Author Nenah Sylver, Ph.D.
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Holistic Handbook of Sauna Therapy
By Nenah Sylver, Ph.D.
335 Pages, $34.95
Construction of the Sauna
Ah, to build, to build!
That is the noblest art of all the arts.
HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW,
U.S. POET (1807–1882)
n the last chapter, I discussed the three ways in which heat is transmitted. As a general rule, people have different responses to conduction, convection, and radiation heat—and to the media that convey them. Preference for a particular heat source will depend on the thickness of skin, the amount of water and fat in the body, constitution, diet, the climate in which the sauna is being used, the amounts and types of toxins in the person’s body, the state of wellness and illness, and so on. As we shall see, there are many factors to consider—heater design, construction materials, and more—in answer to the question, “What type of sauna should I use?”
Different Heat Sources for Different Saunas
There are several natural heat sources possible for a sauna: sun, heated sand, fire (totally or partially enclosed, or in a completely open area), and stones that have been
previously heated before being brought inside the chamber. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages. Electricity, a heat source that is not naturally-occurring, will be discussed throughout this chapter and in much greater detail later in its own section, “Challenges of Radiant Electric Heat.”
The sun, as the sustainer of all life on this planet, was the original radiant heat sauna. It is hard to imagine a better natural source. For
back-tonature purists, sunbathing (often nude) is the simplest form of hot air therapy, although indoor hot air solariums were built by many cultures from the ancient Greeks to early 20th
century Germans in the blossoming Natural Hygiene movement. Unfortunately, holes in the ozone layer caused by pollutants and hydrocarbon exhaust from autos and planes have allowed a more than usual amount of destructive ultraviolet wavelengths to reach us, so this has made sunbathing a less pleasant and safe experience in the past 50 years. Also, the success of sunbathing depends on the angle and intensity of the sun’s rays. The earth is slightly tilted on its axis, and earth’s orbit follows a slight ellipsis (elongated circle). Consequently, the angles of the sun’s rays change as the seasons change, especially as one travels farther away from the equator. In semi-tropical and tropical climates, sunning must be limited for safety. The best way to utilize sunlight in these regions may be to build enclosures of special glass that blocks out all or most of the harsh wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum but allows the desired wavelengths to shine through.
One might assume that an hour in the sun would produce a similar effect as being inside a sauna. In fact, under optimal circumstances, the sun is the ideal healer—as it is meant to be; after all, humans evolved under sunlight. For some people, sunbathing works even better than a sauna, because in addition to life-promoting far infrared wavelengths, the sun contains the heavily germicidal ultraviolet wavelengths. However, Kellogg and other scientists recognized that a narrow, focused band of infrared radiation in the FIR range—minus all the other wavelengths, especially one of the three UV bands which is harmful to the skin and not particularly germicidal—could generate certain responses in the body that full-spectrum sunlight might not achieve, especially if people wished to heat their bodies for extended periods of time. Many ill people do not have the stamina or biological efficiency to extract and amplify the benefits of specific wavelengths. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that isolating and extracting the desired wavelength, to help conserve the resources of an already weakened system, may be much more helpful than the sun’s complete range of electromagnetic rays. Currently, the easiest way to accomplish this narrow-spectrum approach is by using electricity.
Hardly anyone thinks of a sauna in relation to immersion in sand, but in some parts of the world this method is still popular. The bather is surrounded by sun-heated sand and left for a period of time. Once warmed, the silica (the chief ingredient of sand) holds the heat for hours. Some cultures that used solariums also placed sand onto the floor to heighten the effects of the sun. Again, such a heating arrangement would only work in those parts of the world where the sun is hot and one can rely on the presence of certain wavelengths year-round. Sand bathing uses a combination of radiant and conductive heat. It’s important to remember that any time conduction is used as a prime heating method, the assimilation of heat into the body tissues slows down.
A modern version of the sand bath uses the FIR-emitting “tenko-seki” stone discovered in a mine on Kyushu Island, Japan. (The benefits of this rock were discussed in more detail in the previous chapter.) Granite and tourmaline emit almost as much FIR as does
tenko-seki. Theoretically, any FIR-emitting mineral, if there was enough of it, could be used as a “bath” with good results.
Heating a sauna with fire is the most popular method around the world, except in highly industrialized urban areas whose method of choice is electricity. There is something friendly and even magical about a fire: one is treated to a light show as the fuel burns and the perspiration starts to drip. There are several types of fire-fueled saunas, due to the different kinds of fuel and the varied methods of containing the fire.
To many rural people, the only real sauna is one that uses a wood-burning fire. This is understandable, as fire has been the main heating method for saunas throughout humankind’s history. Wood is usually readily available and works well—although it does have to be replaced, and if the fire is not maintained constantly it will flicker out. Fire has a romantic and earthy appeal, although some people do not like to be around open fire, since it can pollute, and the smoke can contain irritants and allergens. (There are conflicting studies as to whether particles from wood fires are carcinogenic.) Coal, although used occasionally in some parts of the world, is generally not even regarded as a sauna fuel, since it is highly toxic when burned and can be quite dangerous to people with sensitive lungs.
Fire can be contained in a clay oven or metal stove, or burn in a partially or completely open pit in the room itself. Fire that is enclosed in a clay oven or metal stove gives off mostly radiant heat. If the fire is in a partially or completely open pit, a fair number of convective air currents may be produced. But regardless of whether the fire is in an open or enclosed space, the pleasantness and safety of the sauna experience is still determined by how efficiently the fire burns, and even the type of wood used.
People familiar with Native American sweat lodges know that properly treated stones can be a wonderful heat source. Some sweat lodges are heated by wood-burning fires, but most use large igneous rocks, which hold warmth for a long time. First the rocks are heated outdoors to immensely high temperatures in a wood fire. The rocks are then placed into a pit at the center of an enclosed lodge. The lodge is a low, dome-shaped structure made of long curved branches covered with animal skins, blankets or canvas. The heat is primarily radiant, although, since heat rises, the larger the area the more convective air currents are produced. In Sweat, Mikkel Aaland describes in great detail how to test the stones to make sure they are suitable for a sauna. The stones must be the right size, packed neither too loosely nor too tightly, and they must not explode or crumble into powder when heated. Although Aaland is discussing the smaller rocks used in a Finnish-style sauna onto which water is poured to make steam, it is reasonable to assume that the selection of very large rocks for a sweat lodge must be made with equal care.
