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Sitting Safely in Saunas

July 26, 1987|DR. KARL NEUMANN | Neumann is a Forest Hills, N.Y., pediatrician who writes on travel-related matters

Are sauna rooms--a feature at many hotels and resorts, spas, on cruise ships and at some airports--the ultimate for relaxing? Or are they merely a gimmick to entice travelers into an establishment?

Can saunas really help you lose weight, cleanse your body of toxins, rejuvenate your skin and help you overcome jet lag as aficionados claim? Or, more important, are saunas hazardous to your health?

Saunas have been around for a long time; for hundreds of years in Finland, which has more saunas than automobiles. There are so many saunas that all Finns can get into a sauna at the same time.

However, only recently have physicians and scientists studied saunas.

High Temperatures

Basically, a sauna is a wood-lined room with a wood-burning or electric stove that heats the room to high temperatures.

The only reason the temperature--up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit--is bearable is that humidity is kept to a minimum, often below 10%. In a steam bath, for comparison, you feel uncomfortable even when the temperature reaches 120 degrees.

The heat of the sauna increases skin temperature to higher than the body-core temperature. This increases blood circulation, especially to the skin, and increases sweating.

After a short while in the sauna, your body temperature also rises and your heart starts to work harder. Generally, because of increased blood flow to the skin, blood pressure does not rise.

For healthy adults a sauna is no hazard. A normal heart easily can take the strain of the extra blood flow.

Experts Advise

But experts advise that sauna baths should not be taken immediately after strenuous exercise, when many sauna connoisseurs prefer to take their sauna.

The effects of exercise and heat are cumulative. Therefore the combination will place even more strain on a heart. This could be a problem for even a healthy person. Wait at least half an hour after exercise before taking a sauna. Also, avoid saunas immediately after heavy meals.

Generally, your time in a sauna should be limited to 10 to 15 minutes, especially the first few times. And if the temperature can be controlled, set it at about 160 degrees. Leave hotter temperatures for future baths.

If there are tiers to sit or lie on, stay on the lowest tier. Heat rises.

Also, the common Finnish habit of a roll in the snow or a cold bath immediately after the sauna is only for experienced and veteran sauna bathers.

Dizzy Feeling

If you find the sauna uncomfortable--if you feel dizzy, get a headache or find it difficult to breathe--leave the sauna. There is no truth to the adage that you must experience these symptoms to overcome them.

Check with your physician before going into a sauna, if you have heart or lung problems, diabetes, are elderly or are pregnant. Also, check with your physician if you are on medication.

And don't go into a sauna if you have been drinking. Alcohol affects your judgment, of course, but it also can increase blood flow to your skin and raise your temperature further.

Another precaution is to take a sauna bath with another person, just as you should not swim alone. In the unlikely situation that you become incapacitated by the heat, you may need help. Also, there will be someone to wake you in case you fall asleep.

Saunas May Cause Sleep

Saunas can bring on sleep. This is the reason they are recommended as the ideal refresher after a hard day's travel, especially in overcoming jet lag.

But how about other health claims made for saunas?

Many Eastern European and Soviet physicians believe--and claim they have studies to back them--that saunas are beneficial for arthritis, rheumatism and a host of other conditions. Most Western experts doubt these claims, but admit they never studied them.

No authority claims that saunas help in weight reduction. True, after you come out of a sauna, you may weigh a pound or two less, but that's due to your having lost fluid. Your body will retain the next few glasses of liquid you drink, so you will regain the weight.

And the sweat does not get rid of toxins.

Possibly, the heat from sauna does make your skin appear healthier, but that effect is fleeting.

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