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Tar, Saunas & Hard Liquor

Tar, Saunas & Hard Liquor

By Christopher Booroff and Lewis Dartnell

1. Introduction

Santa Claus, Nokia, Kimi Raikkonen, 190,000 lakes, cold winters, summer midnight sun, naked communal floggings, beautiful women, and embarrassingly few Eurovision Song Contest points. Finland has a meagre population of under 5.3 million people1 (mostly blonde) so it may seem surprising that there should be no less than 1.7 million saunas in Finland2, that in 2004 consumption of alcoholic beverages (absolute alcohol) rose to a staggering 53.7 million litres3 and that the entire British Empire was once held together by Finnish tar2. However, this is perhaps not so shocking once you become familiar with one of the most popular Finnish proverbs.

“Jos ei viina, terva ja sauna auta, niin tauti on kuolemaksi.”

“If hard liquor, tar or sauna do not help, then the disease is fatal.” This proverb has been used for centuries in situations where the ideal or most desired solution to a problem appears unattainable. That is, don’t stress, let booze, tar and sauna work their magic (preferably not all at the same time by the way) and if that doesn’t work, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. But can these three tonics really be so therapeutic? Finland has one of the lowest death rates in Europe; are the rest of us missing out on a trick here?

2. Health Benefits and dangers.

2.1. Alcohol

Alcohol abuse is a serious problem in modern society. Single-measure spirits, half-pint shandies, American lager and green alco-pop drinks are some of the worst crimes rife today. In reality, there are other forms of alcohol abuse which are frequently commented on throughout society - death by alcohol poisoning, drink-driving or other connected problems - and take many lives each year. These are well documented and do not need further explaining here. Alcohol is bad for you, but are there also health benefits?

Of course. The health benefits of alcohol are fairly well known if, much like your own vision after a few down the pub, a little fuzzy. Alcohol was an early form of anaesthetic (or perhaps sedative is a better word), it is also used to cleanse external wounds and sterilise medical equipment, but it is the oral intake of alcohol that we are concerned with here.

Wine is famous for its health giving properties when used in moderation, however, despite a long history of contributing to our health, beer is not quite so well known. The Egyptians used beer as a cure for common problems such as stomach aches and headaches (hangovers?). In 1790 school-children in Britain were given two bottles of beer a day as drinking water was not deemed safe, and in 2005 workers at Okayama University, Japan found that beer can help fight certain cancers4. Hard liquor however is not quite in the same league when it comes to helping the poorly.

2.2. Tar

Back in the 17th century, Finland was a world leader in tar production, and its distilleries provided the British Navy with the tar needed for rope- and ship-protection. Coal tar is still used today for medicinal purposes - eczema, psoriasis and other skin disorders are treated with tar-based medicines.

In Britain we are familiar with the old technique of “leech treatment”. Any skin disorder, and some other ailments, would be treated with leeches. The parasites would be placed on a wound and allowed to suck their fill. Tar has a similar reputation in Finland, although perhaps differing in that it re-mains popular to this day, unlike leeches in Britain.

The downsides of tar range from the unsightly to the downright unhealthy. Shampoo forms of the medicine may bleach or colour the hair, and traditional forms of treatment stain the skin. However, of much greater concern is that animal testing has indicated an increased risk of skin cancer from exposure to tar.5

Which is more inconvenient, being covered in leeches or being covered in tar, is hard to assess, and represents an experiment that the authors are not particularly keen to try.

2.3. Sauna

Traditionally the sauna has been considered to heal long-term ailments through (un)certain mystical properties. For example, the Nordic equivalent of a witch-doctor would often “treat” patients in the sauna to increase their relaxation and concentration, and therefore responsiveness to the ritual. Other key effects of sauna bathing include:

- Increased heart-beat
- Improved circulation and breathing
- Raised body temperature
- Stimulated metabolism
- (Temporarily) reduced blood pressure

Relaxation is considered important and beneficial in all cultures around the world, although not all fractions of society agree with the slightly more debased connotation of relaxing in a sauna. Having said this, despite the full range of diseases and infections available at inner-city saunas, sex is generally considered more beneficial to your health.

There are naturally also risks posed by the sauna. Proud men will try to endure the heat as long as possible to gain the respect (or Euros) of their friends, relaxed atmospheres mixed with the obligatory alcohol lead to slips and drownings, and then, of course, there is ice-dipping. This is the practice of cutting through the ice layer covering a winter lake and jumping into the water below following the sauna. Due to the water temperature being above the air temperature it is supposed to feel rather pleasant. If the sauna is inducing such insanity it is clearly threatening the mental health of Northern Europe.

3. Conclusions

Each of the three therapies advocated in the ancient Finnish proverb are known to possess demonstrable healing powers. However, olden-times people were clearly misguided. Who in their right, and recently-educated, mind would ever recommend the health benefits of getting lashed, coating yourself in carcinogenic, and more immediately important, sticky and flammable tar, and then sitting in a room so hot that it could itself deliver heat-stroke, let alone in combination with the other two. Even if taken individually, can you imagine the ensuing lawsuits if a GP ever prescribed hard liquor for cirrhosis of the liver, tar-application for a smoker suffering lung cancer, or sauna for a malaria patient?

Sure enough, a nice glass of wine or sauna might help you relax and improve your long-term health, but what’s with the tar? Tar…? So as far as general-rules-of-thumb go we’re sure you can’t do much worse than this particular proverb. Probably best to leave the booze and the sauna to recreation and let the drugs do the healing. Oh, and the tar, well, best to just leave that alone.


[1] www.stat.fi/tup/suoluk/suoluk_vaesto_en.html
[2] http://virtual.finland.fi
[3] www.helsinginsanomat.fi/english/article/1101978660661
[4] Men’s Health magazine, July 2005, page 23.
[5] http://www.nlm.nih.gov

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25 Jan 2009
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