Saunas Prevent Heart Disease and Extend Life
I was not a big fan of saunas. I always preferred the steam shower or the hot tub to the sauna.
In my youth I tried the sauna a few times at the local gym. At that time, it seemed like the sauna was always dominated by by older men, wrapped in towels, who generally read the newspaper in silence.
In contrast, saunas are everywhere in Finland. Saunas get them though the long, dark, and cold winters. Not only do saunas get them through the winter but saunas may also be one reason why the life expectancy in Finland, without any natural vitamin D for most of the year, has a much longer life-expectancy than what we have in the U.S.
The sauna culture in Finland is also much different than that of a typical U.S. gym. It is a social event. Many homes have a sauna. Families, friends, and neighbors take saunas together. Rather than the silent sauna experience, these saunas are often lively and fun.
This article is a summary of my recent podcast interview with Dr. Jared Bunch about his recent Everyday Health article on the subject of saunas, heart disease, and longevity. In addition to reading this article, you can also listen to this podcast through my website or by subscribing to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher Radio.
The Finnish Sauna Study
In this study, researchers followed 2,315 middle-age Finnish men (age 42-60) for an average of 20.7 years to see if regular sauna use prevented heart disease and extended life. Even after controlling for the other cardiac risk factors, the risk of sudden cardiac death was 52% lower in the near daily sauna users when compared to those who rarely used the sauna. In addition, total mortality was also reduced by 17% in the frequent sauna users.
I should point out that these Finnish saunas are not for the faint of heart. It is an intense dry heat at temperatures much higher than what we generally use for saunas in the U.S. Thus, the results of this study may not apply to the typical U.S. sauna, steam rooms, or hot tubs.
How Do Saunas Benefit the Heart?
There are many possible ways that saunas protect the heart. Here are four of them:
1. Stress Reduction
It is hard to take your stress with you into the sauna. Saunas offer a great way for both physical and mental relaxation. As we have discussed in many previous articles, stress is one of the biggest factors in heart disease.
2. Social Connection
Connecting socially with friends and families may be the secret to a long and healthy life. Indeed, studies have shown that social connection may be the most important factor in health and longevity.
3. Saunas Mimic Exercise
It is well known that regular daily exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your heart. Both exercise and saunas result in “heat training” to the body. Indeed, with sauna therapy you can often see a marked heart rate response. A heart rate of 150 bpm is not unusual for many sauna users in Finland.
4. Saunas Lower Blood Pressure
It is well known that saunas dilate and relax blood vessels. This results in significant blood pressure lowering. This blood pressure lowering effect can last for up to two hours after the sauna.
Other Benefits of Saunas
Saunas don’t just benefit the heart. Studies have also shown the following possible health benefits of saunas:
1. Improved Exercise Tolerance
Saunas may benefit skeletal as well as cardiac muscle. Indeed, studies have shown that heat training improves exercise tolerance and speeds muscle recovery after injury.
2. Less Diabetes
Through the effect on skeletal muscles, saunas improve insulin sensitivity and may help to prevent diabetes.
3. Improves Cognitive Function Through BDNF
Sauna use has also been shown to increase brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is like fertilizer for our brains. Indeed, increased BDNF can improve cognitive function and memory. To learn more about BDNF, please read my article on BDNF.
4. Improved Lung Function
For hundreds of years, Finnish doctors have recommended sauna use for patients suffering from lung conditions. Indeed, some studies even suggest improved respiratory function with regular sauna use.
As was seen with the Finnish sauna study discussed in this article, saunas have been associated with a longer life span. This is likely due to increased expression of heat shock proteins and FOXO3 through heat training.
Heat shock proteins are specialized proteins that repair damaged proteins and waste protein accumulation in our bodies. Chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s Disease, result in progressive protein degradation or accumulation.
Heat training, through exercise, also increases expression of heat shock proteins. Also, centenarians tend to have increased expression of heat shock proteins as well. We have found that the long-lived people in China’s Longevity Village also have increased expression of heat shock proteins. Heat shock proteins are repair proteins that are required for a healthy and long life.
In addition to heat shock proteins, heat training and exercise also increases expression of the FOXO3 gene. FOXO3 gene expression enhances DNA repair. Once again, people with the highest levels of FOXO3 expression are the people most likely to live a long and healthy life to 100+.
The Risks of Saunas
Saunas are certainly not without risk. A heart rate of 150 bpm in someone with a preexisting heart condition could trigger a heart attack. Also, severe dehydration, combined with electrolyte depletion, could trigger a cardiac arrest.
If you want to enjoy the possible health benefits of saunas, it needs to be done wisely. To begin with, it is always best to consult with your physician first. Also, make sure you are well hydrated and that your electrolytes are tanked up prior to entering the sauna. When first using the sauna make sure you limit your time in the sauna.
You also need to be very careful if you are on blood pressure medications. The blood pressure lowering effect of saunas, in combination with blood pressure medications, could cause you to pass out.
Alcohol consumption has no place in the sauna. Indeed, based on a Swedish study, 71% of all sauna deaths involved alcohol. It also may not be a bad idea to use the “buddy system” in the sauna as well.
Do you regularly use saunas? What has your experience been?