of heat in wound healing. He selected some rabbits and dogs and went to his house in the country, where he set up an animal hospital and for three months devoted himself to experiments and observations on therapeutic heat. He constructed a hot air cabinet, very similar to one that Bier devised about a half-century later, heated with alcohol lamps in such a manner that he could maintain, at will, an environmental temperature anywhere between 30 and 70 degrees Celsius [86° and 158°Fahrenheit]. He found that when the temperature was maintained at about 30 degrees [86°F], the healing of wounds was more rapid. When Magendie saw the results, he insisted that the method be tried on his patients at the Hôtel Dieu. Guyot began with the treatment of ulcers, white tumor (tuberculosis) and sciatica. “Each new trial confirmed my belief that heat incubation was apowerful therapeuticagent. . . . ” Eventually hewasallowedto work on the kind of wound he felt could be helped most—the fresh wound following amputation.24

“As might have been expected,” Licht notes, “the new treatment with heated air was used by many in different countries with glowing reports.”

Hollaender found currents of hot air under pressure of value in lupus (1897); Cabitto found the warm air bath effective in relieving attacks of epilepsy (1897); and Schmeltz used thermal insufflations of the vagina in pelvic inflammations (1899). The most glowing reports were on joint disease. Sarjeant, using a temperature of 240°F [115.6°C] for 40 minutes, wrote of eight cases of arthritis and sprain in which the “pain is generally not only relieved but entirely removed.”25

Of historical interest is an article called “On Hydrophobia and Its ‘Treatment’: Especially by the Hot-air Bath, Commonly Termed the Bouisson Remedy,” which appeared in the June 9, 1888 edition of the British Medical Journal. “Hydrophobia” literally means “fear of water,” one of the symptoms of rabies and an early name for that disease. The article refers to the hot air sauna promoted by Etienne Frederic Bouisson (who was also known, in the 1850s, for conclusively identifying cancer of the mouth with pipe smoking, based on a statement made by a John Hill in 1761 that certain cancers were caused by smoking). It should be noted that the “hydrophobia” author categorically denounced the hot-air bath, writing that “All those patients who have been reported by respectable practitioners to have been suffering from genuine hydrophobia have died in spite of the Bouisson treatment.” Rabies is deadly; anyone suffering from the disease should not self-treat but see a doctor immediately. Nevertheless, the author’s objectivity is called into question when one also reads, “As might be supposed, its [the hot-air bath’s] adoption is principally urged by those who are, for obvious reasons, opposed to the progress of medical science, the paid antivivisectionist agitators.”26 It is clear that the medical community was very aware of the widespread use of saunas, even if there appeared to be political reasons for not condoning their use.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s Heat Therapy

All early saunas and baths were made from natural materials such as wood, stone, clay, skins, and cloth. The heat source of these saunas was fire, rocks that had been placed in the fire, and/or water that was heated by fire. With the advent of modern technology, saunas were heated by gas-burning stoves, and later electric light bulbs and electric heaters. Although modern saunas deviate from centuries of tradition, they have produced consistent health benefits.

Perhaps the most radical changes in sauna construction, the greatest number of changes, and the most profound healing as a result of those improvements, were launched by John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan in the late 1880s. Dr. Kellogg, a renowned and highly successful surgeon whose neat stitches became his trademark, performed over 22,000 operations in his lifetime until the age of 88. Most people today associate Kellogg solely with the name of the company that manufactures “empty calorie” junk food cereals, not realizing that the breakfast food Kellogg did in fact design was whole grain and sugarless, intended for sick people who needed a high-energy, nourishing morning meal. (What eventually became Kellogg’s corn flakes was soaked grain accidentally left in the oven overnight and flattened to a crisp. The public liked it so much that a multimillion dollar, multi-company breakfast cereal industry was consequently born in Battle Creek.) But Kellogg was essentially a holistic doctor. Realizing the importance of diet, exercise, fresh air and pure water in the prevention of disease, he established a serious healing center in the late 1800s called the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which people from all over the world visited to receive hydrotherapy and other holistic treatments.

