Take a Sauna for Heart Health
If you have a sauna at your gym or in your community health facilities, you might consider any time you spend there a nice reward for working out. It can feel almost decadent to spend a half hour just sitting in there unwinding. But don’t let any pangs of guilt start up your inner voice saying you might just be wasting time or that you could be doing something productive. In fact, new research suggests that sitting in the sauna is actually beneficial to your health.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, found that sessions in a sauna may produce cardiovascular changes that can lower your risk of developing heart disease.1 These results were based on an investigation that involved 102 men and women living in Finland. The subjects, all in their 40s and 50s, had no heart disease diagnosis, but they had at least one risk factor including obesity, hypertension, or high cholesterol levels.
They spent a single, 30-minute session in a typical Finnish sauna that uses dry heat elevated to approximately 163 degrees Fahrenheit. Several measures of heart health were tested before, immediately after, and again 30 minutes later after the sauna use. When the researchers evaluated these comparisons, they discovered some notable differences after just one brief respite in the sauna.
The participants’ blood pressure was reduced by an average of seven points post-sauna. Pulse wave velocity, a form of non-invasive testing, showed that the elasticity of the volunteers’ arteries had increased. And their heart rates rose from an average of 65 beats per minute prior to the sauna to 81 beats per minute afterward, helping increase blood volume and flow to the muscles. (Yes, in athletes, a lower heart rate is a sign of a healthy cardiovascular system, but not so much in people who don’t exercise.)
What is it about time in a sauna that could produce positive effects such as these on the cardiovascular system? Part of the answer may lie in the heat itself. After all, when you apply a warm compress to an area of your body, the heat stimulates an increase in blood flow to the region and helps to reduce stiffness.
But heat alone can’t explain it, or everyone living in warm weather climates would have similar benefits to their hearts. Another important factor may be simply taking the time to get away from it all and relax. You can’t use your cell phone in a sauna, leaving you few options other than conversations with fellow bathers or letting yourself take deep breaths and just be, which could promote a meditative state. We know that meditation is healthy, and a 2016 study at Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at the School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City showed meditation on a vacation can improve immune function and reduce the effects of stress on the body in just a few days.2
Before you start looking into the cost of installing a home sauna, however, there may be a few issues to consider. The study was limited by a very small and not particularly diverse population sample. In addition, use of a sauna can be risky for people taking pharmaceutical medications to control high blood pressure because the additional drop in pressure could make you lightheaded. And earlier research conducted by some of the same scientists found that significant health impact and lower risk of heart disease really requires the use of a sauna between four and seven times a week,3 which may not be realistic for most of us who don’t live in Finland where it is a common part of the culture.
That said, if you enjoy having a sauna sometimes, by all means partake in it. The benefits might not add up as much if you only have an occasional session, but they still exist, and the activity itself can be quite pleasant. Just make sure you’re well hydrated before entering the sauna room and start off with 10 to 15 minutes of sauna bathing as you get adjusted to the intense heat.
- 1. Laukkanen, Tanjaniina; et al. "Acute effects of sauna bathing on cardiovascular function." Journal of Human Hypertension. 21 December 2017. Accessed 24 January 2018. http://www.nature.com/articles/s41371-017-0008-z.
- 2. Epel, ES; et al. "Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes." Translational Psychiatry. 30 August 2016. Accessed 25 January 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27576169
- 3. Laukkanen, Tanjaniina; et al. "Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events." JAMA Internal Medicine. April 2015. Accessed 25 January 2018. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2130724.