In Finnish, the expression “saunanjälkeinen” means “post-sauna”. This is the dreamy, other-worldly time after your sauna session when the world feels a little softer and easier. This can be used as a reasonable excuse for avoiding doing most anything.

How does sauna create this blissful effect? I believe it is part magic and part science, the unknown elements combining with fire, water, and air to physically and spiritually cleanse us.

In science, we know that sauna improves hemodynamic function, meaning how blood moves through the body, nourishing our tissues and organs. The heat and sweating in the sauna imitates what exercise does for the body: increasing circulation and heart rate and increasing our eliminatory functions. Also similar to exercise, regular sauna use decreases the risk of heart disease and science strongly links it to fewer fatal heart events and total longer life. Sauna use also reduces stress hormones like cortisol, while increasing beta-endorphins and other feel-good hormones.

On an immunology level, a single sauna session increases white blood cells and improves overall immune system function. Year-round sauna use reduces the occurrence of the common cold by up to 50%.

Scientists can’t pinpoint exactly why sauna enhances health and makes us feel so blissed-out. Rita Redberg (University of California, San Francisco, editor-in-chief of JAMA Internal Medicine) stated, “Although we do not know why those who took saunas more frequently had greater longevity—whether it is the time spent in the hot room, the relaxation time, or the camaraderie of the sauna—clearly time spent in the sauna is time well spent.”

Is it magic too? In Finland, the sauna is the most necessary and spiritual room in the house. For centuries, life often started and ended there, with childbirth in the naturally anti-bacterial sauna room while on the other end of life, bodies were prepared for burial on the benches. It is a place as sacred as church, yet as common as a kitchen. A place for reflection of spiritual matters, while being completely in your body.

For me, it’s the elemental combination of the fire, water on the rocks, and the cool air on my skin as I step out of the sauna that feels like magic. It reminds me that we humans are part of nature, just a combination of elements ourselves. I am physically and emotionally cleansed and recreated as a fresher, cleaner self.

At its simplest, sauna allows you to take a break from daily life and “leave your worries with your shoes at the door.”

Jess Kelso

Photo courtesy of Visit Finland