Let’s all have a naked sauna together: Reason’s Digest October 2019

Off the bat an apology — evidently I have failed to deliver a September digest, and I’m skipping straight to October. I’m not even entirely sure I have a good excuse as I had all of the content for it — but it was a bit gloomy and depressing and conspiracy theory (even for me). I may still yet retroactively post it.

I suppose it was a busy couple of months — I turned 31, got a new job and quit my old one, picked up some consultancy work, met some of my mushroom heroes, brewed an excellent first batch of kombucha, took a bunch of people out into a Norfolk forest to explore what communal living feels like and felt a lot of love for a lot of things. I like being older. It suits me much more.

The main culprit was getting completely carried away with another piece of writing — I’m currently drafting a long-read which I should be posting in the next month or so. In the meantime, I present this month’s digest, which is somehow again all about saunas and bathing. It’s just really important. And I really love it.

1. When in Rome

You may remember from my last edition that I discussed the health benefits of infrared saunas. Well reader, the month of September saw me go headlong into a sauna researching frenzy — special shout out to the many people who humoured me as I ranted on about them.

Whilst reading around, I found a book published in the 1970s called simply Sweat, which looks at the ancient and modern cultures which have sweat bathing embedded in their culture. It’s apparently soon to be revived as a new documentary series — the trailer is available here on Vimeo to view. They guys behind it also took a huge Finnish sauna out into the desert for Burning Man this year.

Taking you through Roman, Turkish, Finnish, Russian, Irish, Japanese and Native American rituals, it’s fascinating to see how it’s developed through the ages and taken on a hybrid spiritual-communal role in these societies. The association between sweating and health has been around for an incredibly long time — the oldest known medical document, the Ayurveda, dates back to 583BC and prescribed sweat baths as one of 13 ways to beneficially induce sweat.

Some Roman baths, located in the aptly titled Bath, UK

By the time you get to the Romans, baths were big business — Emperors were said to bathe seven times a day, and would outdo their predecessor with a bigger flashier bath. Entrance was subsidised or free to ensure everyone could go and marvel in their leader’s power and generosity. The entire ritual sounds like a complete dream: after a vigorous workout to stimulate the circulation and to loosen the body, bathers would pass through three rooms, from tepid to hot. The first room, the tepidarium, was the largest and most luxurious and you’d spend about an hour here whilst you were annointed with lovely smelling oils. You then moved on to the caldarium which had small stalls for private bathing, with the option of hot or cold water. The final room, the laconium, was the hottest and primed the body for a vigorous massage after which dead skin would be scraped off with an implement called a strigil. After a solid scrubbing down and a dip in the cool pool of the frididarium, bathers would swan out smelling like roses to the outer areas of the baths, to the library or assembly room, where they would be encouraged to follow intellectual pursuits like reading and philosophy. Bliss. If you’ve ever been to a Turkish hammam and think that sounds familiar, you’d be right, as they came in towards the end of the empire and nicked a lot of it for their own version.

A hammam in Istanbul, Turkey

As decadent as that sounds, the Romans took a very functional view of the baths — the Russians got a bit superstitious and odd about the whole thing. Particularly during weddings, where the bride had to endure a pretty bizarre bathing ritual:

Her sweat was collected by pouring milk over her body and then dough was plastered over her. Later the dough was kneaded and made into bread and cakes to be served at the wedding feast. The bride-to-be’s sweat mixed with vodka, wine, and grains were poured on the bania rocks to enhance the scent. Honey and hops were added to give the bride-to-be a sweet life.

Mmm. Delicious bridal sweat cake. Things didn’t get much better for you as a Russian bride if you were poor:

Occasionally a poor peasant family would not have a regular bania, but so important was the wedding bania that the household baking oven would be used instead. Before all the cakes and breads had been prepared, the oven was cleaned and the bride-to-be was shoved in on a wooden platter. The door was sealed from the outside while she sweated and washed alone.

Quite possibly the most harrowing wedding experience imaginable — being sealed inside an oven all alone. Them Russians eh. In the heyday of the USSR, sanitoriums offered bathing in radio isotope-treated water, supposedly to cure infertility and paralysis, or a soak in some good clean crude oil. Which you can apparently still do today.

