Sauna History: When & Who Invented It?

Relaxing and healing in a hot, woodsy-scented sauna is an enjoyable experience. Nobody can dispute its positive impact on the overall physical and mental health. Yet, saunas in the past weren’t like their modern counterparts. Old bathhouses were in the ground and protected people from the cold.

Which nation takes the credit for inventing this body and mind-cleansing miracle? When did heat treatments appear, and with what purpose? Below, you will find a summary of the development of sauna through the ages and its multiple health benefits.

Development Of Saunas Through Time


Although many people believe saunas come from Finland, the notion dates back to the Stone Age. However, the word “sauna” means something like “wooden room” in Finnish.

Nobody knows for sure where the first saunas stood. Many believe the tradition originated in northern Europe around 2,000 BC. Soon after, it became an essential part of cultural life in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. Let’s take a brief look at the timeline of saunas.

Ancient Times

The first steam baths were in the ground or caves. These shelters wrapped with animal skins had a fire burning under a pile of stones. Once the fire went out, the heated spot continued to warm the cave during the night. People and animals could bask in the steam rising from the rocks poured with water.

Early saunas were living places, washrooms, kitchens, and hospitals. Both birth and death got celebrated there far from the grip of harsh winters. As a result, saunas developed distinct traditions and often became holy places.

Archaeologists have come across reliable evidence of saunas across the ancient world. Though with different names, the similarities between European saunas, Chinese bathhouses, and Native American sweat lodges are remarkable.

Middle Ages

In northern Europe, sauna caves became dwelling places, and traditions continued. People used to fill the room with smoke before ventilating it and beat each other with birch branches. Later on, sauna culture-inspired bathhouses mushroomed across the Islamic world and East Asia.

For a long time, bathhouses were an integral part of daily life. Suddenly, the tradition stopped, and the villain may be easy to spot. Many believe the victory of reason, science, and personal liberty shaded divine authorities. Superstitious bathing techniques became part of the old order and out of fashion.

Modern Times

With the industrial revolution in northern Europe, people added chimneys to saunas. As a result, heating with wood was faster and with long-lasting effects even after people entered. Today, wood-fired saunas seem to be the authentic ones though smoke ones without chimneys are still popular.

The first electric sauna appeared in Finland and replaced its wood-fired predecessor. More people could experience the benefits of this public leisure activity, although with an inferior form of heat. Thanks to electricity, saunas can now easily be installed inside spas, gyms, and hotels.

As the Finns migrated, they took sauna designs and traditions with them. Thanks to Finnish and Swedish immigrants, the first sauna emerged in North America. In the first half of the 20th century, sauna bathing exploded throughout the US.

Companies such as Finnleo, Metos Sauna, and Helo Sauna quickly capitalized on the potential of this industry. A bit later, the demand for specialized, custom saunas skyrocketed.

As a result, many households could afford an in-home sauna. Though you may think this is a luxurious venture, saunas are relatively inexpensive. The average monthly cost to run a sauna three times a week ranges from $2 to $6.

Many Cultures: One Intention

Regardless of culture, location, or time in history, humanity has used heat for therapeutic purposes and relaxation. It’s astonishing to see how different societies adopted the trend and how it affected their daily lives.

Greek and Roman bathhouses paved the way for contemporary spas. These communities used hot spring baths and steam rooms to purify the body through intense sweating. The ritual also evolved into a social meeting place for rulers, politicians, and merchants.

In Turkey, Hammams were bathhouses in ornate buildings for spiritual and social gatherings. Their popularity boomed during the Ottoman Empire and spread to the entire Islamic world.

Hammams were complex and contained hot air sessions, hotter dry rooms, and cold water purification. Like in modern spas, massage was available and other treatments to purify, relax and beautify the body.

Egypt has a long tradition of heat therapy for people with tumors and infections. Egyptians used heat to treat specific body regions and the whole body with hot springs and steam rooms.

Russia is also a country steeped in thermal therapy. Russians have used saunas to stimulate sweating, followed by exposing the body to freezing temperatures. Similarly, Indian medicine has incorporated heat therapy in its healing techniques using a hot stone massage.

Herbal sauna therapy is the prevalent type in Laos. These herbal sanctuaries help women to heal faster after childbirth.

Finally, a Jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse with traditional Korean Kiln saunas. Besides hot springs, saunas, and massage, these bathhouses feature therapeutic spaces with heated floors for deep healing.


How Do Saunas Work?


Saunas are confined, small rooms heated to temperatures between 150°F and 195°F. These spaces usually have unpainted wooden interiors and temperature controls and can be indoors or outdoors.

Traditional saunas heat the air and then the body by sprinkling water over hot rocks. Depending on how much water you pour over the stones, you can adjust the temperature and humidity. Some prefer to add essential oils to the water for aromatherapy.

Humidity is vital because air mustn’t be too moist or too dry but still bearable. Ideal humidity levels are essential for your health and well-being. Proper ventilation is also a must for the sauna to run efficiently.

First, it takes between 30 and 40 minutes to preheat the rocks before bathers can enjoy the surroundings. Experts suggest that the ideal treatment time should range from 10 to 15 minutes.

