How Saunas Benefit Health

Spending 30 minutes in a sauna can increase heart rate as much as medium-intensity exercise, new research suggests. Investigators at the University of Eastern Finland have demonstrated in previous studies that saunas are linked to a number of health benefits, including lower risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory diseases. The team’s latest research was aimed at determining the physiological mechanisms that underlie these beneficial effects. They recruited 102 healthy participants whose mean age was 52 to investigate changes in their physiology as a result of a 30-minute sauna. Results showed that the sauna exposure led to reduced blood pressure, a heart rate you might expect as a result of medium intensity exercise, and an increase in “vascular compliance,” a term for the ability of a blood vessel wall to expand and contract with changes in pressure. This was measured in two major arteries immediately before and after the sauna and again after 30 minutes of recovery. The sauna setting itself was designed to simulate the way Finnish peopletraditionally take saunas at home.

My take? These new findings may help explain why saunas are beneficial to health. I’ve long been a sauna enthusiast and recommend it to cleanse the skin, soothe sore muscles or merely relax. However, if you have high blood pressure or a heart problem, be sure to check with your physician before going to a sauna or steam room. As this study demonstrates, the heat can cause circulatory changes, including an increased heart rate. Because pregnancy changes physiology, pregnant women should check with their doctors before using a sauna. It is also possible to spend too much time sweating in a sauna or steam room. You can faint from overheating and from dehydration. Be sure to drink lots of water before, during and after your sweat. If you’re sold on the health benefits and are interested in buying a home sauna, I would recommend one that allows you to create steam by pouring water on heated rocks.

Jari A. Laukkanen et al, “Acute effects of sauna bathing on cardiovascular function.” Journal of Human Hypertension, September 19, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/s41371-017-0008-z

Jari A Laukkanen et al, “Sauna exposure leads to improved arterial compliance: Findings from a non-randomised experimental study.” European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, October 19, 2017, DOI: 10.1177/2047487317737629

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