Strictly speaking, a Native American sweat lodge is not a sauna but a revered holy ritual used by numerous native tribes for centuries. Although sweat lodges provide the physical benefits of a sauna, the purification is also intended to occur on emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. In most sweat lodges, depending on the tradition, various herbs for purification (such as
chapparel) as well as water are tossed onto the rocks. When herbs vaporize on hot rocks, this creates lots of smoke, which can make it difficult to breathe and offset the benefits of the volatile oils released from the herbs. (I will discuss the effects of steam shortly.) The air can be so thick, Aaland reports, that some natives used to bring homemade respirators with them into their lodges so they could withstand the huge amounts of hot smoke and steam. People with sensitive lungs might not want to visit a sweat lodge unless they know beforehand how much water and herbs will be poured onto the stones. The quality of the air can vary greatly, depending on who is facilitating the sweat ceremony. My first sweat lodge experience was delightful; but the second time, I had to leave because I couldn’t breathe through the dense smoke and scorching steam. The medicine man in charge of the fire felt that in order for it to be a “real” sweat, the fire should be as hot as possible and elicit the strongest possible physical and emotional responses, even if one responded negatively.
Building a sweat lodge is time consuming and you need the space for it. Unless you live in the country with a constant temperate climate, have access to the building materials, can leave the lodge standing all year round once you have built it, and are willing to spend about five hours preparing the fire and the rocks each time you want to sweat, don’t consider this a substitute for a daily or even weekly sauna. However, if you have the opportunity to attend a traditional native sweat lodge as a special event, it can be a powerfully spiritual, positive transformative experience—provided the medicine man (or woman) doesn’t exceed your limits of heat and smoke.
Effects of Moisture in the Air
When I discuss “sauna” in these pages about moisture, I am referring solely to sauna rooms or chambers, since in
a cabinet the head is exposed to fresh air.
The Production of Negative Ions
For many body heating aficionados, a sauna is not a real sauna without water. In fact, one sauna manufacturer told me, in Europe, a sauna is defined according to three criteria: it must be a wood-lined room; the heat source (which can be either electrical or a fire) must reach a minimal temperature of 140°F (60°C); and the unit must be outfitted with hot rocks upon which water can be thrown, in order to get a good löyly. It is illegal to call anything else a sauna.
For both the Finns and Native Americans, throwing water onto hot rocks to create a light vapor is an important ceremony. However, the presence of water vapor in either an electric-heated or fire-heated rock sauna goes beyond aesthetic appeal or even the quality of heat. Very light steam can make the difference between a feeling of well-being or the onset of illness. Western science has finally confirmed what native cultures have intuitively known for centuries: that the moving water is healing because it produces beneficial negative ions.
An ion is an atom or molecule with either a positive or a negative charge. Normally, the number of protons (which have a positive charge) and electrons (which have a negative charge) are equal. However, if an electron gets bumped off an atom, the atom assumes a positive charge. If a lone electron whirling around finds an atom and latches on to it, the atom then becomes negatively charged. An excess of positively charged ions is caused by electrical machinery, smog, and non-natural environments such as automobiles and building interiors that contain synthetic materials. Positively charged ions in the air make people feel fatigued and restless, partly because they attract carbon dioxide that displaces valuable ozygen when we breathe. The immune response can begin to falter, opening the door not only to insomnia, migraines and respiratory illnesses, but also to arthritis, allergies and other autoimmune conditions.
Negative ions are created by plants during photosynthesis, by fire, and by moving water—particularly if it falls through the air in a waterfall, ocean spray or shower, or is vaporized into steam when poured onto the hot rocks of a sauna. Large numbers of negatively charged ions in a room or in the environment energize, rejuvenate, and make people feel secure and calm. Research shows that these subjective good feelings are due in part to the relaxing alpha brain wave patterns that are induced. The healing effect of negative ions is so important that NASA provides a negative ion generator for astronauts after space flights. And many hospitals in Europe routinely place the units in sick people’s rooms, where the negative ions enhance the healing from burns and even help people recover from some forms of cancer.
Aaland describes how the Finns—regarded as the world experts on saunas—responded to the introduction of electric heaters in saunas and the positive ions they produced.
The effect of negative ions on sweat bathing was discovered when researchers were trying to account for the tremendous popularity of sauna wood burning stoves over electric stoves. Subjective reasons, such as the fragrance of burned wood, did not fully explain why Finns felt so refreshed after time in a wood heated sauna and quite dulled from certain electrically heated saunas. Tests showed that the practice of splashing water on super-heated rocks produced an abundance of negative ions. Many electric stoves, it turned out, were not getting the rocks hot enough and the glowing metal heating coils were spurting more positive ions in the air. Researchers learned that if the rocks were properly heated in electric stoves, the positive ions, being larger and less mobile [than negative ions], would ground out on the hot stones. The buying habits of the Finns, perhaps the most sophisticated of sweat bathers, has forced many Finnish electric stove companies to pay particular attention to their sauna stove design . . . it is likely [that] similar negative ion production occurs in any sweat bath that converts water to vapor quickly. The Native American Indian sweat lodge comes to mind.1
Most sauna designers and installers tell me that the best electric stoves allow the rocks to be placed directly among the electric heating coils instead of on top of a grill or in a tray. This requires an exceptionally well-made, insulated, safe stove—but the benefits seem to be worth the extra effort and price.
Moisture as a Lubricant
There is another, more obvious reason for wanting some water vapor in a sauna. Moisture lubricates the mucous membranes that line the respiratory passageway, helping them filter out dust and dirt from the air before it reaches the lungs. This gives the body some protection from pathogenic microbes. Moisture can also help to loosen and expel phlegm from the lungs and sinus cavities, which is why many people favor a steam bath when they have a cold or more severe respiratory infection. Finally, the proper amount of moisture in the air also allows the lungs to easily exchange carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen. Air that is too dry makes it difficult to breathe freely. If there is not enough moisture in the air, the mucous membranes dry out, and in extreme cases may even burn. (People from humid climates who visit dry desert regions sometimes need to spray salt water into the nose to prevent the formation of crusts and sores—at least until their bodies acclimate to the dryness.)
However, at the other extreme, clammy wet heat is usually not bearable either. It can be hard to breathe in air that is too humid. Excess humidity also holds heat—in the body and in air—in warm climates. This is because air that is already saturated with moisture does not absorb very much perspiration from the skin, so there is less evaporation. The perspiration then remains on the body, trapping dirt and heat in the pores of the skin. On the humid eastern coast of the United States, temperatures in even the mid-70s Fahrenheit (mid-20s Celsius)—which by itself is not uncomfortably hot— induce the majority of folks to turn on their air conditioners. In contrast, in desert climates, even when the temperature climbs into the 90s or 100s Fahrenheit (from around 32° to the low 40s Celsius), people may not feel a need for air conditioning if the air is dry. Dry air quickly absorbs perspiration, and the subjective cooling effect is immediate. The mechanics of hot, wet air—and the body’s corresponding inability to cleanse and cool it-self—explain why people living in warm humid climates may exude more unpleasant body odor, need more frequent showers, and even feel more clammy and cantankerous, than those in drier climates. Once when I was in Arizona, the temperature climbed to 110°F (43.3°C). Yet I was comfortable, and wore the same outfit for three consecutive days because even on the third day the garment was still as fresh as if it had just been pulled off a clothesline. This is very different from my experience on the Eastern United States seaboard: I find that a mere 70°F (21.1°C) is unpleasant if the air is humid. Clothing sticks to the skin and may need laundering after one day.