Dr. Kellogg was a prolific scientist and inventor, always searching for ways to improve people’s health. Although he was already getting excellent results with hot and cold water baths and the steam cabinets he had built for the sanitarium guests, he wanted an even more efficient modality. So he began administering ozone in his steam cabinets. He was the first American to therapeutically utilize ozone in medical treatments, as reported in his book Diphtheria: Its Nature, Causes, Prevention, and Treatment. (A discussion of ozone combined with sauna therapy can be found in Appendix A.) Then in 1891, Kellogg started constructing horizontal cabinets large enough to hold the entire body.

The design of Kellogg’s upright cabinets was not totally original—such structures had already been produced and sold for some 30 years—but at least Kellogg’s saunas were not the renovated caulked barrels heated with small wood fires or hot bricks that others were using. They were far more sophisticated than the method offered in the Encyclopedia Britannica of that era: “heat a brick in the oven and place it in a metal basin; then pour water over it to produce steam. The bather, wrapped in a towel, should sit on a chair above the brick.” Kellogg’s cabinets were also far less cumbersome than the “elaborate steam bath, patented in 1814” that “included an impressive boiler to feed steam under a bed cover, and a four-posted canopy with curtains to form a roomy steam tent.” And Dr. Kellogg’s saunas were more advanced than the five-dollar mail-order so-called Quaker model, “a fabric cylinder enclosing a chair and spirit lamp. The bather sat for 15 minutes or so, sweating in the hot, dry air.”27

Instead, Kellogg’s cabinets were sturdy, roomy, and quite attractive. (A photo of one of his original saunas is on page 136.) However, as Kellogg himself emphasized, it was not the cabinet that did the work, it was what they contained: Thomas Edison’s new electric light bulbs. The story of how Kellogg came to invent his electric light bath is not well known. As chronicled in Physical Therapy in Nursing Care,

It was left to a nurse, who later was graduated as a physician from the University of Michigan in 1875, Dr. Kate Lindsay, to recognize the value of radiant heat. Doctor Lindsay suffered much from asthma, and in one of these attacks she improvised a means by which she could use an electric-light bulb in such a way that she might benefit from the heat which it gave off. She received such benefit from this simple experiment that the attending physician, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, at once conceived the idea of developing apparatus so that this form of heat could be applied with more effectiveness than by the improvised measure used by Doctor Lindsay. The present radiant-heat apparatus is the outgrowth of this observation of the benefit of heat radiated from an electric-light bulb.28

Once Kellogg was able to observe this simple but elegant cure, it was a natural next step to invent the electric light bath, which, writes Licht, “represented an effective substitute for sunlight.”

He began to work with the electric light because he believed that, since sunlight was so important to life and nutrition in plants and animals, it might be beneficial in certain illnesses. In 1891 he built a rectangular cabinet with 40 lamps of 20-candle power, and interior reflectors. . . . He used it on many patients in the Battle Creek Sanatorium [sic] . . . He had his patients sit

in the cabinet completely nude, with the head outside as in the vapor baths or sweat cabinets . . . 29 Kellogg’s new sauna was unique in its effects as well as the materials of which it was constructed. Although the body perspired profusely within a matter of a few minutes, the temperature of the air in the cabinet was not much higher than the temperature of the body itself. This was because many of the heat emissions from the light bulbs were in the far infrared radiation range. Far Infrared radiation (FIR), which is emitted by the sun, is the range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that warms solid bodies without significantly heating the air, and has distinct biological effects on living organisms. I will discuss the three ways in which heat is transmitted, as well as infrared and far infrared radiation, in Chapter 4. Dr. Kellogg’s new invention was introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. However, writes Kellogg biographer Richard Schwartz, the electric light bath “aroused little interest there. Even though the Battle Creek Sanitarium installed a number of them and patients used them regularly, little widespread public demand developed for the cabinet baths in the United States.” Fortunately, Dr. Wilhelm Winternitz—who was one of Dr. Kellogg’s teachers and had already established a hydrotherapy clinic in Europe—visited the Sanitarium, made careful drawings of the cabinets, was taught how to use them, and returned to Vienna where he formed a company for their manufacture and sale. “The Kellogischen Licht Bade soon became fashionable,” notes Schwartz, “and the cabinets were installed in the royal palaces of Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden. For years the electric light cabinet bath was popular in athletic clubs, where it frequently replaced the old Turkish steam baths.”30 Over 1000 sauna cabinets were manufactured and installed in three years, in more than 300 Light Institutes in major cities. Among those whose health was restored were many of Europe’s rich and famous: members of royalty, and “German medical men and financiers [who] soon recognized the value of the method,” as Kellogg reported in his 1910 book

Light Therapeutics: A Practical Manual of Phototherapy for the Student and the Practitioner. Once the Kellogischen Licht Bade became popular in Europe, more Americans traveled to Michigan to Kellogg’s health spa—

including, it is said, Thomas Edison himself—to avail themselves of this unique treatment.

