Sauna therapy is an effective tool for promoting health of heart and circulatory system.
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Sauna bathing has been used for centuries as a means of relaxation, but it’s becoming increasingly popular in the modern age among biohackers, athletes, and everyday men and women. Evidence suggests that the effects of sauna bathing go beyond relaxation, and instead may also improve cardiovascular function, reduce inflammation, and lower cholesterol. But how often do you need to use a sauna to reap these benefits? What temperature is considered optimal? Is sauna bathing safe for everyone? We’ll answer these questions and more in our latest article.
What is sauna bathing?
Sauna bathing is a form of heat therapy that exposes you to a high temperature for a short period of time.
There are several types of saunas, all of which revolve around one similar feature—increased temperature. One of the most popular sauna types is the dry heat Finnish sauna, commonly found in many health clubs and spas. Steams rooms or Turkish-style Hannaman are another variety of saunas that generate humid heat through steam. Infrared saunas, which have recently gained popularity, use infrared light to generate dry heat. Infrared light produces many of the same benefits as traditional saunas but at lower and more tolerable temperatures.
Is sauna bathing healthy?
When exposed to high temperatures, the body endures a bit of (healthy) stress as it works to cool down. These effects are similar to those from aerobic exercise—heart rate, blood flow, and cardio output all increase while blood pressure decreases. As body temperature rises, the heart works harder to bring more blood to the surface of the skin to increase sweat output and bring body temperature down. This concept causes the body to increase oxygen use, just as is the case during exercise. Similar to exercise, sauna use can have significant cardiovascular and longevity benefits.
What does the research say about sauna, heart health, and longevity?
Multiple studies show a link between sauna bathing and a reduced risk of heart disease. A 2015 study published in JAMA found that long-term, frequent sauna use (over 20 years, four to seven times a week) was associated with a reduced risk of several heart issues, including sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. What’s more, recent research has found that long-term sauna use is also associated with a significantly reduced risk of stroke. And those who engage in consistent exercise may experience even more health benefits from using a sauna. One observational study found that a combination of frequent aerobic exercise plus sauna bathing was associated with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
What about markers of cholesterol?
When looking at cholesterol specifically, one study found that just two short weeks of sauna use improved both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol in females. Another study showed similar results—after completing just 10 sauna sessions, participants saw both their LDL and total cholesterol decline. However, it’s important to note that the levels did return to baseline a few weeks after the experiment ended. Frequent sauna use could result in longer-lasting changes.
Sauna use may also improve inflammation and immunity
Regular sauna use may also help reduce inflammation, according to research. A study found that those who engaged in regular sauna use had lower levels of the inflammatory marker CRP. This held true even after the authors adjusted for several variables including age, BMI, alcohol use, and physical activity. Another study showed similar results—a reduction in a similar inflammatory marker, hsCRP, was associated with frequent sauna use. Interestingly, frequent sauna users also had lower levels of white blood cells (WBC), specifically leukocytes. Since WBCs are part of our body’s inflammatory response, these findings may be related to improvements in our inflammatory pathway.
Ready to use a sauna? Here’s how to optimize sauna use
To reap the health benefits of sauna use, InsideTracker recommends choosing a temperature between 175-195F (80-90C) with 10-20% humidity for 30-minute sauna sessions at least three times per week. For the best results, follow each session with a 2-minute cool-down in room temperature water. If 30 minutes is too long, you can break this down into shorter sessions followed by cool-downs in room temperature water in between. Other forms of sauna, like infrared sauna and steam saunas, may also be beneficial.
Before you start sauna bathing, here are some things to consider
Stay hydrated! To avoid side effects like dizziness or headaches, you must properly hydrate. Either bring water into the sauna with you or rehydrate after your session. Aim for a minimum of 500 ml (~2 cups of water) for every 30 mins of sauna use. Check out this blog for more information on how to stay hydrated. Also, it’s best to refrain from saunas if you are pregnant, have unstable cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or struggle with claustrophobia. And lastly, avoid alcohol before or during sauna use.
A recap of sauna bathing’s impacts on heart health and longevity
- Sauna bathing is a form of heat therapy that exposes you to high temperatures for a short period of time.
- Frequent sauna bathing improves cardiovascular function, reduces inflammation, and may improve lipid profile.
- For optimal results, choose a temperature between 175-195F (80-90C) with 10-20% humidity for 30-minutes at least three times a week.
- Remember to stay hydrated during sauna use, avoid alcohol, and refrain from using a sauna if you are pregnant or have heart issues.
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When people think of saunas, they often picture the classic scene of a group socializing after a workout or they envision the luxury of an upscale spa-like setting.
Saunas are popular after an intense workout because the increased circulation from the intense heat reduces muscle soreness, improves joint range of motion and can ease pain. A small study also demonstrated that regular use can preserve muscle mass.
But did you know that frequent sauna use can also save your life? Sauna use is one of those rare health benefits that is both strongly rooted in multiple countries and cultures and has long-term research studies to back it up.
The history of the sauna
Most people think of Finland when it comes to saunas. In fact, the word sauna is Finnish and means “bathhouse.” The word association is also well-deserved considering there are more than 2 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. But there is also some archaeological evidence that the ancient Mayans were the first known people to recognize the benefit of saunas, about 3,000 years ago, when they built sweat houses. The first saunas built in Africa were also designed to facilitate sweating to help rid the body of infectious disease.
The development of the modern sauna is thanks to Roman and Greek bathhouses. Their bathhouses were designed to purify the body but the ritual evolved into a social meeting place. Turkish Hammams were created inside beautiful ornate buildings as a safe haven to detoxify and beautify the body. Nowadays, saunas consist of a small wood-lined room heated by electrical conventional or infrared heaters.