The science of water evaporation explains why the balance between beneficial amounts of water vapor and undesirable quantities of steam must be carefully negotiated in a sauna. John O.
Virtanen, the Finnish-born author of The Finnish Sauna, writes:
[W]e can employ a fairly accurate rule-of-thumb: if the kiuas [stove] is up to proper heat but the humidity is insufficient, there is generally an unpleasant “dry” smell in the room; if, on the other hand, a “steamy” smell is present, the humidity has risen above the accepted level and the kiuas may be underheated or undersized. Even in small saunas, the heater’s löyly capacity should be such that it can convert at least one quart of water into löyly in 15 minutes with no resultant unpleasant odors when the water is thrown over the rocks at 3-minute intervals.2
The Electric Light Bath Compared to Russian and Turkish Steam Baths
The slow or even total lack of sweat evaporation in humid climates helps explain Dr. Kellogg’s discovery in 1894 that steamy Turkish or Russian baths and even hot water baths were not as effective as his dry electric light baths for inducing perspiration. In fact, the amount of perspiration produced in the electric light bath compared to the Turkish and Russian baths was almost double. Thick, continuous water vapor is steam—making the device no longer a sauna but a steam bath—but the comparison here is useful, since some people mistakenly call a steam bath a sauna. In such an environment what is sometimes perceived as perspiration is simply the water from the steam that remains on the skin. Both Turkish and Russian baths use liberal amounts of steam and heat primarily through convection (as well as radiation), which is the least efficient way of inducing a sweat. Kellogg’s light bath heated primarily through radiation (significantly, the bulbs emitted quite a bit of heat in the far infrared range), and only secondarily (and very slightly) did the cabinet heat by means of convected air currents. Unfortunately, no tests were done with saunas that use wood burning fires. However, Kellogg’s research is still very useful to us because each sauna that he tested used primarily one, and at the most two, methods of heat transfer.
The ways in which Kellogg determined which saunas induced the most perspiration were very elaborate, not only for his time but also by today’s standards. “My earliest experiments in the use of the electric-light bath showed me that it was capable of producing very characteristic effects,” he wrote. “This led me to undertake a series of physiologic experiments for the purpose of placing its therapeutic use upon a rational basis, and for the purpose of comparing the effects of the electric light, Turkish, and Russian baths.” Three healthy young men stayed in each type of sauna for five, 10, 20, and 30 minutes, on different days, with diet and other conditions “being made as nearly alike as possible.” Kellogg tested for carbon dioxide elimination, urinary secretion, perspiration, surface and internal temperature, numbers of both red and white blood cells, and levels of hemoglobin in the red blood cells. To determine carbon dioxide elimination, he designed a special, delicate air meter to measure “all the air expired during the ten minutes before the experiment, collecting an average sample of the air for analysis. During the bath the air was collected for the same length of time . . . .the results obtained were corrected for barometric pressure and vapor tension so that the figures . . . [were] properly comparable.”3
At the end of the experiment, Dr. Kellogg found a significantly higher amount of various bodily secretions in the urine when the men took Russian and Turkish saunas than when they took electric-light baths. Kellogg summarized the results:
The diminished amount of urea, total chlorides, and total solids present in the urine during the twenty-four hours in which the subject was subjected to the electric light bath, was evidently the result of increased elimination by the skin, showing that the electric light bath is much more powerful than either the Turkish or the Russian bath as a means of stimulating vicarious eliminative work upon the part of the skin.
The amount of perspiration induced by the incandescent electric light bath was fully double than that induced by the Turkish bath in the same length of time.
The amount of perspiration induced by the Russian bath was less than that induced by the electric light and the Turkish bath.4
Other researchers have also confirmed the effect of too much moisture in the air—though again, what is “too much” depends on the individual. Kellogg’s teacher Dr. Wilhelm
Winternitz, who popularized the electric light bath in Europe and thus boosted its prominence in the United States, is quoted by Kellogg as having said:
Another advantage of the electric light bath is that it does not interfere with heat elimination. It in fact encourages heat elimination by encouraging free perspiration. Many other forms of hot applications, particularly hot-water baths and sweating packs, cause retention of bodily heat [due to the lack of evaporation of sweat from the skin]. In the electric light bath, the heat elimination and the excretion of effete matters which accompany vigorous perspiration proceed with increased activity at the same time the rays of radiant heat are penetrating the tissues, elevating the temperature of the blood, and quickening all the vital processes....Ordinarily a much higher temperature is necessary before symptoms of sweating occur in the vapor bath.5
The comment about the air temperature inside the sauna is important. The electric light bath read 81°F (27.2°C), the Turkish bath, 128.5°F (53.6°C), and the Russian bath, 101.8°F (38.8°C). The body temperature of the subjects (all taken when they had been in the sauna for the same period of time) was also different. The average temperature of the subjects who had been in the electric light bath was 99.6°F (37.6°C); and the temperatures of those in the Turkish bath averaged 98.7°F (37.1°C). No readings were taken for the Russian bath, but due to its similarity to the Turkish one might assume similar numbers.
The amount of time required for the subjects to begin sweating was less in the electric light bath. In Kellogg’s cabinet, the subjects took an average of 3 minutes 32 seconds, compared to 5 minutes 35 seconds in the Turkish bath, and 6 minutes 45 seconds in the Russian bath.
