Can Saunas Improve Heart Health and Longevity?

Here’s some good news for those who are looking for any excuse to spend more time in a sauna. A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine notes there is evidence that saunas improve heart health and longevity. Regular use of a sauna, which translated into four or more times a week, was associated with the most benefit in the group of middle-aged men evaluated.

The heart health benefits of using a sauna have been reported for years. In a Polish study published in 2014, for example, the researchers found that regular sauna sessions by healthy young men resulted in a reduction in total cholesterol and bad cholesterol (LDL), along with an insignificant increase in good cholesterol (HDL).  A 2011 review also points out that sauna appears to not only be safe for people with stable heart conditions but also has benefits for individuals with chronic congestive heart failure.

Study of how saunas improve heart health and longevity

At the University of Eastern Finland, researchers followed 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years. The men were categorized based on their sauna use; that is, once a week, two to three times a week, or four to seven times a week. Each session lasted an average of 14 minutes at 175°F. Over the two decades:

  • 49% of men who used the sauna once weekly died
  • 38% who went two to three times died
  • 31% who used the sauna four to seven times died

Frequent sauna use also was associated with lower rates of death from stroke and cardiovascular disease

Authors of the study pointed out that while regular sauna bathing may be helpful for individuals with risk factors for heart disease (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol), patients who have suffered a recent heart attack or who have unstable angina should probably avoid this practice. Finnish researchers suggest that use of these saunas may provide cardiovascular conditioning similar to that of moderate-intensity physical exercise because the high heat causes heart rates to reach that level.

The authors also noted that Finish saunas are somewhat unique for several reasons, and these reasons may have an impact on the findings. For one thing, they are wood-lined, heated by a stove with stones, and are very dry and hot, although sauna users can add water to the stones to produce vapor. This scenario is not the same as hot tubs or steam baths and so the results of their use are not applicable to other situations.

Finns of all walks of life also have ready access to saunas, as millions have them in their homes, and they are a standard part of factories and offices. In addition, Finnish saunas are designed to reduce stress, because rules of sauna etiquette emphasize that participants are discouraged from engaging in controversial conversations while using the facilities.

If the idea of trying a sauna interests you, consult with your healthcare provider before you use one, especially if you want to sit in a sauna after exercising. Also investigate the various sauna opportunities in your community and ask about sauna etiquette.

References

Gryka D et al. The effect of sauna bathing on lipid profile in young, physically active, male subjects. International Journal of Occupation Medicine and Environmental Health 2014 Aug;

Kluger N et al. Sauna: cardiac and vascular benefits and risks. Presse Medicale 2011 Oct; 40(10): 895-99

Laukkanen T et al. Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. JAMA Internal Medicine 2015; 175(4): 542-58


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