Modern research on the benefits of sauna use
The studied benefits of regular sauna use are wide-ranging, but I’ll focus on its cardiovascular disease-related mortality reduction here.
There is an oft-cited ongoing study of more than 2,300 middle-aged men from eastern Finland who were tracked for an average of 20 years (called the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study). Researchers found reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality in sauna users. Interestingly, the risk reduction was also dose-dependent. For example, for men who reported using the sauna 4-7 times per week, the risk of fatal coronary heart disease was significantly lower when compared to men who used the sauna once weekly. And perhaps most importantly, the risk of all-cause mortality was 40% lower among frequent sauna users.
The study findings of an association between frequent sauna use and reduction in mortality are often cited because the researchers adjusted them for potential biases and confounders like socioeconomic status, baseline physical activity and cardiovascular fitness levels. Most importantly, access was not an issue for participants, given how deeply sauna use is rooted in Finnish culture and the plethora of options available.
So how does sitting in a sauna for 20 minutes multiple times a week achieve reductions in morbidity on par or exceeding that of prescription medication and other Western medicine interventions? Sauna bathing at a temperature of 113-212 degrees Farenheint and relative humidity of 10-30% mimics a physiological response similar to moderate- to high-intensity cardiovascular exercise like cycling, swimming or running.
The high heat raises the surface temperature of the skin and the heart rate can increase to 100-150 beats a minute. A meta-analysis of multiple studies identified possible pathways for how regular sauna bathing could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, including:
Reduction in blood pressure
- Improved function of the endothelium, the thin membrane lining inside of heart and blood vessels, and relaxed blood flow
- Reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation
- Positive modulation of blood cholesterol levels; increased HDL and decreased LDL
- Positive impact on the autonomic nervous system
These benefits make sense because dysregulation of these pathways can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other risk factors for coronary artery and cardiovascular disease.
Should you spend more time in a sauna?
If you have access to a sauna and are considering incorporating it into your routine, first discuss with your doctor as you would before starting any kind of new exercise regimen. Remember, using the sauna induces the same physiologic response you would experience from an intense workout. Sauna use is not recommended for those with a history of low blood pressure, recent heart attack or stroke, and individuals with altered or reduced sweat function. Pregnant women and children should also avoid the sauna.
An additional word of caution: in a typical session, the average sauna bather can secret half a kilogram of sweat – about 1.1 lbs.
Hydrating is essential after a sauna session!
If you don’t have access to a sauna, I highly recommend cycling heat and cold exposure as often as possible at home.
Before bed, add two scoops of Epsom salt for a comfortably hot 20-minute bath. Then rinse off with a 5-minute cold shower. Set the bedroom temperature to 65F to optimize cellular recovery overnight.
HIGH INTENSITY HEALTH’s THOUGHTS
A new study has found that regular sauna bathing improves cardiovascular function and health.
This is especially important for patients with poor cardiovascular function.
This is important to remember because cardiovascular disease is still the number one leading cause of death worldwide.
Death from heart disease outnumbers death from covid-19 throughout the pandemic.
So we must focus on this.
The new meta-analysis involved rigorous detail and the inclusion of 16 different studies. They found that sauna bathing two to four times per week for about 30 minutes dramatically improves cardiovascular health. This includes reducing high blood pressure and enhancing ejection fraction. It doesn’t increase any underlying health conditions that may worsen cardiovascular disease.
It improves cardiovascular health. When you go in the sauna, it does increase epinephrine and heart rate temporarily. But it returns to below baseline. So it’s important because, as we’ve discussed before, new NHANES analysis has found that about 92 percent of American adults have sub-optimal cardiometabolic health. This is a combination of poor heart health paired with poor metabolic health.
Poor cardiovascular health worsens dementia.
The cerebrovascular system is a type of brain system. So, the healthier the cardiovascular system your circulatory system is, the better it is for your brain and muscles. There was a recent study that found that people who do resistance training with a little bit of cardio build more strength. This is because the health of their cardiovascular system is nourishing the muscles.
Sauna treatment can reduce your blood pressure by five points.
A drug is successful if it lowers your blood pressure by about 10 points. So, here you have a drug-like effect without the side effects of a drug. Insulin resistance is the underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. So, going in the sauna can help reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
This is a natural way to improve the health of your cardiovascular system.
Please sign up at a gym that has a sauna and starts doing this after you exercise. If you don’t have access to a sauna, we’ve shared research with you over the years that going in the hot tub is quite similar in terms of its primary effect. Getting hot somehow (hot yoga, anything to that effect) will increase that hormetic stress on your cardiovascular system, possibly reducing your blood pressure, improving ejection fraction, and overall health of your circulatory system. So spread the message that the sauna is medicine! We share a video from last week where we talked about how sauna therapy reduces the inflammatory burden on the body and can increase life expectancy by combating chronic inflammation. We’ve talked about all the benefits of longitudinal studies.
According to researchers in Finland, sauna therapy has many benefits, including improved brain health and cognitive function.
However, many people don’t see the value in sauna therapy or need access to one. If you’re considering trying sauna therapy, start small and slow to see if it’s right for you.
It could improve your sleep and job performance and even lead to sauna parties with friends!
The links above are affiliate links, so I receive a small commission every time you use them to purchase a product. The content contained in this video, and its accompanying description, is not intended to replace viewers’ relationships with their own medical practitioner. Always speak with your doctor regarding the content of this channel, and especially before using any products, services, or devices discussed on this channel or website.