Thus the large quantity of steam in Russian or Turkish baths can make it difficult to breathe easily or sweat copiously. Dr. Kellogg preferred radiant heat not because he made cabinets that used that principle; he made sauna cabinets employing radiant heat because they worked. Compared to conduction and convection (whether via hot water, hot air, or hot metal), radiant heat is a much more efficient way to heat the body. “The electric light bath,” he concluded, “is incomparably superior to every other means yet devised for raising the temperature of the skin or of the body in general.”6
Heat Penetration: Its Depth and Effects
In addition to the other benefits of radiant heat, Kellogg found that the “thermic heat rays” (as he called them) “have wonderful penetrating power and reach the deep-lying tissues fully two inches below the surface”— so that “even the brain, the spinal cord, the liver, the lungs, the heart, the lymphatic glands, the thyroid gland and other of the most important structures of the body” are “under the influence of thermic stimulation.”7
The doctor then compared radiant heat with conductive heat and convective heat, both dry and moist. He wrote:
Convection heat has no power of penetration. It heats only the surface with which it comes in contact, although, of course, a solid body placed in a heated atmosphere gradually acquires the temperature of the medium with which it is surrounded through conduction of heat from the surface to deeper parts. . . . It is important to note the radical difference in therapeutic power between thermic applications in the form of radiant energy and those procedures in which heat is applied by means of media, whether solid, liquid or gaseous. When heated objects such as the hot-water bag . . . are brought in contact with the skin, the superficial layers of the skin are heated, and then little by little the temperature of the deeper layers is gradually raised by conduction. The process is very slow, however, and as various investigators have shown . . . the deeper tissues are cooled off as rapidly as [they are] heated, the heat being conveyed away by the blood and lymph. A moist hot application . . . is a more effective heating procedure than a dry hot application, for the reason that the skin is saturated with water and thus becomes a better conductor; but the difference in effect is not great. . . . A dry hot application, by inducing perspiration, after a time moistens the skin so that practically the effect of a moist application is obtained.8
The application of heated air or vapor to the surface of the body likewise produces its effects by heating the surface only, heat being slowly conducted to the underlying layers of tissue, and thus gradually raising the body temperature; but no marked effect is produced upon the deep-lying structures— nerve trunks, viscera, etc.—unless the procedure is continued for a sufficient length of time to raise the temperature of the blood. [At this point, the air must be extremely hot in order to produce a deep heating of the body.]9
In the case of the electric-light bath, whether administered by means of the incandescent light or the arc light, the effect is very different indeed. When the light rays fall upon the skin, they penetrate the deeper structures to the extent of two inches or more. This effect is instantaneous, so that the thermic stimulation of the deeper structure begins with application and continues in full play to the end of the procedure . . . .10
Kellogg then analyzed why radiant heat penetrates so thoroughly.
The highest degree of thermic stimulation through radiant heat may be produced upon the deeper structures of the body irrespective of the temperature of the skin surface or of the air surrounding the body. Prolonged applications to the skin are depressing through the reflex effects which they evoke, whereas thermic applications to the deeper lying structures are highly stimulating . . . a hot application to the cutaneous [skin] surface through reflex action lessens heat production, whereas heating of the muscular structures increases heat production by stimulation of the thermogenic tissues.11
Above, Dr. Kellogg was commenting on the tendency of the body to
shut down its sweating apparatus with the continual application of heat.
This point helps us understand why hot tubs and hot baths—taken alone,
without alternate timed applications of cold—although relaxing, are gen
erally not as healing as a sauna. What if Kellogg had compared his own device to a relatively dry sau
na heated by either a wood-burning stove, open fire or hot rocks? All saunas emit radiant heat (remember, anything that has a temperature radiates heat). But some saunas also emit a fair amount of heat via convection, depending on the size and shape of the room and ventilation—and especially if heated by an open fire. This decreases the benefits that can be obtained only from radiant heat. And although fire radiates, it also creates convection currents (updrafts) as hot air rises. If the fire is totally enclosed in a stove or oven, there is much less chance of updrafts, but now the room can become too hot to withstand for long periods, as some of the heat lies outside the beneficial FIR band.
Challenges of Radiant Electric Heat
The use of electricity as a heating source is a very recent phenomenon in the history of body heating. This section, then, is devoted to the special problems and challenges of electric heaters.
Compared to fire, light bulbs are obviously easier to manage and maintain, and they cannot become as hot. However, this does not mean that Kellogg’s electric light bath would be the best sauna today. At the Battle Creek Sanitarium, clients were warned not to go too near the bulbs in the light cabinet, since the bulbs (there were 32 of them) eventually did get too hot to touch. A friend of mine, who had worked at Battle Creek Equipment Company decades ago developing exercise equipment (including steam cabinets), regularly took saunas in Dr. Kellogg’s original electric light baths. “I really enjoyed it,” he reminisced, “but I didn’t like those bulbs that stuck out all over the place. It was too easy to get burned.” (He was thus inspired to later invent a FIR sauna cabinet of his own.) Today at the Battle Creek Lifestyle Health Center, a descendent of Kellogg’s spa, old working models of the electric light bath are in perfect condition and still used. But they have not been altered in any way; the light bulbs are not covered with screens or mesh to prevent burns.
An upgrade, then, of the electric light bath, would be an electric heater enclosed in a protective covering. Most modern radiant heaters for saunas consist of metal coils or quartz heated by electrical power, or (this is less common) gas powered heaters that are ignited either electrically or by a match. Depending on the size of the room and the air flow, there will be considerable amounts of convective heat transfer as well as radiant heat— though rocks dispersed among the heating coils would bring much more radiant heat into the room.
Creating Evenly Distributed Heat
Whatever type of electric heater your sauna uses, you should be able to regulate the temperature of the heater, so the chamber doesn’t become too cool or too hot. The size of the heater must be appropriate for the space. If one small unit is supplying heat for a large area, the heater will be forced to operate at higher temperatures. This means that the closer you are to the heater, the hotter you become and the easier it is to get burned (just as you would with a fire).
Within the last decade or so, sauna manufacturers have begun using specially designed infrared heaters that utilize very narrow portions of the far infrared band. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, the wavelengths of FIR have a broad temperature range from –459.67°F (absolute zero) to 470°F (or –273.15°C to 243.3°C), which span from 1000 to 5.6 microns in length. (The hottest wavelengths are the shortest.) The optimal portion of the far infrared radiation spectrum for sauna purposes is just under 9 to a bit over 9 microns, since the normal body temperature of human beings is 98.6°F (37°C), which corresponds to about 9.35 microns. The resonant absorption rate of a water molecule is also about 9.35 microns. Nine microns radiate heat of about 120°F (48.9 °C).
If your sauna’s electric heater is in the far infrared range, the potential of being burned is not as great as with an ordinary electric heater—especially if there is more than one heat source in the sauna cabinet or room. This is often the case with FIR saunas. Some manufacturers put several heaters into a sauna, with the heaters occasionally covering an entire wall or even all four walls. This design provides more even heat at even lower temperatures, not only eliminating “cool spots” but lessening the possibility of becoming burned from a concentrated high temperature in any given area. No FIR heaters are built that can accommodate a löyly (see below), since temperatures well over 98.6°F (37°C) and even 120°F (48.9 °C) are necessary to make the rocks hot enough to create steam. If you don’t mind not having a löyly, a sauna containing more than one FIR heater is probably the best choice for evenly distributed heat.
