Sauna: the hot new therapy for a healthy heart

Age is an uncontrollable risk factor for cardiovascular heart disease, unlike risk factors like smoking, drinking alcohol and a lack of exercise.

Now, new studies have shown that a sauna a few times a week could help stave off heart health problems in older people, even amongst those who are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Heat for heart health

In a 15-year study of approximately 1 600 men and women aged between 53 and 74 in Finland, it was found that just 181 people succumbed to heart-related illnesses. The study concluded that the more saunas the individuals in the group took, the lower their risk of heart disease.

The sauna is a cultural institution in Finland but is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide. Unlike other types of sauna, like the hot, humid Turkish sauna, the Finnish version is very hot and dry. These saunas are wood-lined rooms heated by stones on a stove. An occasional splash of water over the stones produces steam in an internal temperature of around 100°C.

It’s the heat that seems to be key in the sauna’s benefit to heart health. In one study, participants’ pulse rates increased by 30%, causing the heart to pump almost twice the volume of blood it would normally do at rest. This increase in heart rate is similar to what would occur during moderate intensity exercise.

Other studies have shown that sauna therapy is associated with a reduction in high blood pressure and a lower risk of stroke and cognitive decline, again supporting the concept of improved heart health.

Get the best out of sauna therapy

Evidence suggests that the frequency of using a sauna is closely linked to the risk of heart disease. People who used the sauna more than four times a week, and those who sauna-bathed for more than 45 minutes a week showed a significant reduction in their risk of fatal cardiovascular disease-related events. Furthermore, those people who exercised regularly and used a sauna had a significantly lower risk of dying from heart disease than people who didn’t exercise regularly and used a sauna.

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There were some underlying factors that could have improved the study outcomes:

  • Sauna baths are inherently relaxing, so lowering stress levels could be an additional factor to consider.
  • Sauna baths are also accessible across the board to all Finns, so the socioeconomic risk factor ­– poverty – associated with cardiovascular disease did not apply.

Sauna safety

Dashing off immediately to the sauna might seem tempting, but it’s always best to check with your doctor before you start any sort of activity that affects your heart. If you’re already fit, there should be no problem, but some conditions may exempt you from sauna therapy. If you have fluctuating blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, unstable angina and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease, sauna therapy may not be for you.

If you can and do sauna, here are some tips to help make the most of the experience:

  • Don’t drink alcohol before, after or during your sauna
  • Keep to a reasonable time limit: 15 to 20 minutes is enough.
  • Don’t cool down too fast. This puts your circulatory system under considerable stress.
  • Stay hydrated: quench your thirst with a few glasses of water after each sauna.
  • Try to sauna at least four times a week, or for 45 minutes a week.
  • Listen to your body. If you aren’t feeling well, skip the sauna.

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