It seems clear that sauna therapy was not merely a fad. Otherwise, it would not have attracted such huge numbers of people, and often prominent ones. “King Edward of England was cured of a distressing gout at Hamburg by means of a series of light baths,” wrote Kellogg. “He had the bath installed at Windsor and Buckingham palaces. Emperor William soon after followed his example, as did several other of the crowned heads and titled families of Europe.”31 Dr. Kellogg, eager to know how and why his invention was so effective in restoring health, conducted meticulous scientific tests on the effects of sauna therapy on various physiological functions in the body. In an 1894 meeting of the American Electrotherapeutic Association, he showed photographs of his electric light bath cabinets and read a detailed report on his experiments. His research will be described in more detail in Chapter 5.

The 20th Century After Kellogg

There are few places in the world where saunas are not found. “The beginning of the twentieth century saw a revival of the sauna,” Virtanen writes, “as Norwegians became aware that certain contagious diseases could be prevented by proper bathing habits.”32 Thanks in part to the efforts of the Norwegian Medical Association, by 1922 various health groups, including the Sauna League, had been established in Norway. By 1956, public saunas in Norway numbered 959. Meanwhile, an athletic exchange between Finland and Sweden in the summer of 1939 motivated the Swedes to adopt Finnish specifications (regarding the quality of the rocks used for heating) in their sauna buildings. Research shows that in the mid-1950s there were many saunas in Russia made of lumber. In Siberia, saunas constructed of clay were reported. Body heating was also used in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Virtanen mentions how even soldiers on the battlefield had their saunas. [During] the Winter War of 1939-1940...with the mercury dropping to 55-60 degrees [F] below zero [-48.3°C to -51.1°C]

and shortages of everything, [Finnish Field Marshal] Mannerheim never forgot his soldiers. He ordered the erection of saunas wherever soldiers quartered. They [saunas] were built in bunkers, dugouts, deserted buildings and sometimes even in tents. With the whistling sounds of shot, shell and shrapnel passing close overhead, the soldiers frequently prostrated themselves for protection, but never left for safety, as they thawed their frozen bodies in the 200 degree [F, or 93.3°C] heat of the sauna.33

Humans have not been the only ones to benefit from body heating. Virtanen remarks that the sauna is a current way of life in Canada not only for people but even for horses. At least one animal physical therapist has discovered that an extremely nervous horse calms down in a sauna. The therapist built a trailer and installed a heater in each of the side walls. Heavy planks were placed in front of the heaters to prevent the animal from touching the hot elements. At horse races, he uses the trailer sauna to calm down horses which are too nervous and would otherwise be eliminated from racing by the inspector. At first the horses are reluctant to enter the trailer sauna, but after one experience, they enter with eagerness.34

The above paragraph makes it clear that the horse sauna uses an electric heater (horses are deathly afraid of fire). Yet despite the favorable results with animals—or, for that matter, the medical success of Kellogg’s electric light bath—some people feel resistant to the idea of using electricity to heat saunas. In his day, Dr. Kellogg was considered radical for installing electric light bulbs in his sauna cabinets. And today, purists still regard electricity in any form as an anomaly. They feel that saunas should be heated solely by hot rocks, or at the very least, fire. Most of the sauna connoisseurs I interviewed for this book who told me this are of Finnish descent. Bernhard Hillila, a university professor and college dean whose parents are both from Finland, raises his voice in protest in The Sauna Is . . . :