Accommodating a Löyly
Electric heaters that are equipped to accept a löyly can be of varied quality. By law, all such heaters are required to use specially insulated metal coils to eliminate the danger of short-circuited wires, which can cause electrical shock or death when water is thrown upon the rocks. However, some heaters are designed to accommodate stones on top of a metal grill rather than among the heating elements themselves. Finnish sauna aficionados say that if the rocks do not make contact with the heating elements, they rarely reach their optimal temperature, thus causing the quality of heat to be harsh. In contrast, the heat imparted by rocks directly touching the heating coils is gentler and smoother and feels much better, because there is more radiant heat. Make sure that the stones can be distributed among the heating elements. This arrangement creates a much better löyly, with enough sizzle and vapor to satisfy even the most steadfast Finnish sauna bather.
If you are using a sauna cabinet, the presence or absence of a löyly is not relevant because there is no place to put rocks—and anyway, with the head outside of the heating enclosure, you are breathing fresh air, so from a health perspective the presence or absence of moisture is not an issue.
Eliminating Harmful ELF Electromagnetic Fields
Earlier in this chapter I discussed the problem of harmful positive ions generated by some electric saunas. Related to this is the issue of harmful electromagnetic fields. When I interviewed Mikkel Aaland for this book, he strongly expressed his desire for a real fire, even one inside a wood burning stove—not only as an aesthetic preference, but because electrical currents can disrupt the function of the body. It is thought that they do this primarily through the dangerous magnetic fields created when electrons move through electrical wiring.
(Not all electromagnetic fields are dangerous; some are benign or even biologically necessary. For instance, as discussed in Chapter 4, the wavelengths known as far infrared radiation produce life-promoting heat. We would die without FIR.)
The effect of electromagnetic radiation depends on
where on the electromagnetic spectrum the wavelengths lie,
their voltage, or the force with which they impact the body, and
- how that radiation is being transmitted and administered. These conditions can literally make the difference between wellness and illness, life and death.
One group of electromagnetic wavelengths known as extremely low frequency waves (ELF) is commonly known to be dangerous. The wavelengths of ELF fields range between 0 to 300 hertz (hertz designates cycles per sec
ond). ELF is produced by alternating current, not direct current. (The inventor Nikola Tesla used alternating, while his colleague Thomas Edison preferred direct. Most of the world today uses alternating rather than direct current.) B. Blake
Levitt, author of the superb book Electromagnetic Fields: A Consumer’s Guide to the Issues and How to Protect Ourselves, writes:
Direct current (DC) is the steady flow of electrons in one direction. Alternating current (AC) is an electron flow that changes strength and alters direction within a certain cycle; the AC field collapses and reappears with its poles reversed every time the current changes direction....Direct current creates a steady magnetic field. But with alternating current, each time the direction of the electrons is reversed, or flipped, a powerful magnetic field is created that fluctuates at the same frequency.12
When you realize that the body itself generates minute but critical amounts of electrical and magnetic currents as part of its normal functioning, it’s easy to see why ELF is so disruptive to the system. Not only is this back-and-forth movement injurious, but the number of cycles per second also has an impact. In North America, electricity is transmitted at 60 hertz. In most of the rest of the world, electricity is transmitted at 50 hertz. But the human body naturally oscillates at 55 hertz! As Levitt points out, “The human body will take on whatever field it is exposed to. Each time you touch a small electric appliance operating at 60 hertz, those same 60-hertz fields will
be set up in your body as well.”13 The reason electromagnetic fields can severely injure living tissue is that they change the rotation and spin of the electrons in the body.This in turn alters the chemical bonds of various molecules in living systems.
Thus neither a 50-hertz nor a 60-hertz rhythm support biological functions. (One might speculate, then, about the possible benefits if electrical current ran at 55 hertz, and was direct instead of alternating.)
Another aspect to the danger of electromagnetic fields relates to the coherence of the wave. Some people argue that since the sun is constantly transmitting naturally-occurring radio frequencies, microwaves, and other harmful ELF to the earth, why should we worry?—and that it justifies producing more ELF on the ground. It is true that all this radiation is natural. But radiation from the sun is generally diffuse, whereas alternating current is concentrated. Concentrated radiation is not natural. For example, you need to purposely focus, augment, and direct electron bombardment to turn on a light bulb. In Electromagnetic Man: Health & Hazard in the Electrical Environment, Cyril W. Smith and Simon Best confirm:
It is just over 100 years since electricity generation started; 60 years since radio transmissions and 40 years since radar and telecommunications entered our environment. [The book was published in 1990.] Like natural fields, man-made fields are limited by the physical properties of the environment. Unlike natural fields, they are highly coherent and can interfere with our bio-signals.14
What kind of electrical appliances emit ELF? Anything that plugs into
a socket: air conditioners, blenders, coffee makers, computers, copiers, electric blankets, electric clocks, electric heaters of all types, electric ovens and ranges, electric shavers, food processors, hair dryers, irons, laser and inkjet printers, mixers, power drills and saws, refrigerators, stereo equipment, televisions, toasters, vacuum cleaners, VCRs, washing machines and clothes dryers...the list is long. Even phones (corded, cordless and cell) emit ELF.
The harmful effects of ELF radiation are many and varied. In The Whole Way to Natural Detoxification: The Complete Guide to Clearing Your Body of Toxins, Jacqueline Krohn and colleagues explain that in the many studies
exposing cells and animals to ELF fields . . . electric workers and
their children have a higher risk of brain tumors. The incidence
of childhood leukemia is higher in children who live near power
lines that carry high voltage. Power-line exposure has also been associated with an increased incidence of suicide. These studies support the hypothesis that ELFs act as a cancer promoter. ELF fields interact with the cell membrane and can affect hormones, calcium exchange, and tissue growth. It is postulated that the ELFs suppress the production of
melatonin, a cancer inhibitor, by the pineal gland.15
This “postulation” is borne out by other researchers, including Smith and Best, who point out that the pineal gland is particularly sensitive to even minute changes in electromagnetic fields. These authors also cite formal published studies linking the following maladies to ELF electromagnetic fields:
autoimmune disorders, such as lupus erythematosus and multiple sclerosis
birth defects and genetic abnormalities
cancers of various types, including brain tumors and leukemia
motion and mood changes, including higher percentages of suicides
eyestrain and headaches
- fatigue and sleep disturbance
- heart attacks
- hormonal abnormalities
- infectious disease increase
lowered fertility, miscarriages, and pregnancy problems, including stillborn children
nervous system disorders, including confusion, convulsions, dizziness, hyperactivity, and memory loss
stress increase and intolerance
Another, important factor that determines harm from electromagnetic fields is the proximity of the person (or animal or conceivably even a plant) to the source of the field. A milligauss is a unit of measurement of the strength of an electromagnetic field. According to tables from the Environmental Protection Agency that are reprinted in Levitt’s book, a blender from six inches away emits between 30 and 100
milligauss; an electric can opener six inches away emits between 500 and 1500
milligauss; a hair dryer six inches away emits between one and 700
milligauss; and a ceiling fan 12 inches away emits between three and 50 milligauss.16
Some sources maintain that even two milligauss is enough to disrupt a person’s biological function, and that the maximum safe emission for a person to absorb is only one
You can reduce the chance of illness by living away from major power lines and using only those devices that are essential to daily life. For the urban dweller who wants to sweat, however, generally an electrically heated sauna is the only choice. Fortunately, unless you are particularly sensitive to electrical fields, the benefits of sweating will likely outweigh the harmful effects of electromagnetic fields.
