Saunas are used regularly by nearly one-third of all adults in Finland. They’re also extremely popular in the U.S. That’s because nothing is more invigorating for the body like a sauna. They relieve tension, relax muscles and mentally recharge your brain. Now, a new study reveals that saunas may be more than just relaxing, they’re also highly beneficial for heart health. In fact, it seems that taking a sauna may actually have the same impact on the heart and blood vessels as moderate exercise does.
Saunas and heart health
Most people with heart disease normally avoid taking saunas for fear it could aggravate their condition. But it turns out that regularly taking saunas could actually help the heart. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland found that taking dry saunas can have a positive effect on blood pressure, heart rate, vascular health and particularly those with a low ejection fraction.
However, this is not the first study on the benefits of saunas and heart health. Earlier studies also show that regular sauna use may benefit people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. It was also found generally safe and likely beneficial for people with mild heart failure — but not for those with unstable angina or a recent heart attack.
In fact, even previous research from the same Finnish researchers found that people who regularly use saunas have lower rates of hypertension, cardiac death and dementia compared to people who infrequently use them. However, the team’s earlier studies on the health benefits of saunas, were observational only. This means that researcher could only find associations, and not actual cause-and-effect between using saunas and health results. This time, however, the Finnish researchers recruited 102 people and monitored them prior to going in, and then after each 30-minute sauna session.
Similar to moderate exercise
The new study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, showed that time in a sauna reduced participants systolic blood pressure from 137 to 130 mmHg. Their diastolic pressure reduced from 82 to 75 mmHg. While the systolic pressure drop was only temporary, diastolic pressure remained lower for 30 minutes after participants came out of the sauna.
The hot sauna sessions also improved participants vascular compliance, which is a measure of blood vessels’ ability to expand and contract with changing pressure. Additionally, participants’ heart rates gradually increased during the sessions, to an average of 120 beats per minute. Average heart rate is between 60 and 100. But the 120 beats per minute is what we normally experience during moderate-intensity exercise.
Can you replace a workout with a dry sauna?
No, it doesn’t mean that sitting in a sauna is actually as healthy as working out, says study co-author and cardiologist Dr. Jari Laukkanen, to Time. “For this argument, we are not yet sure.” Dr. Laukkanen points out, muscles aren’t getting the same benefit from a sauna bath that they would normally get from a true workout. “However, circulatory responses may be similar,” he suggests. This means that taking saunas could potentially help keep the heart healthy and pumping.
The link between dry saunas and lower ejection fraction
Beyond reducing blood pressure, frequent sauna use can help ejection fraction in patients with heart failure. Ejection fraction is a measurement of the percentage of blood that leaves your heart each time it contracts. As your heart beats It contracts and relaxes. When your heart contracts, it ejects blood from the two ventricles — left and right.
The term “ejection fraction” refers to the percentage of blood pumping out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat, according to the Mayo Clinic. But your ejection fraction can decrease if you have dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes heart muscle problems. A low ejection fraction suggests problems with the heart’s pumping function and may be linked to symptoms of heart failure.
Some doctors suggest sauna therapy for their heart patients to increase ejection fraction. While saunas are not a form of physical exercise, they do promote “cardiovascular exercise” by improving hemodynamics, or blood flow, through arteries, suggests Dr. Drew Sinatra, a naturopathic doctor. By pumping blood rapidly throughout the body, it helps to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the tissues. In fact, according to Dr. Sinatra, sauna therapy may increase left ventricular ejection fraction in patients with heart failure and increase peripheral circulation by five to 10 percent.
How saunas help to decrease blood pressure
Sauna bathing helps several ways to decrease blood pressure, at least temporarily, says Laukkanen. It increases body temperature by up to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes blood vessels to widen blood to flow easier. It also activates sweating, which eliminates fluid from the body. But the main reason most people visit a sauna is to relieve stress and mental fatigue, which is another contributor to hypertension.
But there are some precautions
There are some cautions with dry sauna therapy. For healthy people, and cardiac patients with stable coronary heart disease, dry saunas are generally safe. If the goal of sauna therapy is to lower blood pressure, use five-minute sessions only. A lower temperature (less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit) is recommended. Additionally, if you suffer from heart failure, you should start off very slowly with a low heat, suggests Sinatra.
It’s important to note that due to the unique properties of Finnish saunas, the results aren’t applicable to steam baths and hot tubs. Finnish saunas are wood-lined rooms, heated by a stove topped with stones. The air inside the sauna is very hot and dry. Meanwhile, those with low resting blood pressure or heart disease should speak with their doctor first before using a sauna.
— Katherine Marko