The UK adopted the public bath in Victorian times to deal with the great unwashed, but they gradually fell out of use and were overhaulled as society advanced and people began to build private bathrooms in their own homes. Some of these bath house are still knocking about and offer a hammam-like experience — there’s one in both Old Street and Bethnal Green in London where you can pay £25 for three hours of sweaty loafing.

2. “Nudity is a great leveller”

With such excessive bathing rituals being tied up into strange beliefs and distant cultures, it’s easy to assume that they were shed in favour of the practical efficient shower because Western science and reason saw no use for them. It’s actually thanks to the prudish nature of early Christians (even though Muslims managed to find ways to make it OK) who were upset about all the nudity — community was to happen around the place of worship, not a bath house.

As a Brit, my cultural default for nudity tends to side with the Christians. When I was a young child, my mum (who revels in cruel jokes) told me that we were going on a summer holiday — to a nudist camp. After being told I couldn’t even wear a nightie in bed, I burst into tears. Thankfully I was soon reassured we were going somewhere normal, and that naturist beaches were ‘only for the Germans’.

Years down the line and a couple of summers spent in their country, it appeared to be very true. Germans did not give a fuck and thought nothing of an entire day lounging about in public with their junk, bumps and rolls on full display. The New York Times have looked into this phenomenon in A Very German Idea of Freedom: Nude Ping-Pong, Nude Sledding, Nude Just About Anything. It seems the Germans are the only culture to have such an openly and widely embraced attitude towards nudity, and they’re probably all better off because of it. Research indicates that spending more time in the buff with other naked folk has a positive impact on mental wellbeing, by reducing dissatisfaction with our own body. This is because they’re exposed to a whole host of imperfect bodies, and also receive nice compliments on their own. It’s even being explored as a therapy to overcome body dysmorphia — the typically gratutious Channel 4 explore this in their series ‘Naked Beach’.

Being bombarded daily with often-photoshopped images of models’ bodies in social media posts and ads, it was an eye-opener for me to hang out with a cross-section of naked people in the real world. As my husband remarked in the sauna: “The perfect body does not exist.”

Advocating a complete cultural overhaul never goes down that well, but with nudity becoming common place in any HBO series and cult events like Burning Man where 30% of women (by my estimates) are topless, it definitely feels as through we could be drifting that way.

Spencer Tunick orchestrates mass nudity at Burning Man 2013

3. Sweat to be a winner

One crucial change in the future to drive that cultural shift could be the rise of the sauna, if we decide to double up on health benefits and leave our swimsuits for the pool. I linked to material in my last post about how effective it was for reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases, both of which have a very visible profile . They’ve been around for years and we’ve seen relatives succumb to them, terrifying our zeitgeist in the process.

[I] am convinced [that sauna use] will be part of standard of care in the next ten years for the prevention and treatment for a variety of different cardiovascular related conditions.

Rhonda Patrick, speaking at the Heart Summit, 2019

If sauna use was a good idea to save us from these old foes, then it seems it might also be a very good idea to save us from more modern ills. With the technological revolution, the focus has been on production and innovation in making more and more products, with little care given to what these man-made chemicals could be doing to our environment and bodies. Research is now emerging on how much we have changed the nature of our environment — for example, how much plastic we’re now swallowing. I believe that our next technological revolution will be an organic one, with a focus on degradation rather than production, led by fungi and novel bacteria which may help us to reset our ecosystem back to an optimal one.

In the meantime though, it seems that we’ll have to accept that we’re dealing with a world of heavy metals and plastic residues thanks to industry and consumerism. One of the most scary chemicals we now have to contend with is bisphenol A, or BPA. You may recognise this from tupperware claiming to be BPA-free, or from safety messaging on American products which warn you of birth defects. As well as being in everything from plastic bottles to white dental fillings, its most commonly found in till receipts. Handling these on a regular basis increases levels of BPA in the blood, especially if you handle them with moisturised or oily hands. Heating up plastic containers or repeatedly using them greatly increases the amount of BPA that gets leached into its contents — not great if you then eat or drink them.

