The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can Regular Sauna Baths Protect your Brain and Your Heart?

Have you ever had a sauna bath? You might be surprised to learn that sitting naked in a hot room and sweating might be good for your heart and your brain.

Most Americans think of sauna baths as a somewhat strange Nordic tradition. Why would a bunch of people sit naked in a hot little room with heated stones?

Some health clubs do provide saunas. Americans are usually in too much of a hurry, though, to spend extra time soaking up the heat and the steam after a vigorous workout. New research suggests, however, that regular sauna baths might be good for the brain.

Finnish Research on Sauna Baths:

One of Finland’s favorite pastimes may benefit the brain. Previous research showed that middle-aged men who frequented a sauna several times a week were less likely to die of heart disease. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine (April, 2015) concluded:

“Increased frequency of sauna bathing is associated with a reduced risk of SCD [sudden cardiac death], CHD [coronary heart disease], CVD [cardiovascular disease], and all-cause mortality. Further studies are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health.”

Researchers have demonstrated that sauna bathing increases heart rate in a manner comparable to low- and moderate-intensity physical exercise. Blood pressure and heart function also seem to benefit. Cardiac output increases. Regular sauna baths improve flexibility of blood vessels. There are also data to suggest “lowered incidence of arrhythmias.”

The authors of the cardiovascular research conclude:

“Our results suggest that sauna bathing is a recommendable health habit, although further studies are needed to confirm our results in different population settings.”

Sauna Baths and the Brain:

A new study of Finnish men between 42 and 60 years of age shows that frequent sauna bathers were also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Those who visited the sauna more than four times a week were 66 percent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those who visited only once a week.

The researchers write:

“In this population-based study of middle-aged Finnish men, we found a strong inverse association between frequency of sauna bathing and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which was independent of known risk factors…

“In conclusion, this report provides promising results from the first prospective study that shows sauna bathing to be a potential protective lifestyle factor for common memory diseases in middle-aged Finnish men. Our results suggest that sauna bathing, an activity which promotes relaxation and well-being, may be a recommendable intervention to prevent or delay the development of memory diseases in healthy adults.”

The Benefits of Sauna Baths:

Sauna bathing can be a relaxing and potentially healthy activity. The authors suggest that there is a biologically plausible explanation for both the cardiovascular and brain benefits. They emphasize that regular sauna baths lead to improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation. They conclude that saunas can encourage a relaxing lifestyle, improve cardiovascular function and prevent or delay dementia.

Age and Ageing, Dec, 2016

Have you ever experienced a sauna bath? Was it relaxing or uncomfortable? Share your story below in the comment section.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I have an infrared sauna. Does that count or not? It gets up to whatever temp you set it at.

Impressive findings re saunas. Fewer arrhythmia–does that include a fib??

Growing up in the UP of Mi this was the only bath we had available. Twice a week during the winter, usually daily during hay making otherwise 3 times a week. Some like my grandfather spent up to an hour usually going in for 15 to 20 minutes then a 10 minute or so cooling off period. The few times I took sauna with him I had to crawl out on the floor due to the temp. So hot that if you moved or blew on you skin you would get a minor burn. I had to collect white cedar boughs which were used to form a fans that were used to swat the body. Grandfather claimed this removed what was considered farmers cancer. I do not recall any skin cancer cases growing up so????

I have taken a few saunas over the years, and enjoyed them. However, the last time I was in the process of leaving (i.e. standing in the walkway) when a blast of hot air piped into the sauna hit my foot, and burned my ankle so badly I couldn’t fly home for a week. Caused me a lot of financial problems and logistical inconvenience. The health spa representatives swore this had never happened before, but I don’t believe them.

The sauna bath increases the body temperature while inside the steam room. Then, the individual leaves the steam room and jump into an ambient temperature water tank or take a bath in a Finnish shower flowing water at ambient temperature.
Both water baths cool down the individual body temperature very fast as a strong thermal shocking.

Isn’t the thermal shock a dangerous action for people with heart issues and/or PAD and/or people submitted to angioplasty to insert stents?

What about the benefits of hot tubs? I start every morning watching the sunrise from my hot tub with a cup of coffee. It’s a great way to start the day!

