Sauna baths are popular in Scandinavian countries. People there appreciate the strong contrast between the extreme dry heat of the sauna and the cold outside. Classically, when people emerge from the sauna they jump into cold water and cool down quickly. But can anyone use a sauna, or should there be restrictions according to age and health?
Does Heat Lower Blood Pressure?
Q. When I get out of the sauna, my blood pressure is lower. It also runs lower in the summertime. Perhaps the vasodilation due to heat is beneficial over the long-term, but I am not sure if there are any studies. Do you know of any?
A. A recent review by Australian scientists concludes that heat therapy helps lower blood pressure and improves blood vessel dilation (Experimental Physiology, June 2021). The authors note that people with a lifelong sauna habit are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another review reports that sauna bathing reduces cardiometabolic disorders and recommends the practice for people in high-stress occupations such as first responders (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Jan. 27, 2021). A session also improves blood flow for people with stable coronary artery disease (Canadian Journal of Cardiology, March 2021).
You can learn more about the cardiovascular benefits of relaxing in dry heat and plunging into cold water. In addition, you’ll read about other nondrug approaches in our eGuide to Blood Pressure Solutions.
Who Could Use a Sauna?
Q. I was fascinated to read that sauna use can help prevent high blood pressure. But what if you already have high blood pressure? I’ve always heard that if you have heart disease or hypertension you should avoid saunas. What’s the story? When is it safe to use a sauna?
A. A long-term study of Finnish men has shown that those who use the sauna almost daily have lower blood pressure than those who use it less frequently (Zaccardi et al, American Journal of Hypertension, June 13, 2017). Previous reports from this study have shown that frequent bathers are less likely to die of heart disease than those who bathe weekly or less often (Laukkanen et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2015).
Dedicated bathers were also less likely than sporadic users to be diagnosed with dementia (Laukkanen et al, Age and Ageing, March 2017). Moreover, those who made it a point to use a sauna frequently had fewer respiratory infections (Kunutsor et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, Dec. 2017).
Heart Disease and the Sauna:
People with heart disease are usually told to avoid steam baths and other forms of heat. However, research shows that saunas benefit blood pressure as much as exercise in people with hypertension (Gayda et al, Journal of Clinical Hypertension, Aug. 2012). One small study in people with heart failure found no adverse effects and slight improvement after 15-minute sauna sessions three times a week (Basford et al, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Jan. 2009).
If you want to use a sauna, it makes sense to discuss the idea with your doctor. Our Guide to Blood Pressure Treatment offers a number of ways to help control hypertension.