Thinking of treating yourself this winter? The idea is nothing new — spa treatments are one of the oldest of human practices, with everybody from the Romans to the ancient Byzantines building hammams, bathhouses, saunas, and other facilities for communal bathing. The Apostle Andrewwrote in 1113 of the "wondrous" Russian banyas, or saunas, and that's one of the more modern records.
These days, of course, spas have a different role: in many cultures they originated as communal bathing in eras where private plumbing was non-existent or unknown to anybody but the very rich (though, of course going to the spa is still a very privileged activity). And spa-goers these days get the benefit of many different traditions of relaxation mixed in together: the Roman caldarium and frigidarium, Thai massages, Chinese and Greek aromatherapies, and sauna rituals from countless cold places (in the Czech Republic, spas of frothing hot beer are thought to be healthy). But what, if any, are the health benefits of all this historical indulgence?
It turns out that it's not merely a bit of a dunk and a bathe; we show real benefits from the range of treatments available in your standard spa package (massages, saunas, essential oil treatments, and other such practices). While the days of cleansing yourself of a layer of olive oil using a strigil are long since gone, it's not all buried in the mists of time. Thanks to modern science, we now know that the benefits of modern-day spa treatments are often pretty helpful. Here's how and why.
Saunas Protect Against Dementia
The practice of going to the sauna — of sitting in a wood-lined room or purpose-built hut, nearly naked (or completely so), increasing the temperature via a stove's dry heat and flogging oneself with various kinds of branches — is found in many countries, though the Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans are particularly proficient at it. So it's no surprise that the most recent science on its benefits comes from the University of Finland, which looked at more than 2,000 middle-aged men for a period of 20 years.
Sauna is very popular in Finland, and the study found that there's an extra benefit, at least for dudes: the men in the study who, over the two-decade period, took a sauna 4-7 times a week were found to have 66 percent less chance of getting a dementia diagnosis. Why is completely unknown, at least for now, as is whether or not it applies to women. But getting yourself some regular sauna time may be a good investment in your mental future.
... And They're Also Useful For Cardiac Health
That's not the end of the health benefits of a good sauna on the regular. The Finnish scientists also found, in results released in 2015, that frequent sauna use (again, among men over the 20-year period) presented a massive lowering of risk when it came to cardiovascular disease. The 4-7 per week sauna-users saw a 63 percent lower likelihood of having a sudden cardiac-related death, and also saw lower incidents of coronary artery disease deaths and other cardiac-related issues. And the researchers found that the longer every visit in saunas was, the less likely heart issues would ensue. (More than 19 minutes appeared to be the magic number.)
This is a bit odd because you'd think that higher temperatures would stress out the body and the heart; at least that's the case for anybody who's experiencing the sauna for the first time. However, saunas also serve an important Finnish social function. According to the BBC, Finnish women once used to give birth in saunas, the Finnish Prime Minister once held diplomatic meetings in them, and over 99 percent of the population take one a week. Saunas are seen as important stress relief, which may explain the corresponding rise in heart health. Whether this applies to casual visitors is yet to be tested.
Spa Retreats Have Broad Health Impacts
What if you're not a Finn, and don't get to your friendly family sauna once a week or more? What if your stints in spas are meant to be short, sharp cleanses to get you in shape for the New Year? The good news is that the science indicates that's pretty good for you, too. Two studies, one released in 2012 and one in 2016, indicate that staying at a "health spa" for a week seems to be broadly good for the body's health markers.
The two studies were done under the auspices of "integrative medicine," and looked at week-long stays at health spas, one a health facility in Desert Springs and the other a Panchakarma course (a kind of ayurvedic healing). Both required diet modification, with a high emphasis on vegetables and fruit, and incorporated meditation, yoga, massage, and other rejuvenating activities. The Desert Springs cohort saw an average 7.7 percent drop in blood pressure, a decrease in cholesterol, mercury and sodium levels, and an increase in hemoglobin, while the Panchakarma cohort showed a marked decrease in 12 different chemicals associated with cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. The one bit where the scientists hedged their bets was about the health benefits of the program's juice cleanses, which have been documented elsewhere to be poor ideas for digestive health.
A Little Essential Oil Exposure Helps Your Heart
A spa treatment will often involve a little application of essential oils designed to calm and soothe. A 2012 study from the European Society of Cardiologists, however, found that the effects of a brief exposure to essential oils can do more for you than just calm your mental state. If you're given scents from essential oils for no more than an hour, the study found, your heart will actually benefit.
The study itself took place in Taiwan, and put 100 healthy young people in calming rooms in which essential oil (often bergamot) was being vaporized. Their heart rates and blood pressure were measured, and an hour of exposure to the delightful smell, it was found, reduced their blood pressure and their heart rate. There was a downside, though; after an hour, people's hearts started to rebel and climb up again, perhaps because too much was stressful. So that hour-long massage with lavender oil is just the right amount.
Massage May Help Your Circulation & Decrease Inflammation
The health benefits of massage are most well-known when it comes to small babies; a host of studies have shown that infants, particularly those born prematurely, seem to be healthier and less stressed if given regular massages by their mothers or caregivers. But the benefits of massage seem to be more distinct than just calming; a 2014 study from the University of Chicago found that a massage after a bit of physical exertion (say, running from the sauna to the cold pool and back again a few times) seems to improve blood flow throughout the body and general cardiovascular health.
The findings were specific to post-exercise massage using conventional Swedish techniques, but other studies have been more general. A 2012 study, for instance, found that regular massage therapy of any kind seems to reduce inflammation and increase cell growth in skeletal muscles, while an expert at the University of Alabama believes that the benefits of massage include better cardiovascular health, reduced stress, and a healthier immune system. If you're facing a stressful New Year, it may be worth looking into regular massage appointments; training colleges occasionally offer trainee masseur sessions for a much lower rate, for instance. Because relaxation shouldn't just be for the rich.