Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sauna: an alternative birthing environment

Today, I visited the Nordic Heritage Museum where I learned that it is the Finnish who are famous for the inventions of the sauna (correctly pronounced SOW-NA) as early as the 5th to 8th centuries, and its also the tradition place where Finnish women would birth their babies. This of course intrigued me so I got online to find out more about this birthing practice. Of course, I have heard of water birth in tubs, and even the ocean, as a comfort measure during childbirth, but a sauna is fundamentally different in that it is dry heat and on land, in place of being submerged in water.

I read on wikipedia that the reason women gave birth in saunas was because of the sterile, warm environment with water readily available. But there must be more than just sterility and warmth that made this such a common practice in the Finnish culture.

The article goes on to state:
In Finland and Estonia, the sauna is an ancient custom. It used to be a holy place, a place where women gave birth, and where the bodies of the dead were washed.

Additionally, the sauna provides the following benefits that lend directly to easing the effort of childbirth:
The temperature changes of therapeutic sauna can help and this has other benefits as well. When first used gradual increases in heating and cooling are recommended. Therapeutic sauna reduces stress hormones and the cardiac workload is considered about half that of a walk, so initial exposure time is important also. The hypothalamus in our brain controls the balance homeostasis of the autonomic nervous system between the ACTION sympathetic and the RELAXATION parasympathetic nervous tone. The well known ‘fight or flight’ stress response produces hormones intended to be burnt off by action, but in a modern lifestyle such hormones may remain in the system. Chronic illness can be associated with altered sympathetic nervous function. Continual stress may alter the balance point of homeostasis, as can some persistent viruses. Allostatic load measurement is an emerging science of measuring with physiological tests the accumulated effect of all types of stress, over time, on the body. Four different patterns of dysfunctional allostasis have been identified, each associated with certain chronic conditions. When allostasis (the process of maintenance of homeostasis, adaptation, and survival) is dysfunctional the balance point is shifted and persistent symptoms may result. In one form of dysfunction the hypothalamus and HPA axis responsible for producing hormones is found to be hypo functioning with effects on the sympathetic system and the immune system. In particular production of hypothalamus controlled HPA axis hormones such as ACTH and cortisol; as well other hormones are affected. Other patterns of dysfunctional allostasis involve conditions where there is failure to habituate or adapt to stress and another pattern with high levels of stress hormones, causes conditions such as hypertension or high blood pressure. Therapeutic sauna has been shown to aid adaptation, reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular conditions.

For more information about the effects of saunas as a health practice, see the above cited link. I recommend the article there as it is heavily cited with biomedical research. Unfortunately, I am unable to located any research directly connecting pain relief and comfort during birth to the use of saunas.


artglick said...

Readers planning to put a sauna in their home should beware of the so-called “infrared” saunas, most of which are made in the People’s Republic of China from clearly inferior materials. These are not the genuine saunas in the Scandinavian style.

Although both types of sauna have electrical heating elements, that’s where the similarity ends. In the traditional heater, these elements are hidden inside the cabinet, where they heat the air as well as a mass of special stones. This allows for a nice consistent heat and the Finnish custom of “loyly”, which is the sprinkling of water on the stones and which can change the environment in the sauna dramatically.

The “infrared” heaters have exposed heating elements, so that the heat radiates directly onto the bather in sort of a one sided fashion. Most important, these “infrared” heaters have a much lower capacity, so the complaint we hear most often about them is that they fail to attain the heat typical for a genuine sauna, especially on the part of the bather’s body that’s turned away from the heater.

Obviously, you also sacrifice the ability to sprinkle water on the heater, and we’re not even certain that it’s actually healthy to expose one’s self to such direct radiation, or how enjoyable such an experience would be, compared to the traditional sauna.

We can, however, tell you that the traditional Scandinavian style saunas are centuries old (they used to heat them with wood, before the advent of electricity), and their safety and therapeutic efficacy is well established.

The Chinese are spreading some pretty wild claims about their infrared saunas, and they’re also spreading falsehoods about the traditional Scandinavian style saunas, although, to be completely fair, the article above does neither.

The U.S. market is flooded with these cheap saunas from the PRC, and one fellow sauna vendor confided to me that he had received a shipment of these Chinese infrared saunas, and that they were all underwired - the gauge of wire was too small to carry the load - making them a real fire risk.

As with tainted toothpaste, poisonous pet food and lead painted children’s toys, some of these saunas are downright hazardous! But you don’t have to take my word for it. How about the Electrical Safety Authority in Ontario, Canada? See…

Canadian Government Recalls Chinese Saunas

Our biggest issue is with the false claims being made for these saunas. They give all sauna vendors a bad name. Several vendors we’ve seen make wild weight loss claims - 600 to 800 calories burned from sitting in one! One site we saw claimed that 30 minutes in their sauna burns nearly as many calories as running a marathon!

Come on. Use your common sense!

Unfortunately, weight loss claims for any type of sauna are just hype (sorry folks!). Your body just loses water, and it’s dangerous to lose weight through dehydration (are you listening wrestlers and jockeys?). See what a real doctor has to say about it at…

…the list of misrepresentations goes on and on.

Take whatever you read with a grain of salt, and use your common sense when evaluating claims. Always check the country of origin when comparing sauna offers.
Almost Heaven Group

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Jami said...

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