Saunas can thaw the traumas that run through us, says filmmaker

Feb 24, 2024

Philip Drost · CBC Radio · Posted: Jan 09, 2024 3:55 PM EST | Last Updated: January 9

Anna Hints says a sauna can be healing not just for the body, but for the soul. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

When Estonian filmmaker Anna Hints was just 11 years old, she says she came to truly understand the power of the sauna. 

Her grandfather had just died and the day before the funeral, Hints, her aunt, her niece and her grandmother went to a smoke sauna. There, her grandmother revealed that Hints’ grandfather had cheated on her several times.Hints says it allowed her to process the emotions of that cheating and then forgive him before the funeral.

“She released all that … like really, vocally releasing all the emotions,” Hints told The Current host Matt Galloway.  

“I realized that, OK, on this earth there is a safe space where absolutely all your emotions, all your experiences can be shared, can be heard.”

Hints’ new documentary, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, is Estonia’s nominee for the upcoming Academy Awards.

The film looks at the social and emotional power of smoke saunas, small structures without a chimney that are heated for hours by fire. Because the structures have no chimney, sauna-goers cannot enter until the fire is extinguished and the smoke is let out.

Director Anna Hints celebrates on stage after receiving the award for best documentary for her film Smoke Sauna Sisterhood during the 36th European Film Awards ceremony in Berlin. (Odd Andersen/Getty Images)

She says that in Estonian culture, some women used the saunas to heal from illness, give birth and wash the dead. There is also a belief, she added, that you can meet your ancestors in the sauna.

“The walls are dark and it’s this kind of tarty smell. It has no electricity. And you enter into this darkness … and you feel like you are inside kind of timeless space,” said the filmmaker.  

“With time, deeper, deeper layers of physical dirt start to come up to the surface, but also emotional dirt starts to come up to the surface.” 

Health effects of sauna

Dr. Peter Attia wasn’t always a sauna guy. The physician, author and expert on longevity heard there were health benefits but felt the data were skewed, as most of the people who uses saunas were typically wealthier and in better health.

He has since changed his tune. Research suggests there are associations between regular sauna use and cardiovascular and brain health, Attia said.

A Finnish study, published in JAMA Internal Health in 2015 and which Attia was not involved in, followed more than 2,300 men aged 42-60 for 20 years and concluded that “sauna bathing is a protective factor” against cardiovascular disease in the general male population, but noted further study was needed to confirm the results.

A separate report based on the same study, published in Age and Ageing in 2017, concluded regular sauna use has a “protective” effect against Alzheimer’s but similarly acknowledged more research is needed.

Attia adds that saunas put stress on your body — in a good way. He says it’s like the stress that’s put on the body when you go for a run or play a sport. 

Peter Attia is a physician and author who looks at improving people’s quality of life. (Submitted by Peter Attia)

“None of those things would be good for long periods of time, but it’s when your body responds and recovers from those things that good things happen,” said Attia, author of Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity.

“Similarly, when you’re in a sauna, your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up. Your body’s working very hard to rid itself of the extra heat. And that hermetic stress, because it’s just given in small doses, produces a positive effect during the recovery.”

Saunas can be unsafe for people with some heart conditions, including angina, recent history of heart attack and uncontrolled hypertension, as well as those who are pregnant.

Healing the soul

There’s another, less tangible benefit, according to Attia. He says when he spends time in a sauna he is disconnected from his devices and the stresses of the outside world. And he says he often does it with someone he cares about.

“My wife and I are always in the sauna together, and it’s a great time for us to talk,” said Attia. “We just tend to do it in the evening, so it’s kind of part of the wind-down ritual to produce a far better night of sleep. And I don’t think you can discount the health benefits of that.”

Hints believes that is an essential part of sauna. Her documentary takes a look at the intimate conversations over several years in a smoke sauna. 

“Every story, every experience has the birth right there. And you just hear each other out. It’s this kind of safety. You feel very safe there and very, like, protected and embraced,” said Hints.

“My granny said that when we have traumas, they are like frozen water inside us. And sometimes we can find ourselves in deep, dark winter, just ice fields. But it’s so important to remember that ice has the power to flow again. We just need warmth and safety and then we can melt our traumas.”

Audio produced by Ben Jamieson. This story is part of The Current’s new series Well Founded, which digs into the wellness industry, the evidence behind the claims, and how to make sense of all the pitches on how to be a better you.


Philip Drost

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him by email at

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