Intense heat exposure can be therapeutic and it can be deadly. Like a powerful drug, it is the way in which it is used that makes the difference. The context, preparation, helpful aids, temperature, rest periods, and recuperation time are all important. That does not mean that there is just one way or even “a best way” to do it. Although there are many different ways to enjoy a sauna, some important guidelines should be considered.
Contraindications and Heat Disorders
For most people, sweat bathing is well tolerated and safe. Sweat bathing is contraindicated during high-risk pregnancies and for people with unstable angina pectoris, recent myocardial infarction, severe aortic stenosis, decompensated heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, and severe spinal cord injuries. Alcohol intake while sweat bathing can create serious health risks. See this post for further discussion of the risks and benefits of sauna.
In my fifteen years of avid use of sweat lodges and saunas including lengthy research projects, I have never experienced a participant suffer a heat disorder. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms and how to provide first-aid. Heat disorders include heat collapse, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The symptoms of heat disorders include headache, nausea, vertigo, weakness, thirst, confusion, irrational behavior, loss of consciousness, convulsions, a lack of sweating, and an abnormally high body temperature. General recommendations for first aid of heat disorders include removing the person from the hot environment, wetting the person’s skin and increasing air movement around the person to improve evaporative cooling until professional methods of cooling are initiated and the seriousness of the condition can be assessed. Fluids should be replaced as soon as possible. No person suspected of being ill from heat stroke should be sent home or left unattended unless a physician has specifically approved such an order. Professional medical treatment should be obtained immediately in the case of heat stroke.
Before SAUNA Meal
Consider your amount of food intake before going to sweat. Sweating is a form of exercise. You wouldn’t decide to go for a run right after Thanksgiving dinner and the same should be true for sweating. It is often recommended that one fast for an hour or two before sweating. On the other hand, if you wait too long to eat you can feel feint or week. A good general rule is to not eat heavy before you sweat and to moderate your pre-sweat meal to how you would before engaging in any intense cardio exercise.
Give your sauna some time to heat up. There is nothing more disappointing than when you’re all ready to plunge into some heat and discovering the sauna is still cold or lukewarm. If you are using a sauna in a gym or health club, do yourself a favor and call ahead asking the staff person, “To please make sure the sauna is on.” Rocks, walls, and benches need time to absorb the heat so that heat emanates from all sides of the sauna, not just from the kivas. Saunas typically take thirty minutes to heat up. The recommended temperature is 176 to 194º F (80-90º C). The thermometer should be located at head level or 15” below the ceiling in a 7’ high sauna. It should be located away from the heater or the door so it will not give a false reading.
Clothing choice is a personal one except for jewelry. Jewelry should be removed before entering a sweat structure as it can feel burning to the skin. Hard core sweat enthusiasts say the only way to sweat is naked. In my sweat therapy research, minimal attire was a bathing suit. Some people stuck to the minimal attire while others wore t-shirts in addition to bathing suits or shorts. The same is true for when people come to my home to sweat. Greater attention to your body image is an effect of sweating. Clothing choice is often reflective of body-image issues. As a result, when people start to sweat on a regular basis they start to pay greater attention to their diet and exercise.
Water & Towels
The things you will need are two towels and a quart of water. One towel is for bringing in with you into the sauna. This towel can be used for sitting on or other personal hygiene. The second towel is for drying off afterward. Drink plenty of water before entering the sauna and between intervals of heat exposure.
The recommended time inside a sauna is anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Take a five-minute break and then repeat. An athletic watch with a timer is helpful for marking time. Plastic covered sport watches, like a Timex Ironman, won’t burn your skin. Two to four rounds in the sauna should do it. During the break drink plenty of water. Allow yourself to take a longer break to recuperate after your last round before moving on to your next activity. For recuperation guidelines, see The Four Stages of Sauna Recuperation.