Is it the relaxation, the heat, or something else? Whatever the reasons, researchers in Finland say that frequent saunas may prolong your life.
Scientists from the University of Eastern Finland followed 2,315 men beginning in the 1980s. All were between age 42 and 60 when the research, called the Finnish Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Study, began.
By a median of 21 years later, this is what they had found:
- The risk of sudden cardiac death was 63 percent lower in the men who had four to seven sauna sessions per week than those who did only one session.
- The risk of fatal coronary heart disease events was 48 percent lower in those who had four to seven sauna sessions than in those who had just one.
- Benefits also were seen for those men who spent two to three sessions in the sauna, compared with the one-sauna group.
- The amount of time spent basking in the sauna’s heat appeared significant, too: Sessions lasting more than 19 minutes provided the best outcomes.
Lead author Dr. Jari Laukkanen wrote that further studies should be done to figure out exactly what mechanism is at work that links frequent saunas and heart health.
Dr. Rita Redberg, of the University of California, San Francisco, is editor-in-chief of JAMA Internal Medicine, which published the study in its Feb. 23 online edition. She told Next Avenue that the results of frequent saunas were significant.
“It shows a very strong association with a very important endpoint – namely, living longer. It was a very impressive reduction,” Redberg said. “I always ask, ‘What’s the downside?’ but I don’t think there are a lot of risks.”
Saunas are an integral part of Finnish life. “For Finns, it is a must at regular intervals, and if they go too long without sauna, they’ll start feeling incomplete,” according to VisitFinland.com, the country’s official travel site.
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“The expression 'post-sauna' ('saunanjälkeinen') is a perfect excuse for avoiding doing pretty much anything in Finland,” the travel site said. “The feeling of being physically and mentally clean is something so blissful you want to enjoy it in peace as long as you feel like, and people respect that.”
Previous studies have shown both positive and negative health effects of saunas.
Sauna bathing increases the heart rate and body temperature and causes sweating. A 1994 study found that long-term sauna use of two times a week lowered blood pressure, particularly in those with hypertension, Laukkanen wrote. Other research has found sauna use improved exercise capacity and lowered the incidence of arrhythmias in people with heart failure.
Research from other countries showing potentially negative results of sauna use “may be at least partly due to the different conditions and temperature of the sauna,” Laukkanen wrote. In Finland, the traditional sauna features dry air, and the recommended temperature at the bather’s face is usually 80 to 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the study.
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“Dry sauna bathing seems to be safe, and even patients who have recovered from myocardial infarction and patients with stable angina pectoris or heart failure can enjoy sauna bathing without any significant adverse cardiovascular effects,” Laukkanen wrote.
One caveat: Laukkanen advised people with orthostatic hypotension, or low blood pressure that occurs when standing, to be cautious in the sauna. A drop in blood pressure typically occurs immediately after the sauna for such individuals, he wrote.
While the researchers only looked at sauna use, the same health benefits might be seen with hot tubs and steam rooms, Redberg said. Laukkanen wrote that the results cannot be directly applied to those other heat relaxation methods, nor to women or those who are not used to regular saunas, however.
“Our results suggest that sauna bathing is a recommended health habit, although further studies are needed to confirm our results in different population settings,” he concluded.
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