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Sauna Against Hangover – Does a Sauna Really Help?

by Max
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Sauna Against Hangover - Does a Sauna Really Help

The sauna has a host of great health benefits. Spending time in the sauna is a great way to keep your body and mind healthy, but there are several long-held myths about saunas and health that just aren’t true. A big myth we’d like to explore today is whether or not saunas really help with hangovers. Just about everyone has their own convoluted hangover cure usually involving fried food or some kind of bizarre drink from a blender, but could it really be as easy as just taking a sauna? We all know that taking a sauna is a good way to relax, but does being in the sauna genuinely speed up the effects of a hangover? The answer isn’t as clear cut as you may guess.

Are Saunas Good for Hangovers?

Let’s get this out of the way: no, saunas are not a “cure” for hangovers. The scientific community (and anyone who has ever tried a hangover cure) knows that the only cure for hangovers is time. That doesn’t mean, however, that the sauna can’t help quiet down some of the more painful symptoms of hangovers.

Saunas are Good for Headaches

While a headache is only one part of a hangover, it’s probably the most painful part for most of us. This is where saunas may actually be able to help with some of the pain that comes with hangovers. There is evidence that regular sauna use can help reduce headache symptoms for those with tension headaches more than 15 days a month. While those headaches don’t account for hangover headaches, the logic is still there: it’s likely that one of the reasons we get headaches during a hangover is because the blood vessels in our brain are constricted from blood pressure changes brought on by the alcohol. Because the sauna also changes our blood pressure, it’s natural to expect some relief in the sauna. But that doesn’t mean your body will process alcohol any quicker.

Saunas Can Help Regularize Post-Hangover Sleeping

One of the symptoms of a hangover people can’t feel as clearly as a headache or fatigue is that our sleep is generally very bad after excess drinking. Scientists have found that people who have had a lot to drink (and will likely have a hangover when they wake up) have several disrupting episodes during a night’s sleep that stops our rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and prevents us from getting a good deep sleep. Saunas, however, have the ability to do just the opposite.

A study from Aalto University in Helsinki found that people who took a sauna just before going to bed experienced more deep sleep than those who did not. So for those of us with hangovers bad enough to last into the following evening, it may be a good idea to take a quick break in the sauna before going to bed. You may find yourself waking up more refreshed than if you didn’t.

The Finnish Traditionally Used the Sauna as a Hangover Relief

Ask any Finn or Finnish expat about saunas and Finnish drinking culture, and you’ll likely get a long answer. We’ll shorten the history for you here: saunas are a social hotspot in Finland and are both used as drinking spaces as well as post-hangover cool-down spaces.

People with hangovers classically turned to the sauna in Finland to find momentary relief and this is why: the traditional mode of sauna use in Finland isn’t just spent in the sauna. After 20 or so minutes in the heat it’s customary to quickly jump into either a cold lake or some snow and then repeat the process as many times as you would like. That system shock of hot, then cold is enough to make anyone forget about a hangover. At that moment, you may feel a lessening of symptoms from your hangover, but as soon as the shock of the cold wears off in your body, that headache will come right back. The Finnish method isn’t for speeding up hangovers; rather, it is for feeling momentary relief. And for reasons we’ll explore later, there are a fair few reasons you should think twice before trying this method.

Saunas Do Not Speed Up Hangovers

Many people who have heard that saunas help with hangovers don’t consider the blood flow benefits but rather have heard that sweating in the sauna is basically an alcohol detox. This is untrue. While the body does release toxins, oil, and, most importantly, water when we sweat, this has nothing to do with the way the body processes alcohol.

The alcohol detox myth comes from a half-truth about the sauna: while, yes, sweating in the sauna is very good for the skin and our overall health, that doesn’t mean that alcohol comes out from our skin when we sweat. When we drink alcohol, it goes directly from our stomach to our liver, so it can be processed as waste. The liver then releases purified water, which replenishes our body. The unusable remainders leave our body through urine. The water that comes out of our pores when we sweat is that same post-process purified water that alcohol ends up as after its journey through the body. So, for example, if you get into the sauna right when you have a hangover, almost all of the alcohol in your body is probably already being processed by your liver or has already left you one way or another.

What You Should Know Before Taking a Sauna with a Hangover

Like any other activity, taking a sauna drunk or with a hangover is more dangerous than doing it sober. There are several precautions you should take before stepping into the sauna when under the effects of alcohol.

What You Should Know Before Taking The Sauna Against Hangover
What You Should Know Before Taking The Sauna Against Hangover

Both Saunas and Hangovers Dehydrate Us

If you wake up with a hangover, the wisest thing for you to do is drink a glass of water or two before you get anywhere near your sauna. After a night of drinking, the body tends to actually become dehydrated because alcohol causes us to urinate more, and there is very little water in alcohol that the body can preserve and use for bodily processes. Similar to drinking coffee, alcohol in many ways actually dehydrates the body. This actually leads to one of the several major theories of hangovers, that being that hangovers are our body reacting to a sudden drop of water, specifically in the brain. So when you wake up with a hangover, your body is probably already in need of a drink.

There is, however, a long history of actually drinking alcohol in the sauna. This originated, like so many sauna culture points, in Finland. It’s entirely common on the weekends to take a pint with you into the sauna or to take shots in between cooldowns in the lake. The part of that tradition that many people forget to mention is that any smart traditional sauna user also has a carafe of water on standby for all of the people using the sauna.

Going into the sauna puts you at real risk of dehydration, a risk that goes up even further if you’re hungover. So if you are intent on taking a sauna when you are hungover, be certain that you drink a fair bit of water before stepping into the sauna. It’s also not a bad idea to give your body a few minutes to process that water before you step in.