Some FIR sauna proponents claim that the use of far infrared naturally minimizes harmful electromagnetic fields, and that it does so almost completely. It is true that compared to conventional heaters, FIR units emit smaller electromagnetic fields. But this is because at lower temperatures, they require less voltage or power—so hence, there is less electricity to create a field. This does not mean that a harmful electromagnetic field is eliminated entirely! However, improvements are constantly being made. One sauna manufacturer, after two years of research, has solved the problem of dangerous electromagnetic fields by constructing his FIR heaters in such a way that emissions are less than one
milligauss. (See Appendix B for a listing of sauna manufacturers.) Also, some enlightened appliance manufacturers use sheets of an expensive, composite metal called mu that minimizes or virtually eliminates electromagnetic fields (it is not clearly understood how this metal works).
Incidentally, some manufacturers claim that a good quality FIR heater emits so many beneficial negative ions, it offsets the harmful effects of ELF fields. I have not seen any research to either support or refute this statement.
Sauna Building Materials
There is no simple answer to “What is the best kind of sauna to use?” Everyone has unique tastes and needs. When you’re at the gym or your favorite health club, you don’t have much choice—the sauna or steam room that’s available is the one you use. But if you’re thinking of buying your own, this is a matter to consider carefully. Some people like their sauna completely dry. Others crave lots of steam along with the heat, much more steam than the Finns customarily use. And still others prefer a steam bath with the addition of ozone (discussed in Appendix A). Everybody’s different, because each person has a different body.
The type of sauna you want, and how often you use it, will determine the materials of which it is made. Not all materials are suitable for all purposes.
One of the most popular, common, and traditional materials is wood. Generally, wood is used to build
a sauna room rather than a cabinet. Soft woods such as alder, basswood, hemlock, and poplar (also known as aspen) rather than hardwoods are often preferred, because the molecules in hardwoods are more densely packed and thus retain too much heat to comfortably touch after the sauna has been hot for awhile. (However, harder woods such as birch, maple, and oak are sometimes used.) Cedar, a beautiful fragrant wood, is a favorite, since it contains a volatile oil called cedrene (a member of the turpene family), produced by the tree to repel insects and withstand moisture. But the very aromatic oil that makes cedar naturally resistant to rotting contains unsaturated, aliphatic cyclic hydrocarbons that can cause severe allergic and even toxic reactions in sensitive people. After being in such wooden saunas for even brief periods, some bathers—particularly those suffering from multiple chemical or environmental sensitivities—can become very ill with gastrointestinal and respiratory distress, or even neurological disorders including seizures. The turpenes in softer woods like pine, redwood, and spruce can cause similar reactions.
Poplar, which is soft and does not contain turpenes, is a favorite among many sauna manufacturers. However, poplar is exceptionally soft; so it is susceptible to rot, especially with heavy use. Locust, similar to cedar, but without any of the aromatic turpenes that cedar contains, has rot-resistant qualities that make it an ideal wood to use for a sauna. Unfortunately, it is not easily available commercially. Plywood—a synthetic product comprised of thin layers of wood held together with glue—is highly unsuitable and should never be used. Even without being subjected to high heat, plywood emits dangerous fumes. Whatever type of wood is used for the sauna, be aware that many lumber companies use toxic chemicals to preserve the wood that are dangerous to people with chemical sensitivities. A sauna interior should never be painted, since the paint will emit fumes when the temperature is high.
To create a truly effective sauna, wood must be kiln-dried to less than 11% moisture. Otherwise, with the constant heating and cooling, the wood will repeatedly expand and contract and eventually crack, thus trapping moisture—and providing an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. (This is why some wooden saunas are equipped with drains or recesses in the floor to collect moisture.)
Although high temperatures are presumed to kill bacteria, a wooden sauna can still become caked with dirt, and reek from the toxins that are sweated out of the skin. Dr. David Root—who has done extensive research on the myriad chemicals found in sweat (primarily of drug users), and whose clinical practice consists of helping such people detoxify (see Chapter 8)—reports that daily use in serious detoxification programs with chemically loaded people will cause even aromatic wood saunas to rot within three years. This, as well as the strong possibility of allergic reactions, is why heavily toxic people with chemical sensitivities or environmental illness should use saunas made of other materials (discussed shortly). Of course, if your system is not too toxic and your heart is set on wood, as long as you are not allergic to turpenes you will probably be very happy with an aromatic wood sauna.
All wood saunas require care. Some people use bleach, detergent, ammonia, or other caustic chemicals to clean the sauna, but I don’t recommend that these products be used by anyone—not the average person, and certainly not someone who is sensitive to chemicals. Even if you aren’t diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities or environmental illness, if you are dealing with a chronic or serious illness, or your immune function isn’t what it should be, you don’t need the added stress of forcing your liver and other organs to eliminate extra poisons. (A source of a very safe and effective cleaner is listed in Appendix B.)
Clean the entire unit—the walls, and especially the benches and floor— at least once a week with plain mild soap (not detergent, which is synthetic and toxic). Alternatively, you can use a mixture of water and white vinegar (one or more cups of vinegar to a 5-gallon bucket of water), or 3% food grade hydrogen peroxide (which kills microbes—and, please note, will also bleach the wood). When you’re done cleaning, make sure to turn on the heater, open the door, and let the sauna dry out. This will help preserve the wood. Wood should also be refurbished regularly with food grade oil after it’s completely dry. This seals its pores, protecting them from steam and sweat. (In wood, the pores are the openings through which fluids are absorbed or discharged; a wood’s grain is the design made by the layers of fibers and the size and arrangement of the pores. Pores may be small and compactly distributed, producing close-grain wood, or they may be large and widely dispersed for open-grain wood.) If you do not react adversely to scents, you can put a few drops of lavender essential oil into either your soap mixture and/or the seasoning oil. Lavender not only smells fragrant, but it has germicidal properties and will help keep your sauna sanitary (especially if some pathogens managed to survive the high heat). You can also use essential oils of tea tree, peppermint, eucalyptus, and neem (a tree from India), which are very powerful germicides.
