Why We Sweat.

It's kind of hard to beat working with fire, going through a purifying sweat, and then getting cleansed by a downpour of rain and thunder. 

From the sweat lodges of the Native Americans, the Roman thermae, or the sauna loving Finn’s, for ages mankind has been enjoying the many benefits of sweating.

The reasons people participated in organized sweating ranged from health, to spiritual, as well as social. Still, today many people enjoy getting a good “sweat” on, and at The Vital Guide we do too. Check out the photo above from a sweat we put together just a few weeks ago. 

For the purpose of keeping things simple, I'm using the word sauna to refer to any of the varied heat inducing methods, such as steam rooms, sweat lodges or infrared sauna’s like the one’s the good people at Clearlight make.

As far as I know there are three types of options when it comes to heating yourself up: Dry, steam and infrared saunas. Dry sauna’s being the oldest form of the practice.

Below is an excerpt from, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, by Matthew Wood.

"Throughout Indian America the sweat lodge was, and still is, the primary center for physical and spiritual healing. The lodge is not only a place where spirits talk, but where people perspire. The fire is hot, the water splashes on the rocks, the vapor rises, and the pores open. The Indian healers who helped their pioneer neighbors did not usually speak good English or describe what they were doing, but the pioneers learned by observing their methods. They adopted a simplified, non-ceremonial form of the sweat lodge or used diaphoretic herbal droughts to open the skin and raise a sweat."

Is It Good For You?

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of saunas benefits there are also many scientific studies to back up the health claims of heat therapy. I’m including the studies because although I would still participate in sweats, civilized or primal, I think it’s important to show the science to help you understand that this isn’t just some woo-woo practice from a by-gone era. 

Below I’ve selected a small handful of studies. These focus on several areas of potential benefits. See for yourself.

Heart Health - Researchers found reduced rates of sudden cardiac death[1] [2]

Another study discusses the potential benefits sweating can have by helping the body eliminate dangerous toxins from the body. [3]

Performance - In a video by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, PHD, she explains how what she calls “Hyperthermic Conditioning” can help improve performance in a variety of areas.[4] You can find her complete guest article on the subject via Tim Ferriss’s blog at the fourhourworkweek.com.[5]

Benefits vs Risks - One publication examines the benefits and risks of sauna bathing. Some areas this review covers are the effects on rheumatic disease, the lungs, hormonal changes, reproductive system (hint: Finnish men have high sperm counts) and a few other areas.[6] 

Community & Something Greater

There are social and spiritual benefits to sweating as well. Since the early days, for many cultures sweat baths were a form of ceremony in which members of the community came together to participate.

We don’t need studies to tell us that social interactions make us happier, but if the Blue Zone’s of the world (areas where people live measurably longer lives) are any indication, one of the keys to a long life is social interaction. Taking a sauna with friends or relatives is a great way to connect and enjoy each other’s company.

Every time I’ve gone to a “sweat”, whether in the Turkish/Russian baths in the city, or a more primal sweat like the one in the image above, the sense of community is palpable. There is usually good conversation and in the case of the primal sweats, a sense of working together towards a specific purpose. 

For some sweating is also a way to commune with Spirit. Much like the physical detoxing that can occur via sweating, a participant could seek purification through a cleansing sweat. There were ceremonies that involved healing, guidance or visioning. In today’s culture many people turn to the spiritual aspects of primal sweats as an alternative to more traditional religions.

I can speak from personal experience that when I’ve participated in lodges there is a heightened sense of connection to something greater than myself. Much, I suspect, like someone might feel when they are in church or in a deep state of meditation. The intentions/prayers being set in these environments seem to have more depth than if one were to simply pray at home. 

Some Contraindications:

Make sure that you check with your functional or integrative medicine doctor to get cleared before you decide to participate in any sauna activity, especially if you’re taking medications or have a heart condition. 

DO NOT consume drugs or alcohol before entering a sauna.

Sauna use has been shown to temporarily worsen some symptoms in those with Multiple Sclerosis due to heat sensitivity.[7] 

While there are many benefits to inducing a good sweat, there are risks as well. So as always approach this with an ounce of caution but by all means get in there and sweat!

What have your sauna experiences been? Whether it was on the health, spiritual, or social level, let us know in the comments below.

[1] http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2130724

[2] http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleid=1127811

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312275/%0A

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHOlM-wlNjM

[5] http://fourhourworkweek.com/2014/04/10/saunas-hyperthermic-conditioning-2/%23fn-11990-1%0A

[6] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12163683_Benefits_and_risks_of_sauna_bathing

[7] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2264758