Isn’t it wonderful when an experience that delights you turns out to be good for you as well? Finnish researchers have found that sweating in a sauna, a relaxing and sociable experience for most Finns, has measurable health benefits for the brain and the heart.
What Are the Benefits of Saunas?
Q. Saunas are the only gym experience I enjoy. I’ve led a very active and physical work life and had better than average strength and endurance.
Exercise never makes me feel better. It leaves me sore and tired instead. Saunas help me feel cleansed, extremely relaxed and energized afterwards.
A. Two studies from Finland demonstrate health benefits from regular sauna use. Finns love saunas and most visit them at least once a week.
Saunas Promote Heart Health:
A decades-long study of more than 2,000 middle-aged men found that those who spent more time in the sauna were less likely to have a fatal heart attack (Laukkanen et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2015). (You can read more about that study here.)
Saunas Help Prevent Dementia:
A more recent analysis of data from this study showed that men visiting the sauna at least four times a week were 66 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who went only once a week (Laukkanen et al, Age and Ageing, Dec. 8, 2016). (We wrote about the details of this study here.)
Is There an Explanation?
The researchers who conducted these studies note that blood pressure and heart function are improved after a sauna. Relaxation, improved blood vessel flexibility and lower inflammation may account for the brain and heart benefits.
In addition, a completely separate study of young men found that ten sauna sessions lowered their cholesterol (Gryka et al, International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, Aug. 2014). Lower cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels might lower the risk of heart disease.
Other Sauna Benefits:
Reducing Headache Pain:
A study in New Zealand randomly assigned 37 people with chronic tension-type headaches into two groups: one that attended a sauna regularly for eight weeks and one that got health education pertaining to headaches. When the two months were over, the sauna group rated their headaches as less intense than the control group did (Kanji et al, Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Feb. 2015).
Chronic Heart Failure:
This condition is often treated with medication alone, but Japanese investigators found that patients with chronic heart failure improved significantly when exercise was combined with repeated sauna therapy (Haseba et al, Disability and Rehabilitation, 2016). That said, people with heart conditions should check with their cardiologists before they start sauna therapy.