Make sure that the lumber in your wooden sauna is free of knots. Since knots retain more heat than the wood around them, they can burn you. Also, with the constant expansion and contraction due to heat alternating with cold, the knots will eventually pop out and leave gaping holes. Finally, the boards comprising the sauna walls should be thick enough to minimize shrinkage.
Ceramic, Granite, Marble, and Porcelain Tile Saunas
To avoid the problems from heavy sauna use that you would encounter with wood, other materials such as ceramic, granite, marble, and porcelain tile can be used for the sauna. Obviously, these materials are used to construct rooms. Such saunas generally require very little upkeep, except for a periodic cleaning. The hardiness and imperviousness to rot or deterioration make these substances ideal for serious therapeutic use—although generally, only the better health spas and clinics can afford them.
It is interesting to note that granite has a natural tendency to absorb and emit heat in the far infrared wavelengths. This would make it an exceptionally good (though expensive) material for an enclosed sauna.
Plastic, Fiberglass, and Other Resin Sauna Materials
The only saunas I have seen that are made of plastic are individual cabinets, since their portability requires a material that is more pliable, and lighter in weight, than wood (although a horizontal cabinet made from wood has just been marketed). One problem with many plastics is that they are known to outgas (emit molecules of the plastic into the air), even at room temperature. However, according to the Food and Drug Administration, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and plastics industry standards, a plastic called ABS is relatively stable, and does not outgas after it cools down from having been formed and molded. For this reason, ABS is used to make (among other items) medical diagnostic equipment, medical test kits, refrigerators, and toys. NASA’s outgassing test consists of placing the substance inside a vacuum chamber at extremely high heat, and then weighing the material with special precision instruments. If the material is lighter at the end of the test, outgassing has occurred. If there is no weight change, the substance is considered stable.
A September 6, 2002 letter from a General Electric product compliance specialist to a sauna cabinet manufacturer states: “Based on the requirements of your current application, GE Plastics does not anticipate toxic fumes emitting from the [ABS] material under the standard operation conditions.”17
The “standard operation conditions” of ABS is that it is not expected to outgas even if heated to temperatures of up to 140°F (60°C). (Note that the GE product specialist is referring to the temperature of the plastic, not the temperature of the air or the sauna heater. It would take an unbearably scorching air temperature to bring the plastic to its upper heat limit.) A conscientious manufacturer will always use a high quality plastic in a sauna. (It should be noted, however, that the heater itself might contain something that
Despite the best manufacturing techniques, or assurances by government and industry that certain medical-grade plastics are safe, some highly reactive people still do not tolerate plastic. Dr. William Rea, author of Chemical Sensitivity, observes that chemically sensitive people are often bothered by certain types of plastics, but not all types—and then, not always. Fairly stable hard plastics, he writes, are “relatively odor-free.” However, he adds, the plastics should be “self-tested, particularly when warm.”18
Try to test the unit before you buy it. If that is not possible, see if the manufacturer offers a full or even partial money-back guarantee. If you are extremely reactive, saunas made only from more inert materials such as tile, marble, or non-aromatic wood should be used. Be aware that your need for a
non-outgassing sauna material must be weighed against the possibility of the wood rotting—particularly if you have a high level of toxins in your system and plan to use the sauna for many hours on a regular basis.
Related to the problem of plastic outgassing is the concern voiced by some researchers about the emission of (harmful) positive ions. I have not seen any scientific data in this area, so am unable to comment. In any case, if the plastic is of a high enough quality, the positive ion discharge into the air might be considerably less. An advantage to plastic is its durability and imperviousness to water; all it requires is a bit of soap (not detergent) to keep it clean.
Fiberglass, which is very strong and similar to plastic (though comprised of different materials), is also used by some sauna cabinet manufacturers. It is especially suitable for steam cabinets that accommodate ozone generators, because (unlike ABS) it is one of only five substances that are impervious to corrosion by ozone. (The only materials that are completely impervious to ozone, and which could be recommended for use in an ozone sauna, are glass, and four synthetic materials. See the “Sauna Style” table at the end of this chapter for a list of the four synthetics.) However, after its creation, fiberglass noticeably outgasses for a few weeks—even up to a year, according to one manufacturer, who holds a patent on a special coating designed to permanently eliminate the outgassing that normally occurs with fiberglass (see the list of sauna manufacturers in Appendix B). Out of consideration for chemically sensitive individuals, the manufacturer should leave the heater on in the unit for at least 24 hours, thus giving it a chance to outgas in the factory at least partially before it is shipped.
If you are planning to use your fiberglass cabinet as an ozone steam sauna, make sure that it is not constructed with glues and adhesives, since ozone will cause the emission of chemical vapors as the bonding agents disintegrate. Incidentally, you must use a sauna cabinet rather than a room for ozone-sauna therapy, since the level of ozone considered therapeutic irritates the respiratory tract and instead must be absorbed through the skin. (See Appendix A, “A Brief Summary of Ozone.”)
Before the recent upsurge of FIR saunas, the only infrared or far infrared devices that most people knew about were either the FIR light bulbs in bathrooms that help keep you warm when you exit the shower, or the FIR lamp in their health care provider’s office. When NASA discovered in the mid 1960s that several mineral oxides can produce FIR, these minerals were added to the FIR lamps. Today, there are a number of products that use FIR: hair dryers; blankets, sheets and mattress pads; jackets, mittens, socks, underwear, and other clothing; foot, ankle and leg wraps for sports injuries; car seats and chair cushions; and even FIR creams. The ability of scientists to create cloth with specific FIR properties is pertinent to our present discussion of fabric saunas.
A number of sauna tents have recently begun appearing on the market, reminiscent of the draped cloth canopies of over a century ago. The tents are made of a quilted fabric that is stiff yet collapsible. In all models, the person’s head stays outside the tent. None of the dealers with whom I spoke could tell me the exact composition of the fabric, whether or not the tent outgasses or contains glues, how the heater is made, or the durability of the merchandise—probably because most sauna tents are made anonymously in the Orient. It could be determined only that the fabric in most of the imported tents is metallic (some fabric is also advertised as containing ceramic fibers that conduct FIR), and that the heaters are either built in to the fabric or are lamps placed inside the tent. The one United States-based manufacturer (a naturopath) did tell me that her tent consists of a silver metallic mesh outer layer with a carbon-impregnated fiberglass lining and no adhesives or glues. Most sauna tents are designed to accommodate a chair, although the U.S. model is designed for lying down. There is some question as to whether a fabric tent can withstand heavy use by seriously ill people, who need to take lengthy saunas on a continual therapeutic basis— although these tents probably have not been on the market long enough for anyone to discover the answer. The United States manufacturer, who used to work at a clinic that offers ozone therapy to its clientele, says that when ozone was pumped inside their one sauna tent (not hers), the fabric quickly corroded. Also, fluids can leak through the zipper portion of the tent onto the floor.
