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Sauna Bathing and Its Health Benefits

Regular sauna bathing lowers blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. It may also help prevent lung disease and dementia. Exercise plus sauna is synergistic.
Sauna Bathing and Its Health Benefits
Seniors couple relaxing in sauna

Finnish researchers have been studying the health benefits of sauna bathing for years. Now, a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reviews the evidence for cardiovascular and other health benefits.

What Are the Benefits of Sauna Bathing?

The authors note that sitting in a hot wooden room has been a tradition in Finland for thousands of years. Many people find sauna bathing a relaxing and pleasurable activity, but new research suggests it may also offer numerous health benefits (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, August, 2018). These include improvements in circulation and a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors.

People with high blood pressure see a reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure after sauna bathing. Studies also indicate that this practice may reduce the risk of dementia, lung disease, mental disorders and pain. Perhaps the rest of the world should pay attention to this ancient Finnish tradition. Some Americans who have tried it are enthusiastic.

Sauna Bathing for Heart Health:

Earlier studies have demonstrated that sauna bathing benefits cardiovascular health. A twenty-year study of more than 2,000 men in Finland found that frequent sauna bathing was associated with a lower risk of sudden cardiac death (JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2015).

When the men volunteered for the study in the 1980s, they filled out questionnaires about whether they visited the sauna two or three times a week, every day, or only once a week. Only 12 men in this study never went to the sauna.

Follow-up showed that 10 percent of those using the sauna weekly died of sudden cardiac death during the study, compared to only 5 percent of those who went every day. The pattern held up for death from other cardiovascular causes, and daily sauna bathers were also less likely to die from any cause during the study time frame.

Finnish saunas use dry heat, so the results might not hold for steam baths. In Finland, saunas are common and readily accessible, so there were no significant socioeconomic differences between the men who visited the sauna frequently and those who went rarely.

Living in Finland:

Q. My husband and I lived in Finland for a year. We took a sauna regularly in the university recreation center across the street from our apartment.

Our first sauna bath (in the sauna in the apartment building of Finnish friends, years previously) had felt very odd or even dangerous. We’d 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 or 15 minutes 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. They are rarely accompanied by the possibility of cool bathing–just cold showers, which are not so pleasant! Please remind us again of the health benefits of saunas.

A. A recent review in the journal Experimental Gerontology (Aug. 5, 2021) listed many health benefits associated with regular sauna bathing. It promotes cardiovascular health relaxing blood vessels, lowering blood pressure, increasing heart rate, reducing premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), lowering cholesterol and improving blood flow through peripheral arteries.

In addition, regular sauna bathers appear less likely to suffer from depression or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. However, older people or those with chronic health conditions should check with their doctors before spending time in a hot sauna.

Other Readers Share Their Experience:

Meryl noted on our website:

“Anyone visiting a sauna that often is someone who knows how to relax. The ability to relax more easily all by itself (sauna or no) may very well be the cause.”

EBM responded:

“Sauna’s benefits go beyond relaxing. Scandinavians use it also to detoxify the body. Toxins are sweat out through the pores of the skin, our largest organ. Therefore the body stays healthier.”

Exercise Plus Sauna Bathing Is Better Than Either One Alone:

Research indicates that sauna bathing is synergistic with exercise, which is known to boost cardiovascular health. One reader loves the sauna more than the exercise.

Q. My primary reason for joining any health spa always has been because of the sauna. I was thinking I was a lazy sort. Now I read that sitting in the sauna is as good as the workout itself.

I do think most Americans are in too much of a hurry to enjoy a sauna bath. It’s unfortunate that we all spend too much time working and stressed out doing everything we are supposed to do.

Sauna Bathing Is Good But So Is Exercising!

A. Evidence keeps mounting that sauna bathing has health benefits. Spending 15 minutes a day in a Finnish-type sauna has been shown to reduce the risk of strokes (Neurology, online, May 2, 2018).

Other benefits may include lower blood pressure and reduced risk for dementia (American Journal of Hypertension, Nov. 1, 2017; Age and Ageing, March 1, 2017).

It’s a good idea to exercise as well as enjoy sauna bathing. Researchers have found that fitness due to aerobic exercise combined with frequent sauna bathing offers better health benefits than either alone (Annals of Medicine, March, 2018).

Stories of Sauna Bathing:

O. G. in South Carolina relates:

“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. Generally, I 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.”

Heather in Texas shares this sentiment:

“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. I feel so incredible after I’m there. Many people we meet there go multiple times a week and have even said that it cured them of certain ailments. Again, wish I could do it more regularly.”

What Is Your Sauna Story?

Please share your own sauna bathing experience below in the comment section below. Here are a few comments from other readers:

Scott reminisced:

“I grew up in Buffalo and we had a cottage in northern Ontario. We went up for the summers and every weekend. We’d get up there late and immediately light the sauna. We went through the ritual of many sweats and rinses. At the end we would thrash each other with birch leaves. After an hour or more we’d go to cottage and be so refreshed we’d stay up and play cards. How I miss those days.”

Beth remarked:

“I take a barre class twice a week and always sauna after. The best part of my routine! I’ve never been sore after a workout.”

Marie was much less positive about sauna bathing:

“OH! The dreaded sauna! My parents were both from Finland, and we had a real sauna on the farm. I hated it. My mother loved to make it as hot as possible. I thought I’d die, or melt for sure. I’ve never had the desire to have a sauna after I grew up.”

Let us know how you feel about saunas by adding your comment below.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Citations
  • Laukkanen JA et al, "Cardiovascular and other health benefits of sauna bathing: A review of the evidence." Mayo Clinic Proceedings, August, 2018. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.04.008
  • Laukkanen T et al, "Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events." JAMA Internal Medicine, April 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8187
  • Patrick RP & Johnson TL, "Sauna use as a lifestyle practice to extend healthspan." Experimental Gerontology, Aug. 5, 2021. DOI: 10.1016/j.exger.2021.111509
  • Kunutsor SK et al, "Sauna bathing reduces the risk of stroke in Finnish men and women: A prospective cohort study." Neurology, online, May 2, 2018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000005606
  • Zaccardi F et al, "Sauna bathing and incident hypertension: A prospective cohort study." American Journal of Hypertension, Nov. 1, 2017. DOI: 10.1093/ajh/hpx102
  • Laukkanen T et al, "Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease in middle-aged Finnish men." Age and Ageing, March 1, 2017. DOI: 10.1093/ageing/afw212
  • Kunutsor SK et al, "Joint associations of sauna bathing and cardiorespiratory fitness on cardiovascular and all-cause mortality risk: a long-term prospective cohort study." Annals of Medicine, March, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/07853890.2017.1387927
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