So what’s so bad about BPA? Legally, nothing, on the basis that your liver is effective at breaking it down, but there is still a huge amount of debate on whether that means it has no physiological impact. It is agreed to be a no-go for pregnant women: the placenta contains an enzyme which converts it back to its active form and causes foetal exposure. BPA mimics oestrogen, and its been linked to many reproductive and developmental issues in foetuses, children and adults, including breast and other hormone-related cancers, as well as the developmental disorder autism. It’s a tragedy that this link isn’t more known — if it was, we might see single-use plastics being boycotted with the same fervour as vaccinations.

Whilst goverments languish and our environment continues to be damaged, it seems there’s little we can do to avoid these inorganic pathogens, aside from moving away from cities and only buying organic natural products. We can however get better at excreting these toxic products — and thankfully it’s driven by a key physiological process that’s very cheap and easy to stimulate — excessive sweating.

Sauna is a great way to drive this (especially if you’re of a lazier disposition), and this podcast by Rhonda Patrick dives into the deeper details, but exercise is another more culturally prevalent option. There are some theories that the health benefits from both are mediated via the same mechanisms: namely something called heat-shock proteins. For those of you who have heard of Wim Hof and his fondness for plunging into icy water, heat-shock proteins are also be triggered by very cold temperatures.

But back to the sweating bit. Research has found that the process is a key way our body excretes an array of heavy metals, such as cobalt, cadmium, aluminium and lead, as well as plastic residues like BPA and phthalates. Wash with a castile soap (i.e. Dr Bronner’s) to avoid reabsorption of the toxic elements.

Whilst we’re chatting about washing, you might want to reconsider what you use to wash your hair too. Most shampoos and conditioners are chock-full of parabens (amongst a host of other dark creatures) which are also known hormone-disruptors, and have been found to modulate oestrogen levels and reduce fertility in rats. Some dispute whether in the long-term they have significant impact, but it’s probably best to err on the side of caution to limit the fucked-up chemical compound assault and they’re more gentle on the environment. Lush build on this by doing plastic-free shampoo and conditioner bars which last much longer than bottles. Another great brand is Weleda who do lovely oils without hellish additives — I’m a particular fan of their cellulite oil which has kept my muttony haunches at a decent standard, even going into my 30s. Perfect for building up your confidence for the big naked sauna future.

4. Sweat till you can’t sweat no more

Sauna use isn’t without its risks — if you have blood pressure risks or are pregnant you can in theory still use the sauna, but should consult a doctor before diving in.

Unsurprisingly, it’s even more dangerous when you take it up as a competitive endurance sport. Up until about ten years ago, sauna-loving nations would battle it out to see who could endure temperatures of 100 degrees centigrade plus for the longest. Water was thrown onto the stones every 30 seconds to get the heat up to such levels.

On the occasion of the 12th World Sauna Championship however, it all went wrong. Beating 130 other participants, Russian Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy and Finnish Timo Kaukonen met each other in the final, reaching 110C. Six minutes in, judges noticed that there was something wrong with Ladyzhenskiy, and he had to be dragged from the sauna. Kaukonen, the five-time champion, also had to be helped from the sauna and was suffering from severe burns. The Russian began to have severe cramps and convulsions and eventually died: a later autopsy showed that he had broken competition rules and used strong painkillers and an anaesthetic on his skin.

Kaukonen woke from a medically induced coma six weeks later with a scorched respiratory system, 70% burns on his skin and kidney failure. He did not blame the organisers of the event — the City of Heinola, Finland — but they decided it was best not to do it again.

If the city was to organize the World Sauna Championships in the future, the original playful and joyous characteristics of the event should be reintroduced. No ways to achieve this have been found.

The City of Heinola

What I have been listening to…

As part of our trip away to the woods, I pulled together a 4 hour-long playlist for the Saturday night theme, which was all about the paranormal and otherworldly. In case you’re in need of some Halloween tracks here it is in all of its lengthy glory. Thanks to the Google YouTube algorithims, I managed to find a particularly excellent crop of weird turn-of-the-computer age synth bangers — my favourite ones are below.

A scientific re-evaluation of humans: health, history and happiness.

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