The notion of steam baths and saunas probably stretches back into ancient civilizations. In the modern world, the importance of saunas is well-established and recognized traditionally.
Hot saunas, icy showers, salt rubs, and massages are all part of their philosophy of a healthy way of living. Many believe saunas are invigorating and revitalizing but what about the opposite effect? Can saunas at the end of a day relax and encourage a good night’s sleep?
There have been many studies in recent years on the importance of sleep to our overall well-being. Sleep deprivation has been linked to many physical and mental health issues whereas a good night’s sleep is believed to improve mental and physical alertness. Other medical studies have sought to find ways to improve sleep patterns including the potential benefits of saunas before bedtime.
Sauna and Sleep Studies
There have been few serious studies on the effects of sauna on sleep patterns. Putkonen PT and Elomaa E. published a paper in Helsinki, Finland in 1976 on this topic which is very relevant today. They analyzed the results of a trial recording the sleep patterns of 5 people without saunaing and after saunaing.
They found that on the nights they took a sauna before bed, the volunteers experienced significantly improved levels of deep sleep than on other nights. Figures showed that deep sleep increased by 70% in the first 2 hours and around 45% during 6 hours. A state of relaxation increased significantly after the sauna.
Causes of Deep Sleep
Part of the reason for the deep sleep phase in post-sauna sleepers is likely to be the result of increased internal body heat tending to enhance sleep. Putkonen and Elomaa conducted further studies on the subject of the effects of temperature change.
Their conclusions are in line with other sauna studies. Body temperatures rise rapidly for about 30 minutes of sauna time then the body expends energy to cool down which leads to a period of restfulness and relaxation. The brain cools and approximately 2 hours later induces deep sleep. A cold shower after the sauna is recommended to promote this process.
Saunas and Serotonin
Sauna studies indicate that the rise and fall in temperatures help the body relax and release powerful neurotransmitters like serotonin. This chemical is sometimes called a ‘happy chemical’ as the effect is to communicate messages between nervous system cells promoting a sense of well-being.
Serotonin controls mood and relieves depression and aids sleeping and other functions such as eating and digestion.
This is another neurotransmitter, often referred to as the stress hormone as it is released in the blood to deal with stressful situations. Together with adrenaline, it increases the heart rate. However, as body temperature rises such as during/after a sauna, norepinephrine levels in the brain decrease.
This in turn decreases alertness and helps induce deep sleep. These effects from changes in internal body temperatures have yet to be fully explained. However, studies to date indicate that saunas help to relax the body and bring about an enhanced period of deep sleep.
The Sauna Experience
In many countries, saunas are almost accepted as essential to good health and well-being. The experience at the end of a busy eventful day can de-stress and detox as the heat causes sweat to flush away toxins and impurities. Thus, saunaing helps cleanse and refresh the body preparing it for a peaceful deep sleep.
Unwinding in the heat of the sauna, the warmth deeply penetrates the skin and can help ease away aches and pains, anxiety, and depression. Infra-red saunas have been used in therapies to treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
As with all things in life, there are some negative statistics. In 1982, Makku Partinen of the University of Helsinki conducted an investigation into sleep disorders.
He recorded that about 3% of those taking pre-bedtime saunas found it harder to get to sleep and about a third experienced no significant change. However, only 2% reported worsening sleep patterns while 60% found that a sauna did not disrupt their sleep.
Significantly, over 40% reported that saunas had a healing effect on the quality of their sleep. Generally, the report outlined the positive benefits of saunas in sleep patterns.
Saunas today are popular at health and fitness clubs and venues and many hotels and holiday resorts offer steam baths and sauna facilities. There is a social side to saunas, appreciated in Scandinavian countries for some time.
Helping to bring about nights of deep refreshing sleep can also refresh minds and enhance physical and mental wellness. For a growing number of people, saunas are a means to relax, cleanse and prepare for a peaceful night, waking refreshed and alert, looking and feeling good for the day ahead.