By Dr. Amber Merrick, N.D.

The German Sauna…and my exploration of public nudity!

Hydrotherapy has been a mainstay of “medical treatments” for thousands of years.  Much of the health benefits touted in historical manuscripts have been debunked by modern science, however, there is much evidence that hydrotherapy, and sweating is actually very beneficial for health.  North Americans as a whole do not seem to embrace the hydrotherapy and sauna culture, but it is still very popular all over the world, and especially in Germany.

During my stay in Germany I visited 4 saunas, each with their own distinctive personalities, but all with the same underlying ideals, and well-known conventions.

My first visit, however, proved to be both overwhelming and the most therapeutic day of my life, both physically and emotionally.  It was our first day off while in Germany, and it was the first warm and sunny day we had.  I was surprised with a “trip” to a neighboring city, where we would be going “somewhere”.  I was told to bring a bathing suit, towel and flip flops.  A beach or water-park maybe? We arrive at Gut Sternholtz, a spa in rural Hamm.  I was elated! I definitely wanted to learn more about “water cure” while we were in Germany, and I was told a German spa is a MUST!  After all the father of modern hydrotherapy, Sebastian Kneipp, was German.  As a naturopathic doctor, I owe it to my profession to be thorough in my research of German lifestyle and health…(wink…)

After our arrival, we were shown the way to the locker room…a common locker room.  I thought, “Where is the ladies room? And wait, who is this naked gentleman?” A pressing doom loomed over me as I slowly realized “Oh no…I have to be naked?” How did I not know this? I’ve never been naked in public in my life! What was I going to do? Is sweating really this important?

Turns out it is.  I wondered why, so I looked into some of the research behind this simple innate action, beyond just cooling ourselves down when our body overheats:

  1. DETOXIFICATION: A 2011 study published in the journal Archives of Environmental and Contamination Toxicology found that many toxic elements appear to be preferentially excreted through sweat; elements not found in blood tests, and/or urine. A further 2012 study published in the journal of Environmental and public health found similar results: Sweating can help eliminate phthalates (plastic toys, cooking utensils, fragrances, nail polish, cosmetics and paints) and BPA (clear plastics, cash register receipts, water pipes, electronics, and eyeglass lenses) to which exposure has been linked to obesity, early puberty, sexual dysfunction, and miscarriage; as well as heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, present in water, food, dental amalgams, cigarettes, and industrial emissions) confirmed or suspected carcinogens which are toxic in all sorts of ways to your body. They are known to harm the heart, brain, kidney, and immunological systems.
  2. KILLS MICROBES: Sweat contains antimicrobial peptides, which can kill viruses, bacteria, and fungi. A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proved the peptide is a highly effective tool to fight not only tuberculosis germs but also other potentially dangerous microbes. The researchers believe these natural substances are more effective in the long-term than traditional antibiotics because germs are not capable of quickly developing resistance to them. Sweating and heat exposure can also kill viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in temperatures above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. CIRCULATION: Hydrotherapy increases blood circulation, including circulation of the immune system’s white blood cells. It also increases the body’s production endorphins. Enhanced circulation and increased endorphins strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, heal injured tissue and energize the body. Hydrotherapy also supplies nutrients and oxygen to injured tissue and helps with the removal of waste products. In injuries, alternate applications of heat and cold accelerate healing by improving blood vessel strength and muscle tone. Heat causes the blood vessels to dilate and subsequent cold exposure causes these blood vessels to constrict and drives blood back to the organs.

It is normal to sweat about 6-15L of sweat per day (depending on physical demands).  Any less or more than this may become dangerous.  If you don’t sweat enough, many toxic, fat-soluble substances may not be excreted efficiently, and more importantly one may suffer from overheating and heat stoke.  Further, if you sweat too much in a day without properly hydrating, one may suffer from complications of dehydration, such as dizziness, muscle cramps, seizure, kidney failure or coma.  Sweating is natural and good, but STAY HYDRATED!

I surmised that sweating and hydrotherapy is incredibly important for health, energy and vitality (not to mention that lovely glow ones skin gets after a day at the spa), so I’ll give it a try, but I decide to wear my bathing suit bottoms.  I wander down the hall to the outdoor space and I am immediately overwhelmed by the vast array of naked flesh before my eyes.  I went to medical school, but this is more nudity than I have ever seen all at once.  Desperately clutching to my bathrobe, I wander around trying to find a comfortable lounge chair, away from stray eyes.  Unfortunately, as it was such a beautiful day, the place was packed.  I carefully laid out my towel, and we take in the scenery.  Once the breasts and scrotums were ignored, the meadow we now found ourselves in was serene.  Large grassland speckled with natural ponds, fountains and surrounded by trees and gardens.  There were 6 different saunas of varying temperatures, humidity’s, sizes and styles, from a traditional Finnish sauna to a Himalayan salt sauna.

Eventually I decided I needed to actually get started on my first “circuit”.  We chose a large 90-degree sauna that was empty! I took a deep breath and dropped my bathrobe.  I draped my towel over the bench and under my feet, as no part of the skin is allowed to touch the sauna as the body’s oils can damage the wood.  We were also told this is why bathing suits are frowned upon, as the wet, sweaty suit harbors bacteria, and the wet suits will soak through towels and damage the wood.  After 10 minutes of a good sweat, patrons are expected to shower off, and take a cold plunge.  As above, the cold shower or plunge is the most important part of the circuit for improving circulation.  The German folks at Gut Sternholtz, and in saunas all over Germany, all seem to understand the convention and etiquette of the sauna; how to sit, shower and plunge properly.  They didn’t seem to take notice that anyone was naked, and in fact I felt stranger with my bathing suit bottoms on!

Into our second circuit, the sauna started filling with people.  I couldn’t understand why all at once everyone was so interested in the sauna we were seated in.  Sweaty bodies piling in, stepping behind you to find an empty seat, trying not to smack you in the face with their wet buttocks.  A fully clothed woman walked in with a bucket of liquid, and told the crowd of 30 packed into the sauna side by side, that this was an “aufguss” ritual.  She poured ladleful’s of water infused with orange essential oils onto the hot rocks and waved the steam around the room with a towel, a process she repeated 3 times.  After what felt like a hot, sweaty eternity, the crowd piled out of the sauna to consume fresh oranges and rub ice all over our bodies.  Turns out, they had an aufguss with a different oil every 30 minutes in several of the saunas throughout the day.  One can plan the ceremonies they wish to attend while at the spa; how very German to schedule relaxation.

By midday, I was becoming increasingly more comfortable with the nudity and with my own body.  Throughout the day I was exposed to many different body types, all shapes, sizes, ages and races; real people, enjoying nature.  Nobody seemed to notice or care that others are naked.  I saw what seemed to be 2 grandparents with their teenage granddaughter, a notion a North American would find shocking.  The sauna is a place of health, not judgment.  My stereotypical North American shame about how I look almost interfered with an amazing day of health and relaxation.  The German patrons at the sauna were praising their bodies, and enjoying health, and what their magnificent bodies were able to do for them.  I even took off my bottoms, and swam in the nude.  This moment was a turning point for me; I thanked my Maker for making me who I am, and giving me the healthy body I am so blessed to have.

Hydrotherapy is such a primal, simple, natural healing modality; humans have such a connection with water, that we are made of so many water molecules, and that fluid makes up much of our being is indeed the best evidence for its use for our health and well-being!

So get out there and get sweating! Happy Schwitzen!