Live to sauna; sauna to live

PHOTO: Kukkakauppias, Flickr CC

PHOTO: Kukkakauppias, Flickr CC

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sauna as “a Finnish steam bath in which the steam is provided by water thrown on hot stones; also: a bathhouse or room used for such a bath.”

Now research suggests that sauna might also be the ticket to a longer, healthier life.

Back in 2013, I wrote about the traditional Nordic/Finnish sauna (pronounced “sow-na”) as a proven stress reliever in our modern times. Finnish-American immigrants, many now in their fourth or fifth generation, still espouse this longstanding cultural truth. Like their ancestors, they are always right, of course.

For the Finns, many of whom settled right here on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, the sauna is more than just an after-workout reward at the gym, or a luxury of some nice hotel; it is the single most important routine of family life and personal hygiene. Not so long ago, the sauna was the the primary place for spiritual matters, cleanliness, even child birth and healing from illness or injury.

My own family is blended from several northern European influences, though mostly Scandinavian and Finnish. The sauna up at the family’s hunting shack is of the quintessential Finnish tradition: wood fired with precious few accouterments. You go in as you are. One does not need a “beach body,” for this is most assuredly not the beach.

The situation of my childhood, growing up in a trailer house on a junkyard, was not particularly good for transmitting old country traditions. It is there I developed my lifelong affinity for boxed macaroni and diesel fumes. Nevertheless, I recall my first sauna at the tender age of about seven. Without context, I was encouraged to strip down and enter a very hot, crowded room full of my large, hairy naked male relatives. They laughed (jiggling), gestured as they talked (more jiggling), and made a general noise resembling the trombone sound used for teachers in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

As the kids would say, “Geez, a little warning?”

It was a long time before I entered a sauna again, but now as an adult my Nordic blood seems to hunger for them more and more. And perhaps for good reason.

This week, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study showing that increased use of saunas (four times a week) led to improved medical outcomes over those who used saunas less (once a week) or not at all.

Quite simply, the study concludes:

“Increased frequency of sauna bathing is associated with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, cardio vascular disease, and all-cause mortality. Further studies are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health.”

The study also found that longer saunas (19 minutes or more) and hotter saunas (174 degrees or more) were correlated with lower risk of sudden heart-related death. This again validates nearly every Finnish-American elder I’ve ever spoken to, not that we should tell them this.

The study in JAMA, however, does suggest that further research should be conducted to find out why heavy sauna use might improve health. Additionally, doctors want to know if there are other factors that would place frequent sauna participants at lower health risks. For instance, perhaps people who sauna more also exercise more? Maybe the steam extracts toxins? At the very least, 19 minutes in a sauna is 19 minutes you’re not eating cream cheese wontons like potato chips.

It seems to me that it all goes back to the idea that saunas reduce stress. The ritual of regular saunas provide consistent emotional release, a spiritual center, and improves relationships with your big jiggly relatives, which are the leading cause of most heart attacks.*

* Research needed

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, March 8, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. If you’re not from the Range it is called a saw-nah, I’m more comfortable with our pronunciation which is sowww-na. I bought a house out east many yrs ago and the seller told me he had a saw-na , I must of looked confused because he said I’ll show you. off the bathroom in the basement he showed me a sauna. I looked at him and said you mean a sowww-na followed by I’ll take the house.

  2. I keep telling Jessica that as soon as I can I’m building a sauna out here. These east coasters just don’t appreciate a good wood burning sauna. I grew up heading over to my Finnish grandparents house every Saturday for sauna night. The whole family would spend the entire day together. Sauna fired up around 4PM and we’d go in groups. Older men together, then the younger male cousins and so on. Some of the best memories of my youth. High School we’d have sauna get togethers out on Whiteface in Markham or someone’s hunting shack in Skibo outside Hoyt Lakes. Great article. Brought back a lot of memories.

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