As the temperature increases from the bottom of a sauna room to the ceiling, humidity increases the opposite way. Precision meters show details about the room moisture to make sauna sessions more comfortable.


Health Benefits Of Using Saunas

More important than the timeline of saunas, however, is their effect. The intense heat causes the blood vessels in the skin to expand, and we start sweating. We get a fever effect, so the body starts forming antibodies. Then, the sweat eliminates toxins and waste from the body.

1. Cardiovascular Health

Thanks to the heating process, the core body temperature increases. The hot air makes the blood vessels in the skin dilate and increases your heart rate. The rate can increase up to 120 bpm in the sauna and go below average in the post-bathing phase.

As a result, regular sauna usage improves cardiac output and trains our heart muscles. Other cardiovascular benefits include reduced risk of stroke, hypertension, and fatal cardiac incidents. People who are less active and more prone to obesity and heart-health risks can also gain from saunas.

2. Pain Management

Heat stimulates the release of endorphins into the body. These hormones make you feel positive and have a mild tranquilizing effect. As a result, the feelings of pain, especially in the joints and muscles, can gradually disappear.

Similarly, the increased body temperature enhanced blood circulation. The accelerated blood flow then speeds up the body’s natural healing process and soothes injuries and pain.

Sauna exposure can further reduce muscle tension and cramps. By eliminating lactic acid and other toxins, the healing of minor bruises or cuts can take place.

3. Harmful Toxins Release

We come into contact with pesticides, chemicals, and other toxins every day. Whether through food, cosmetics, or household cleaners, the accumulation of toxins can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and brain fog. Hence, one of the best ways to fight harmful substances is profuse and effective sweating.

Sweat comprises 99% water, and its primary role is to cool the body. Following intensive sweating, the body will remove heavy metal toxins like lead, zinc, copper, mercury, and nickel. Solvents, pharmaceuticals, and organic chemicals also leave your body at a faster rate.

It’s also indisputable that sauna treatments can eliminate about one-third of the toxic material your kidneys take from the bloodstream. On top of that, high temperatures stimulate the body to fight against bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

4. Brain And Mental Health

The vast majority of chronic diseases and ailments come down to stress. Being stressed out and anxious for prolonged periods can do more damage to the body than anything else. Even worse, the consequences are long-term and can lead to depression and insomnia.

Luckily, saunas soothe your body and mind, making you feel relaxed and manage stress and anger easily. In short, heat regulates cortisol levels in the blood and stimulates the production of serotonin, which is the happy hormone.

5. Boosted Immunity System

Many people wonder if there’s any connection between saunas and colds. The answer is yes. Indeed, saunas boost your immunity even before you catch a cold.

By inducing an artificial fever in the sauna, your body creates white blood cells and antibodies. As the temperature gets lower, your immunity strengthens for the next time you contract a virus. Hence, raising and lowering the body’s temperature helps killing bacteria and viruses.

More specifically, white blood cells can increase by 58% in sauna conditions. Similarly, T cells and antibodies can skyrocket by as much as 2,000%. Besides, many harmful microbes can’t stand temperatures above 104°F, so the benefits for your immunity are multifold.

Saunas with steam and higher humidity also help open the nasal passages. As a result, your sinuses can drain faster and eliminate respiratory discomforts. It’s also likely for damaged cells to recover more quickly in fever conditions since your metabolic rate accelerates.

6. Skin Health

If you thought the fountain of youth was a myth, you got that wrong! When it comes to skin health, heat bathing is a beauty trick older than time. Deep sauna sweating clears out pores, cleanses the skin, and removes bacteria from the sweat ducts and epidermal layer.

Boosted capillary circulation makes the skin look soft and youthful. Plus, saunas can help the collagen structure of the skin stay firm and fight off wrinkles. Besides improving skin tone, saunas can alleviate skin conditions like cellulite, eczema, and psoriasis.

7. Sleep-Boosting

Saunas can tackle insomnia in its worse shapes and bring peaceful dreams back to you. Having a sauna session before bed is like meditation. When you soothe your body physically, your mind and emotions soon follow. The effect is long-lasting and will help you get a better night’s sleep.

8. Healthy Weight And Fitness

Saunas can’t help you lose weight after a single session, and there’s no magical formula for eliminating fat. However, saunas can contribute to weight maintenance if you pair them with other healthy habits.

As for weight, saunas can burn calories. Research shows that half an hour sessions can torch as many calories as running several miles. The reason for quick calorie-burning lies in the acceleration of heart activity and oxygen demand.

Also, regular sauna use can improve your overall fitness by reducing fat deposits and speeding up your metabolism. If your goals include improving strength training and recovery times, then consider visiting a sauna at least once a week.


Bottom Line

No matter your location and which sauna you prefer, you are continuing a long-lived tradition. Saunas originate from ancient times as a story interwoven with the fate and fortunes of the people who visited them.

Saunas have never been walls and rooms only. Besides being a place for relaxation and mingling, these miracles have numerous benefits for your health, too.

Enough reasons to visit your closest spa center? Or perhaps you’re already a fan of saunas and relish basking in the steam? Please, share your thoughts in the comments below, and keep visiting our page for more insight.

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