With the American penchant for merchandising, there is . . . a danger that . . . the concept of sauna will be stretched badly out of shape to include sauna belts, sauna facial masks, sauna tubs, sauna cabinets, sauna tents, and steam rooms of all kinds! If the product involves heat, the ad man gets a sudden perspiration [pun intended] and says, “Let’s call it sauna!” . . . [But the] term “sauna” is properly applied only to baths in which the entire body receives dry heat and steam. It is to be hoped that

the rapid spread and increased popularity will not lead to a

changed, misdirected pattern.35

These strong sentiments are understandable, considering that the sauna was originally conceived not only as a place for physical healing, relaxation and socialization, but also spiritual communion and spiritual purification. The connection between physical and spiritual cleanliness has solid roots; fire and heat are seen as the means of purification for good reason. No wonder, then, that Navajo Indian Hoskie gave the following advice to a nonnative regarding the proper conduct in a Native American sweat lodge: “Behave as you would in your white man’s church.”36

However—and I speak with great respect for traditional native ways— if our more modern methods heal, they are valid too. Why not call these newer methods “sauna therapy”? The premise is the same. Throughout human history, our therapies have changed as we have changed and evolved. Surely the modern, individual sauna cabinet must have its place, along with its electrical components. Perhaps it is our attitudes that need to be consistently realigned toward the sacred—for once this occurs, the materials of which a sauna is constructed may not matter as much.

Despite the changes that modern technology has brought to traditional practices—or perhaps because of them—body heating is becoming increasingly popular into this 21st century. According to a 1988 estimate reported by P. Valtakari in the Annals of Clinical Research (the entire issue was devoted to the sauna), in that year, the number of private saunas in Germany reached 400,000 (public saunas numbered 7000). This figure was an increase from 12,000 in 1970, according to other sources. By 1997, the number climbed to one million. Not only are saunas standard equipment in gyms, health spas, and hotels, but sauna therapy is regularly used at hospitals and university clinics. “Sauna bathing developed into a regular form of treatment complementing physical therapeutic measures as well as . . . the after-care of cardiac disorders and circulatory maladies,” writes Valtakari. “Finns look askance at ‘sauna bathing by prescription,’ but in [what was then] East Germany physicians prescribe sauna baths, the expenses of which are at first wholly covered by health insurance.”37 In other parts of Europe—Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Italy—sauna use keeps growing. In Russia, the related banya or steam bath is as popular as ever.

As might be expected, the number of saunas is the highest in Finland. According to statistics cited by Hillila in his 1988 book, a staggering 80% of all rural families are estimated to have their own saunas. An editorial from about the same time in the Annals of Clinical Research provides a total number of 1.4 million saunas for Finland, or about one sauna for every three or four people. (However, the distribution is uneven, as some families own two or even three saunas—one for each of their homes—and this figure also includes the saunas in health clubs, hotels, apartment buildings, hospitals, and factories.) No wonder Hillila writes, “Finland is the only nation in the world with more saunas than cars.”38 The author presents an amusing anecdote of how much sauna is a part of the Finnish culture.

Possibly the sauna strategy has also aided the government of Finland in its basic deliberations. It has been the custom of the Finnish cabinet to gather at 4 PM on Wednesday at Kesäranta, the official residence of the Prime Minister. The first item on the agenda is the sauna. After an hour and a half of steam cleaning, the cabinet members move on to formal deliberations. The parboiled officials are perhaps a little less brittle after the bath. Even inflation doesn’t seem as ominous after one has endured 200° of heat.39

The Finns are so serious about their saunas, that their Olympic team carries a sauna with them whenever they travel. One of the first documented cases occurred in 1924, when the Finns had a sauna built for them during the Paris games. In August of 2001, my search of “sauna” in Medline’s database yielded a surprising 404 entries, including an article on the secret of a good löyly! Clearly, the sauna revolution is here. In his article “Healthy and Unhealthy Sauna Bathing,” Ilkka Vuori writes:

As Finns we regard the sauna as essential to the survival of our nation through centuries of hardships caused by two powerful factors, an unfriendly environment and unfriendly fellowmen. For us sauna means health in the sense of good hygiene, relief of aches and pains, companionship, leisureliness, detachment from the everyday worries, physical and mental relaxation, good sleep, and thus general wellbeing.40

For some people, sauna bathing is a relaxing pastime. For others, ritual sweating means communing with the divine. For still others, having the regular use of a sauna is a life-saving necessity. Regardless of your reasons for using the sauna, it will be helpful to understand the mechanics of perspiring and why we sweat. That is the topic of the next chapter.