As I read this article, I smiled while learning of the documented positive health benefits of the sauna. The primary reason for my joining any health spa always has been because of the sauna. There I was thinking I was a lazy sort, only now do I find that my sitting in the sauna is as good as the work out itself. Yes, I do think most Americans are in too much of a hurry to enjoy a sauna. Its unfortunate that we all spend too much time working and stressed out doing everything else we are supposed to do.

Another study that leaves out over half the human race! Really? Only men take saunas?

My husband and I lived in Finland for a year, and took a sauna regularly in the university recreation center across the street from our apartment. Our first sauna (in the sauna in the apartment building of Finnish friends, years previously) had felt very odd or even dangerous, but we stayed in because we saw that our friends were not toasting to death or fainting. After a couple of times, we got addicted to it, and love the feeling of sitting quietly in the dry heat and sweating for about 10-15 mins., followed by a dip in a cool lake or swimming pool.

We really miss it now that we’re back in the States. Saunas in the U.S. tend not to be as nice as those in Finland, and are rarely accompanied by the possibility of cool bathing–just cold showers, which are not so pleasant! By the way, in Finland, saunas with mixed-sex groups of friends are with swimsuits; in general, only same-sex saunas are done in the nude.

Since this study relates directly to men, what is the research, if any, regarding the benefit for women?

The Finnish researchers were studying heart disease in men. When they started the study 20+ years ago, there was less interest in heart disease among women.

When I lived in Florida, I sat in a sauna once a week, after spending 4 hours swimming and yoga. I felt great and I know it attributed to my well-being. I was extremely healthy and I miss this small part of the happy life I lived then!

Oh, yes! I lived in Germany for years, where they have real saunas (not the little pseudo-sauna boxes with electric heaters you find at some “health” clubs here) and loved going every week. I always felt rested, relaxed and renewed when I went home. I generally followed it with a massage.

But the whole process is time-consuming — sauna, rinse, repeat however many times — and not one for which a lot of Americans would have patience. In Germany it isn’t a place for chatting, either, as it is in many American “saunas.” The almost religious air of quiet (except for very brief greetings) was, to me, one of the sauna’s relaxing benefits.

So a very enthusiastic “yes” to saunas: if I had room, and could afford it, I’d have one at home. I miss saunas. Just writing about them makes me seriously nostalgic.

I love doing saunas! I wish I could do them more frequently. We go to a Korean spa that has all sorts of different saunas and I feel so incredible after I’m there. Many people we meet there go multiple times a week and have even said that it is cured them of certain ailments. Again, wish I could do it more regularly.

I have experienced similar feelings from a expert supervised Native American “Sweat Lodge”. I also remember my late mother telling me my grandfather would rig up a sweat bath in his basement periodically (he was Slovenian). Thanks for this information, as I’m a person with C.A.D.-this could be life saving!

Do steam rooms provide the same benefits as saunas?

Saunas are the only gym/exercise experience I enjoy.
I may be a “non-responder” to exercise.

For the first 50 years of my life I led a very active and physical work life and had better than average strength and endurance but physical work or exercise never left me felling better, it left me sore and tired.

Saunas leave me feeling cleansed, extremely relaxed, and energized after the relaxation subsides.

What about the warning that if you have heart disease or high blood pressure you should avoid saunas? As a nurse I see the benefit. But we need the medical community to agree on therapies that are beneficial and not be at odds so patients aren’t confused as to what the best things for our health are.

Also there is sweating out of toxins are a benefit.

Yes, I do enjoy saunas, but I prefer steam rooms. Does anyone know if a steam room is better?

Just remember the word is pronounced “sow-na” not “saw-na”

I recently purchased a small 1 to 2 person Sauna from Costco. I’ve put off setting it up because I need to add another (dedicated) electrical circuit for the unit. Luckily I have an electrician scheduled to come in today to run the wiring. With day and night time temperatures hovering around zero I will have no problems getting my money’s worth.

First, these findings appear to be associative, not causative, so while interesting, further studies are needed. Second, are they talking about dry saunas or steam saunas, or both, and is there a difference? Third, have any studies been done with women?

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