The People's Perspective on Medicine

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.

Finnish researchers have been studying the health benefits of sauna bathing for years. Now, a new 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.

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.

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. .
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I would be most interested in a study or informative article on the benefits of an infra red saunas. Please!

I find saunas to be very relaxing and give me a much needed opportunity to slow down and enjoy the moment as I also get rid of impurities.

What about infra-red sauna??? Same benefits???

I use the sauna at my exercise center after a 1 hour energetic water aeorbics class, but find it hard to stay in for more than 5 minutes at a time (I jump in the pool and return to sauna 2 more times). I have discovered infrared saunas and try to use them at least once a week. I find that I can stay in them for 30 minutes and feel refreshed after a shower.

I was introduced to a Finnish Sauna( sow-na) in 1958. It was a wood fired cedar lined sauna. Didn’t like it at first. But eventually got used to it. We’ve had saunas at our cabins for 40 yrs. we’ve introduced a lot of non-Finns to them. Wood fired , water on the rocks saunas. Just don’t call them Saw-nas.

Would love to see an article comparing the pros and cons of different types of saunas!

It would be useful if you could also highlight the benefits of Far INFRA RED saunas – very different from the Scandinavian style of a whole body heat. Infra red is now being used to treat various joint-related, pain, cancer patients. I’ve just began researching systems – perhaps you could too?

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