If you start to sweat at the thought of your blood pressure skyrocketing, you might be on to something.
People have touted the benefits of sauna therapy for hundreds of years, and increasingly, studies are finding that there is something to this age-old approach. A 2015 study followed 2,315 middle-aged men from Finland over 30 years and found that more sauna sessions corresponded to a lower risk of sudden cardiac death and overall cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Adam Rindfleisch, UW Health Family Medicine physician, summed up the research: "Basically, more saunas equated to longer lifespan," he said.
He notes that other studies have found this as well. A 2016 review found that more time in a sauna correlated with decreased sudden cardiac deaths, less cardiovascular disease, and decreased mortality.
Why is this? Rindfleisch explained, “There are many theories. We know that heat therapy increases blood flow, bumps up heart rate to a level that is similar to exercising, and, when done regularly, improves overall blood vessel health. There is probably added benefit because of stress reduction, not to mention social connection, if you sauna with others.”
As long as people pay attention to safety, they tend to do well. Just as with starting an exercise program, it is a good idea to talk with your health care team before you do things that make your heart work harder, if you are not routinely getting much exercise.
Among possible side effects, Rindfleisch said, “Some people get light-headed with saunas, so it is important to be careful that you stand up slowly when you are leaving the sauna or changing position in it. Drink plenty of fluids afterward, too. Research also shows that you don’t want to overheat if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, either.”
Combining sauna with a healthy activity program seems to be especially helpful. Regular saunas add to the benefits you get from regular exercise.
Sauna therapy has been used for centuries to relieve conditions such as joint pain and asthma. It's also commonly used in areas of Scandinavia at so-called sweat lodges where people gather to socialize and perspire together. In Finland, one in four households has a sauna, and yet sweating tends to be frowned upon in American culture, even if it is hugely beneficial.
While proper diet and exercise are important to good health, 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna three or four times a week can also contribute to increased wellness.
So, how does sweating in a sauna compare with sweating during exercise?
The sweating that happens in a sauna, steam room or hot-room yoga class is more profuse than typical exercise. Exercise is beneficial because of the sweating that happens as a result of moving more vigorously, but sauna therapy is beneficial after exercise to soothe and relax the muscles. Exercise is a form of active internally induced sweating, and sauna is a form of restful externally induced sweating. Rather than an either/or, it's a both/and kind of issue.
People with a high-risk medical history, including kidney disease, liver failure or cardiac conditions, may not be able to use sauna therapy. Always check with your physician if you’re considering using a sauna.