  1. John O. Virtanen, The Finnish Sauna: Peace of Mind, Body and Soul (Withee, Wisc.: O-W Enterprise, 1998), 2-3.
  2. Finnish Sauna Society, “Development of the Finnish Sauna,” http://www (accessed March 3, 2003).
  3. J. Peräsalo, “Traditional Use of the Sauna for Hygiene and Health in Finland,” Annals of Clinical Research 20: 220.
  4. Mikkel Aaland, Sweat (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1978), 15.

  5. Egyptian Orthopedic Assocation, The Edwin Smith Papyrus, http://www.eoa (accessed October 3, 2002).

  6. Ibid.

  7. Virtanen, op. cit., 53.

  8. Ibid., 54.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Sidney Licht, “History of Therapeutic Heat,” in Therapeutic Heat and Cold, ed. Sidney Licht with Herman L. Kamenetz (New Haven: Elizabeth Licht, Publisher, 1972), 203.
  11. Aaland, op. cit., 42.

  12. Virtanen, op. cit., 59.

  13. Aaland, op. cit., 178.

  14. Virtanen, op. cit., 90.

  15. Aaland, op. cit., 100.

  16. Virtanen, op. cit., 179.

  17. Aaland, op. cit., 137.

  18. Ibid., 135.

  19. Ibid., 50.

  20. Paula Ford-Martin, “Hydrotherapy,” in Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, article.jhtml (accessed November 21, 2002).
  21. “Hydrotherapy,” in The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001, http://www (accessed November 21, 2002).
  22. Ibid.

  1. Kočka, Miloš. “Vinzenz Priessnitz, Founder of Modern Hydrotherapy” on <> (November 21, 2002).
  2. Licht, op. cit., 208.

  3. Ibid., 211.

  4. Victor Horsley, “On Hydrophobia and Its ‘Treatment’: Especially by the Hot-air Bath, Commonly Termed the Bouisson Remedy,” British Medical Journal (June 9, 1888), 1207.
  5. Aaland, op. cit., 56.

  6. George Knapp Abbott et al., Physical Therapy in Nursing Care (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1941), 22-23.

  7. Licht, op. cit., 213.

  8. Richard W. Schwartz, John Harvey Kellogg, M.D.: Father of the Health Food Industry (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1970), 125.

  9. John Harvey Kellogg, Light Therapeutics: A Practical Manual of Phototherapy for the Student and the Practitioner, rev. ed. (Battle Creek, Mich.: The Good Health Publishing Co., 1910), 3-4.

  10. Virtanen, op. cit., 72.

  11. Ibid., 125.

  12. Ibid., 179.

  13. Bernhard Hillila, The Sauna Is . . . (Iowa City: Penfield Press, 1988), 17.

  14. Aaland, op. cit., 149.

  15. P. Valtakari, “The Sauna and Bathing in Different Countries” Annals of Clinical Research 20: 232.
  16. Hillila, op. cit., 18.

  17. Ibid., 37-38.

  18. Ilkka Vuori, “Healthy and Unhealthy Sauna Bathing,” Annals of Clinical Research 20: 217.


This book offers patients and practitioners life-saving information not available anywhere else in print or on the internet. If you would like to learn more about the book before ordering it, feel free to browse these excerpts, which are available online, free of charge:

Table of Contents and Index  History of Sauna Therapy  Sauna and Alkalization

Sauna and Weight Loss  Sauna and Fever  Sauna and Pesticides, Heavy Metals

Sauna Building Materials  Sauna Clinic and Spa Locations



The Holistic Handbook of Sauna Therapy
By Nenah Sylver, Ph.D.
Paperback Book, 335 Pages, $34.95

Order By Phone: Order Online:
(530) 541-7200




BioMed Publishing Group

P.O. Box 9012

South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150

Contact Us

(801) 925-2411

Disclaimer: The products offered on this web site are intended for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure disease.  The statements on this web site have not been evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. If you have a medical problem see a licensed physician. 

Copyright 2007 BioMed   |   Advertise with us