In many spas and health clubs, saunas /steam bathing has become very popular. Many cultures have used steam baths over the centuries for natural cure and remedies for illness and disease prevention. Saunas /steam baths are common in many countries e.g. Finnish sauna, Guatemalan and Mexican temazcal, Japanese onsen, Russian banya, and Turkish hammam to name but a few.

The history of steam baths can be traced back to the Romans, Native American Indians, and Turks who used lower temperatures along with greater humidity.

Integrative treatment

Ayurveda is the sister science of yoga and meditation. Swedana (body heating) is a common Ayurvedic treatment in clinical practice. It is a component of Panchakarma (five detoxification procedures) therapy but is often used independently. I have used this therapy to great effect in integrative medicine centres to treat musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions. The integrative program also incorporated the use of herbal oil massage (prior to swedana) and the inclusion of a yoga and meditation program.

In a similar vein, when I worked in an Integrative Medicine centre in Germany the integrative medicine doctors referred many patients to the local ‘Thermalbad’ for health benefits as the culture it is known reduce muscle tension, improve circulation and promote detoxification through sweating.

Interesting research studies

A Complementary and Alternative Medicine research study that supports the use of sauna therapy came from the Finnish Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Study. Contrary to popular belief that heat stress therapy such a sauna baths may be a high-risk therapeutic intervention in cardiovascular patients. This research published in the JAMA Intern Med in 2015 by Laukkanen et al carried out a prospective cohort study of a population-based sample of 2315 middle-aged (age range, 42-60 years) men from Eastern Finland. The researchers concluded that increased frequency of sauna bathing reduced the risk of:

  • Sudden cardiac deaths
  • Fatal cardiovascular diseases; and
  • All-cause mortality events

The researchers further concluded that men who took more frequent saunas (4-7 times per week) actually live longer than once-per-week users.

One of the proposed reasons for this finding is that the heart rate may increase during moderate sauna bathing sessions, and this may be equivalent to low- and moderate-intensity physical exercise training. Another interesting proposal put forward by the researchers why repeated dry sauna bathing may be a natural cure and remedy for cardiovascular patients is that it improves endothelial function in these patients. This sounds feasible but further research is required as there may be other underlying factors that may contribute to these findings.

Another Complementary and Alternative Medicine research study investigated 44 patients with fibromyalgia undergoing a combination of sauna therapy and underwater exercise sauna therapy once daily for 3 days/week and underwater exercise once daily for 2 days/week. All of the patients reported a reduction in pain and symptoms between 31 and 77 percent after the 12-week thermal therapy program. Six months after the study ended, the participants continued to report a reduction in pain between 28 and 68 percent six months after the study had ended.

As you read through this article, you can see how sauna therapy can be a valuable component in an integrative medicine program.