Saunas are an ancient tradition with an extraordinary story and a myriad of health benefits. Today, saunas are primarily used for wellness, but the first saunas in Finland were built for survival, not relaxation, and they were believed to bestow magical powers upon anyone who entered them.

Some people love sitting in a little wooden box and sweating it out, while others absolutely loathe the idea. No matter which group you belong to, there is no denying it: saunas have become a worldwide phenomenon, and there are several proven health benefits of regularly spending time in a sauna.

The sauna that we most commonly use today has its origin in Finland, and the Finnish are still all about their saunas. It is estimated that there are more than three million saunas in Finland. For a population of 5.5 million, people that is quite astonishing. In fact, there are more saunas than cars in the country of Finland. In this Nordic country you will find saunas everywhere: in homes, offices, factories, gyms, hotels, ships and even in mines deep below the ground.

A sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy

From survival to relaxation

In today’s world, most of us use the sauna as a part of our wellness routine. However, that is far from their original use. In ancient times, saunas were built for survival. While no one knows exactly when or where the first sauna was built, it is commonly believed that the tradition originated somewhere in northern Europe around 2,000 BC. While the sauna is most commonly associated with Finland, it is still an important part of cultural life in countries such as Latvia, Russia and Estonia.

But let’s get back to why saunas were built in the first place – survival. If you have ever been to any of the Nordic countries, you know first-hand that the landscape can be unforgiving and brutal. The very first saunas were man-made caves that were closed with draped animal skins, with a fire burning inside beneath a pile of stones that water was poured over. This kept everyone inside the sauna nice and warm throughout the freezing cold and harsh winter nights.

The ancient saunas were not only used to keep people warm, but also functioned as kitchens, washrooms and hospitals. In fact, many Finnish children were born in saunas. Over time, saunas became holy places – churches in nature – that were intertwined with spiritual beliefs. It was believed that saunas gave magical powers to those who entered them. The mystical sauna spirit was very much respected – and feared.

The magic of the sauna

You might be chuckling a bit at the thought that the ancient people of Finland believed saunas had magical powers. But research has proven that saunas do indeed bestow magical powers upon those who enter them… in a way.

Science is now showing us how many benefits there are of visiting a sauna, both mentally and physically. A three-decades-long study by the University of Eastern Finland of more than 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men has made some astonishing findings.

The researchers found that using a sauna reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. What’s also important to note is that the men who used the sauna four to seven times per week had significantly lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease compared to the men who only used the sauna once a week.

And perhaps the most important finding in the Finnish study was that the risk of all-cause mortality was 40 per cent lower among frequent sauna users. But how on earth does sitting in a heated wooden box for 20 minutes daily have such phenomenal benefits? Well, sitting in a sauna mimics the physiological response to moderate to high intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as running or cycling, and we all know how good exercise is.

It is no wonder that the Finnish used to call the sauna a poor man’s pharmacy, which prompted the famous Finnish proverb: “if liquor, tar and sauna won’t help, an illness is fatal”.

Let your worries sweat away

Sitting in a sauna isn’t just beneficial for your physical health, it is equally good for your mental health. Saunas are wonderful for providing relief for the senses, and they help calm both the mind and body. In fact, many people sit in a sauna for the sole purpose of relaxing and allowing the stresses of the day to melt away. Research has furthermore shown that regular sauna visits increase sleep quality, and it is easier to fall asleep after a sauna. No wonder Finnish people love sweating it out at the end of a long day.

So, next time someone asks you “what about a sauna?”, say yes to the sauna’s magic – it might just be one of the best things you can do for your mind, body and soul.

A sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy

Sauna, pronounced ‘sow’ (rhymes with wow) ‘nah’, is the only Finnish word that is used in everyday English, and the only Finnish word in the English dictionary. Sauna means ‘bath’ or ‘bath house’.

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