Hot Hot Heat–Saunas and Heart Health
Saunas have been utilized for thousands of years claiming the benefits of clearer skin, rapid wound recovery, curing hangovers, and have even been viewed as ideal locations for giving birth. The word ‘sauna’, meaning bathhouse, is of Finnish decent and is the only Finnish word used by English speaking countries. So, leave it to the Finns to find that a trip to the sauna might not only be a great way to recover from last night’s margaritas, it can actually improve your heart health and lengthen your life.
A study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland tracked the effects of sauna use on 2,315 men for 20 years. At the start of the study, these men were between the ages 42-60. The study found that regular sauna bathing resulted in a decreased risk of sudden cardiac death, decreased fatal coronary heart disease, and decreased fatal cardiovascular disease.
Another study conducted in 2014 at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University School of Physical Education in Poland tested 16 males between the ages of 20-23 by subjecting them to 1 session in a 15-minute sauna, every 1-2 days, for a total of 10 sessions. Before the study, total cholesterol, triglycerides (the most common type of fat in the body), LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) and HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”) were measured in blood samples. In conclusion, researchers found that sauna bathing led to a reduction in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Also, an increase in blood plasma volume was observed after the 10 sauna sessions, which means enhanced athletic performance and stronger cardiovascular fitness. Overall, researchers concluded that the positive effect of saunas is similar to the effect that can be obtained through a moderately intense workout.
Now, let’s explore some complicated cardiology jargon in Layman’s terms. We are going to start with cardiac endothelial function. The cardiac endothelium is a thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels. Endothelial release enzymes that control blood clotting, immune function, and monitor platelet adhesion. They also release substances that control vascular relaxation and contraction. So, if an individual’s cardiac endothelium is not functioning properly, arteries may not be able to dilate fully, which may lead to a loss of elasticity in the arteries, resulting in the development of atherosclerosis. Again, in Layman’s terms, atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque and fatty material builds up inside the arteries. Developing atherosclerosis puts you at higher risk for having a heart attack and/or a stroke. A third study conducted in Japan in 2004 and released in the Japanese Heart Journal reported that repeated sauna therapy improved impaired vascular endothelial function in patients with preexisting coronary risk factors and may actually lead to the prevention of atherosclerosis.
The final testament that we simply cannot ignore, is that sitting in a sauna FEELS AMAZING. Taking a few minutes for yourself to sit in a warm room and just breathe can be extremely therapeutic and help release stress. Feel like you can’t take the heat? Consider seeking out an infrared sauna. This style of sauna is growing in popularity because it heats your body directly, instead of the air around you like traditional saunas—you achieve the same results at a lower temperature.
Obviously, everyone’s journey to health and wellness is different. Some of us enjoy working out while others really struggle to get moving every day. Some of us believe in “everything in moderation” while some of us swear by a strict diet. Alcohol is bad, but make sure you get in that one glass of red wine daily for the antioxidants. We hear a lot of different schools of thought when it comes to how we “should” be living. Frankly, it can sound like a lot of hot air. But after taking a closer look at the traditional practice of sauna bathing and the positive effects it may have on one’s cardiovascular health… now that’s some hot air I can get behind.
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Gryka, D; Pilch, W; Szarek, M;Szygula, Z; Tota, L– The Effect of Sauna Bathing on Lipid Profile in Young, Physically Active, Male Subjects– Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2014 Aug; 27(4):608-18:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25001587
Harvard Health Publishing:https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sauna-use-linked-longer-life-fewer-fatal-heart-problems-201502257755
International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health:http://ijomeh.eu/The-effect-of-sauna-bathing-on-lipid-profile-in-young-physically-active-male-subjects,2016,0,2.html
Masuda, A; Miyata, M; Kihara, T; Minagoe, S; Tei, C–Repeated Sauna Therapy–Jpn Heart J. 2004 Mar; 45(2): 297-303: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15090706
Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/infrared-sauna/faq-20057954T
Zaccardi, Francesco, MD; Khan, Hassan, MD, PhD; Laukkanen, Tanjaniina, MSc–Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Morality Events–JAMA Intern Med. 2015; 175(4):542-548: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2130724