There is nothing like a relaxing session in the sauna to relieve tension and purify your system by sweating out the toxins. Many people enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail before or during a session in the sauna, and this is where a relatively healthy activity can become a potentially dangerous one. Many people mistakenly assume that the heat of the sauna will help them “sweat out” the alcohol, or “detox” other substances from their body through the sweating process, but this is not necessarily the case.
According to a research study conducted in Finland, where a majority of the population uses saunas on a regular basis, many more sauna-related accidents and deaths (nearly 25 per year) occur when alcohol is part of the mix. Study results showed that drinking alcohol when using the sauna—even nursing a hangover while using the sauna—led to an increase in accidents, mishaps, and health problems, including:
- head contusions or head trauma from falls
- heat stroke
- loss of consciousness
- cardiac arrhythmias
A Dangerous Combination
Finland is also the location of a somewhat unusual sport—the World Sauna Championships, during which contestants try to outlast each other in a heated sauna room—that has led to at least one sauna-related fatality.
Yet, saunas and over-heated steam rooms are popular in many countries besides Finland. In the U.S., saunas, sweat lodges and hot tubs are viewed by many as part of a healthy lifestyle. The danger seems to stem from the combination of overheating your body, particularly when alcohol is in your system.
A sauna is typically set somewhere around at 110°C (230°F). The average human body temperature is 98.6°F—and it functions best at this temperature. When the core temperature of your body rises above that temperature, things can begin to go wrong.
People who sit in a sauna for more than a few short minutes at a stretch, risk raising their core body temperature too high, leading to a potential medical emergency. If those individuals have been drinking alcohol or are hung over, they may already be dehydrated and can lose even more fluid at too high a rate. This will hinder the body’s ability to sweat and cool off.
Also, since alcohol works as a depressant in the body, it can slow down the pumping of the heart and the circulation of the blood. If the body gets overheated and dehydrated, the heart has to work harder. In fact, during a 10-20 minute sauna session, your heart rate can increase by 50 to 75 percent, just as it might during strenuous physical exercise. If you are overheated and dehydrated by alcohol, your heart cannot keep up with the demand.
A person who is overdoing the sauna may experience a drop in blood pressure and severe heat exhaustion, and may pass out. This is much more likely to happen if the person has consumed alcohol, and also if they are older or have a heart problem. If things go too far, body systems can begin to shut down and the situation can become dangerous.
How to Avoid Sauna Dangers
While many parties or spa vacations that include time in a sauna may sound like fun, proceed with caution. If you want to spend a few minutes in the sauna, you may be able to do so if you follow these tips to stay safe:
- Do not use a sauna if you are older, have a heart problem, or respiratory problem
- Do not use the sauna if you have been drinking
- Plan to drink your wine or cocktail after you have been in the sauna, not before
- Limit yourself to roughly 5-8 minutes in the sauna, and don’t push yourself to stay longer
- Rehydrate yourself by drinking a LOT of water before, during and after the sauna to replenish your fluids lost through sweating in its heated atmosphere
- If you feel uncomfortable after even a few minutes in the sauna, you should leave
- If you feel dizzy, lightheaded or sick, leave the sauna
The sauna is not for everyone, and even if you drink plenty of water, avoid drinking alcohol before or during, and take all the other precautions when using the sauna, you simply may not feel comfortable in the enclosed, heated atmosphere. If you are one of those people who enjoy the heat of a sauna, just remember to use caution and keep alcohol out of the mix!