HEART
March 4, 2015

Sweat Equity

Heading to the sauna a few times a week offers health benefits far beyond purging toxins, a Finnish study finds.

Any time spent sitting in a room in high moist or dry heat — a sauna — has long been seen as a good way to sweat out toxins, but its health benefits may extend far beyond that. Hours in the sauna can prevent heart problems as well.

The more time men in a long-term Finnish study spent sauna bathing each week, the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), and death from all causes, coronary or not.

It makes sense that heat might improve circulation and cardiovascular function, but the link between sauna use and sudden cardiac death and fatal cardiovascular diseases has not been well studied, and the results of the Finnish study, though striking, do not tell us what it is about saunas that is so beneficial for the heart.

Clearly time spent in the sauna is time well spent.

“Although we do not know why the men who took saunas more frequently had greater longevity (whether it is the time spent in the hot room, the relaxation time, the leisure of a life that allows for more relaxation time or the camaraderie of the sauna), clearly time spent in the sauna is time well spent,” Rita Redberg, the editor-in-chief of JAMA Internal Medicine, wrote in an editor’s note that accompanied the study.

Jari Laukkanen, of the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, and his team studied 2, 315 men between the ages of 42 and 60 years old from Eastern Finland.

They followed the men for almost 21 years. During that time there were 190 sudden cardiac deaths, 281 instances of fatal coronary heart disease, and 407 fatal cardiovascular disease events among participants; 929 deaths from all causes occurred.

For those men who went in the sauna two or three times a week, the risk of sudden coronary death was 22 percent lower compared to men who said they went in the sauna once a week, and for those who used the sauna four to seven times each week, coronary death risk was 63 percent lower.

Men who used the sauna two to three times a week had a 23 percent lower risk of fatal CHD events; those who took four to seven saunas per week had a 48 percent lower risk, compared to men who only took one sauna a week. The same was true of death from cardiovascular disease.

The risk of death from any cause was 24 percent lower among those who went sauna bathing two to three times per week, and 40 percent lower in those who took a sauna four to seven times each week.

How long you stay in the sauna also matters. When men's sauna sessions lasted 11 to 19 minutes, their risk of death from any cause went down seven percent compared to those who spent less than 11 minutes in the heat of the sauna. When men spent more than 19 minutes in the sauna, their risk of death from any cause was 52 percent lower for those whose sessions lasted less than 11 minutes.

“Often I have advised a patient who was considering an unnecessary test to forgo that test and instead spend the money on something that he or she would actually enjoy, such as a massage or spa treatment,” Redberg, a professor of medicine and director of women’s cardiovascular services at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in her editor’s note.

Data from the current study indicate her advice would not only help patients feel good, but would also, if they chose to regularly use a sauna bath, help them live longer.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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