The Sauna May Change Your Blood Pressure Too Quickly When You are Hungover

One of the major benefits of regular sauna use is that the warm environment of the sauna makes the body’s blood pressure go up. This is generally quite good for the body, but in the case of a person experiencing a hangover, it can potentially be dangerous.

When we are under the effects of a hangover, the body is more sensitive to quick changes. For example, when a hungover person sees a strong light unexpectedly, they’ll probably react in a more animated way compared to when they are sober. This same logic is true for the inside of the body as well. Any quick change of environment has the potential to shock the body, so going into a hot sauna right after a hangover has the potential to disrupt your blood pressure’s pace in an unhealthy way.

Those of us with existing heart conditions absolutely should talk to their doctor before using the sauna with a hangover. There are studies that show people with irregular heartbeats, otherwise known as cardiac arrhythmia, may find their heart rate more difficult to manage during a hangover. This effect is then amplified by the sauna. For this example, think of the sauna in a similar way to exercise: When it is warmer than 33 degrees Celsius, many doctors advise against heavy exercise outside because the body may strain itself too hard too quickly. The same logic is valid for the sauna; being that wood-burning saunas are even hotter than 33 degrees, it is unwise to subject your body to that level of heat when you already feel discomfort or your body is outside of homeostasis.

Taking a Sauna with a Hangover May Make You Faint

Even without a hangover, sitting high up in a wood-burning sauna can cause those not used to the extreme heat of a sauna to faint. This can come about for a multitude of reasons, but just all of those reasons are even more potent when under the effects of a hangover. Primarily, fainting happens when the body is overwhelmed; this is most commonly due to heat or dehydration. The headache so common in hangovers already predisposes the body to fainting; even though saunas have been found to be good for headaches, the mélange of negative feelings brought on by a hangover may overpower any benefits found for sober people.

People with irregular heartbeats are even more likely to feel discomfort and faint in the sauna. When the body changes blood pressure too quickly, it can react in one of several ways: one of those is fainting.

Be Careful of Your Surroundings When Hungover in the Sauna

It’s not fun to admit, but those of us with hangovers are still not at 100%, just without the careless fun of being drunk. Our motor skills are delayed, and our body is essentially playing a long game of catch-up with the stimuli around us. Sure, people with hangovers have more awareness than drunk people, but it’s still more than possible for a hungover person to slip, trip, or burn themselves on the stove in a wood-burning sauna. If you are intent on taking a sauna with a hangover, try not to do it alone. Like how friends choose a designated driver, be certain that there is a wholly sober person in the sauna with you.

What is a Hangover?

We all know what a hangover feels like, but what exactly in the body causes hangovers? Understanding the finer points of a hangover will also explain why saunas aren’t necessarily a “cure” for them.

The hangover itself is the combination of symptoms you feel when waking up after a night of excess drinking: a uniquely painful, distant headache to the point of vertigo, fatigue, and usually thirst. Behind the scenes, the body’s blood pressure also goes up, our stomach releases more acid than normal, and the brain may be undergoing what the National Institute of Health calls a mini-withdrawl in which the brain tries to account for the big change from “lots of alcohol” to “no alcohol”.

Why Do We Get Hangovers? Scientifically

Those of us who have had the displeasure of waking up with a hangover know two things: the pain comes about right when you wake up … and you have to have had a lot of alcohol the night before in a relatively short amount of time.

Most scientists believe that we experience hangovers both because of dehydration in combination with one of several chemical deficits. We mentioned earlier that the body’s blood pressure increases during a hangover; this leads to inflammation of our blood vessels and likely the headache many of us feel in a hangover. But in an entirely different part of the body, alcohol is also causing a build-up of a toxic compound called acetaldehyde. This compound is associated with body fatigue; so each part of the hangover is likely happening in a different system of the body all for different reasons.

The conclusion is that no two bodies will feel a hangover in the same way. While our headaches may come about for one reason, our fatigue probably does for completely unrelated reasons. The hangover is so complex that scientists don’t have a true consensus as to what causes it. It is, then, unwise to imagine that there is a magical cure-all for hangovers waiting in your sauna.

Wood-burning Sauna or Steam Room?

Even just saying “saunas” doesn’t consider that there are two major types of saunas with very different environments. While the classic wood-burning or Scandinavian-style sauna is exceedingly dry, steam rooms or Thai/Asian-style saunas are just the opposite, incredibly humid.

The traditional wood-burning sauna, however, is regularly spoken in the same breath as “hangover cure” and has been for hundreds of years. Many of the myths that have to do with sauna use came about originally when talking about the Scandinavian-style sauna. But this doesn’t mean that the steam room doesn’t have a fair few mythical qualities too.

When talking about hangover relief, does it matter what type of sauna you use? The short answer is no. This is because just about every health benefit from saunas are true for both steam rooms and wood-burning saunas. Beyond the humidity and a temperature difference, the two types of saunas are so similar (for this topic specifically) that they can be treated as one.

Conclusions on Saunas and Hangovers

While saunas certainly aren’t a “cure” for a hangover, there are several reasons why someone may choose to take a sauna in the morning after. Whether you take a sauna or not, your hangover effects will last the same amount of time. But taking a sauna is a genuinely refreshing experience. In the same way that people recommend keeping lights low and taking it easy when you have a hangover, the sauna is a great place to do just that. Those of us who already love taking saunas and are acclimated to the sauna environment may find relief from our hangovers simply because we are at ease in the sauna.

If the biggest pain in your hangover is a headache, you may find some temporary relief in the sauna. But there is an important checklist to consider before getting into the sauna with a hangover: be certain that you have had enough water to drink, try to avoid going into the sauna by yourself hungover, be mindful of your heart rate and if you have an existing heart condition ask your doctor before taking a sauna with a hangover.

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