The sauna tent’s price (attractive to consumers on a tight budget), and its portability, will have to be weighed against a need for a sturdier unit.
“One additional facet of sauna construction which is often overlooked, particularly in home installations,” writes Virtanen in The Finnish Sauna, “is the need for adequate ventilation.”
Avid sauna goers have often encountered poorly designed saunas where oxygen is lacking, where there are foreign substances in the air, for instance dust or mold spores, or where there is a form of pollution produced by exposed electric heater elements, which can charge the air much as the atmosphere becomes charged preceding a thunderstorm [with undesirable positive ions], thereby interfering with proper respiration.19
If your sauna room is not ventilated, you’ll also inhale carbon dioxide and the volatile chemicals that are expelled from the body. Make sure that your sauna has openings near the top so fresh air can enter the room. A cabinet, by definition, is already ventilated at the head. If you are in a room and have trouble breathing (or the room doesn’t contain a vent), open the door to allow the odors and gases to escape.
A vent in a well-constructed sauna room containing a convection heater might reduce the air temperature a little, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. In a FIR, electric light, or other radiant heat sauna, some cooler air should not substantially interfere with the heating effect, since radiant heat goes directly into the body independent of the temperature of the air.
The average consumer has a choice of a wide range of sauna construction materials and styles; but people with full-blown chemical sensitivities must be especially careful in choosing their unit, ensuring that the sauna is free of adhesives, glues, putty, preservatives, varnishes, and dyes—all of which emit fumes when heated. An individual sauna cabinet allows one to breathe fresh air from outside the cabinet, instead of the toxic fumes and stale (carbon dioxide-filled) air excreted by a sweaty body. Despite the fact that your head is outside when using a cabinet, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that the cabinet is made either of wood, or of ABS and not another type of plastic—especially if you are environmentally ill or sensitive to plastic in general. A sauna cabinet, rather than a room, is also more suitable for someone with any kind of respiratory condition. But if you don’t want a cabinet, and plan on spending lots of time in the sauna—say, more than 20 minutes each day—buy or build a room that is well ventilated. This will make a huge difference in how you respond to the therapy.
Size, Shape and Portability
For some people, the socializing aspect of a sauna is very important. How many people do you want your sauna to hold? Do you enjoy the company of just one or two, or many? You also need to consider how much space you have in or around your home. Except for one manufacturer who makes one or two sauna rooms on wheels, the majority of rooms are not portable. The size of a full-body enclosure can range from closet-like structures 3 feet wide by 4 feet long by 6 feet high, to roomy shelters that are 9 feet wide by 12 feet long by 7 feet high. Except for the native sweat lodges which are dome or teepee shaped, most saunas are square or rectangular rooms (although a custom builder can generally fashion any shape you desire).
If you don’t have much space in your home, you will probably prefer a cabinet to a full-body enclosure. Cabinets are made to be portable. The upright models are made to fit through a standard doorway. The horizontal cabinets, while requiring more floor space than the upright models, are made to collapse into several pieces.
If you like to socialize with your friends or family, make sure you’re comfortable being naked in front of people. A sauna works better without restrictive bathing suits or underwear. If you are the solitary sort who’d prefer to meditate, go inward, doze or rest during your sauna, then you don’t need a large room, unless you have the space and the funds for one. If you do decide to purchase a cabinet, do you want to sit or lie down? Individual cabinets can accommodate you horizontally or vertically.
The size and even shape of your sauna can affect the temperature. The Edgar Cayce Handbook for Health Through Drugless Therapy states:
The highest heat in a Turkish bath or sauna is always at the top of the room. People generally sit or lie on the bottom or middle tiers, and when they stand up, as their head reaches the hottest layer of air, they can faint, especially if there is a tendency to a cardiovascular condition that they are not aware of.
Expanding on the above, the authors caution that it is wise to take the “proper precautions” of having someone around “when using extreme heat—whether in tub baths, steam, or sauna. This is one of the reasons [we] prefer the sweat cabinets, where the head is exposed to the air.”20
Of course, “extreme” depends on who is evaluating the temperature; what is comfortable for you might be too hot for me. Chapters 6 and 7 give common sense tips on how to comfortably and safely use any type of sauna.
You also have to decide what you want to use to supply the heat. Wood burning stoves can be cozy, but impossible in a city apartment. If you’re environmentally sensitive, can you handle a gas heater? If you’re living a rustic lifestyle in the middle of the country and don’t have electricity, you can’t buy a unit that plugs into the wall. Finally, more and more people are becoming sensitive to the negative effects of electromagnetic pollution. Even if an appliance isn’t turned on, there is electricity running through the wires in the wall. There are many aspects to consider, based on your needs, tastes, environment, and budget.
In my own experience, a FIR-heated sauna confers a completely different sense of sweating than does a dry heat sauna: I feel “cleaner” and more energized with far infrared. However, not everyone feels this way. While doing research for this book, I telephoned a man who happens to live near me and custom builds and installs FIR sauna rooms of all sizes—in homes, attached to homes, or as single, cabin-like outbuildings. In the course of our conversation, I said that it must be wonderful to be able to take a FIR sauna anytime he wanted. (I was hinting that I’d love to be invited for a sweat soon. This was before I obtained my own sauna cabinet.) I was completely unprepared for his response. “Not really,” he said in his delightful British accent. “If you want to know the truth, I don’t really enjoy FIR saunas.” Surprised, I asked him why. “Because the air doesn’t get as hot as it gets in a regular sauna,” he replied. “I never feel as though I’m really sweating. Me, I like a hot sauna.”
What he meant was that he associated the quintessential sauna experience with heat in the air. Since FIR heats solid objects (and human bodies) rather than air, it was not his optimal choice. He also expressed a preference for some moisture in the sauna—in other words, a löyly, which (at least so far) is assembled only for electric heaters that are not far infrared. Mikkel Aaland also prefers a löyly. Furthermore, Aaland—who spent three years visiting thousands of body heating facilities all over the world to write Sweat—likes a sauna comprised of all natural and no synthetic materials.
It is the sauna aficionados (from Finland, I have noticed) who maintain that only saunas using hot rocks are the “real” thing. Hot rocks might have been the only “real” thing at one time. But we are living in the 21st
century. Many people do not have access to large rocks roasted in a fire; nor do they have a space in which to place such rocks. I am grateful to the Finns, Native Americans, and other cultures for popularizing sauna therapy to everyone’s benefit. However, in an increasingly complex world we sometimes need to make more complex adjustments.
It may be that one’s preference in saunas may also depend on body type. According to my own informal survey, people who tend to retain water (and in Chinese medical diagnostic terms are “damp”) may prefer a dry sauna, whereas those whose bodies are more dry may express more affinity with moist heat.
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