Relaxing in a steamy sauna may provide more health benefits than stress relief. A recent study has revealed that saunas may also have a positive impact on your heart and blood vessels in ways similar to moderate exercise.
The finding tested the effects of a 30-minute sauna session, and researchers found that people who often use saunas have a decreased risk for heart disease and even dementia. On average, sauna users also saw a reduction in blood pressure and artery “stiffness” immediately after their session. They also had an increase in heart rate, similar to what one would experience from moderate exercise.
The heat from the sauna is one major factor for this. Researcher Tanjaniina Laukkanen, of the University of Eastern Finland, in Kuopio, said because of the sweating caused by the heat, it has “a natural diuretic effect–lowering blood pressure and decreasing the workload of the heart.”
Conducted in Finland, where “sauna bathing” originated, the study involved 102 middle-aged adults. The team found that men who often used saunas had lower rates of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t.
The goal of the study was to see whether a sauna session had positive impacts on blood vessel and heart function in people in their 40s and 50s. These participants did not have heart disease, but did have risk factors for it (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity).
Findings of the study revealed that their heart rates rose from an average of 65 beats per minute (BPM) before the sauna to 81 BPM afterward. Also, on average, the sauna users’ blood pressure dropped seven points, and their arteries became more “elastic.”
“Both the heart and the brain need good blood vessel function,” said Laukkanen. Although sauna sessions themselves may not deserve all the credit for this, the researchers noticed that since heart disease and dementia share common risk factors like high blood pressure, saunas and other healthy lifestyle choices may aid in reducing these problems.
Dr. Joshua Liberman, a cardiologist and governor of the American College of Cardiology’s Wisconsin chapter, said the findings made sense. He used an example of applying heat to a sore joint, saying “We know that the application of heat, locally, causes blood vessels to relax and blood flow to increase.” According to Liberman, it makes sense that with time, these physiological effects of sauna use would be beneficial to lowering heart disease risks.
However, not everyone should use a sauna daily. It may not be the heat alone that causes these benefits. Liberman suggests, “This may partly reflect the fact that people are getting away from their phones and allowing themselves to relax and get into a more meditative state.”
Additionally, it would take three to seven visits each week to a sauna to see lower disease risks. The main point Liberman wants readers to understand is that this study is just another in a long line of research showing how lifestyle choices affect heart health. “When you take care of your body, when you do things that help you relax, it’s going to beneficial,” he explained.
The study findings were published in the January issue of the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and online in the Journal Human Hypertension.