Why Saunas Are Good for You

In Finland, many homes have small private saunas like this one. . (Photo: Vladimir Nenezic/Shutterstock)

Looking for a new way to boost your health? It might be time to turn up the heat.

A 2017 study linked regular visits to a sauna to a reduced risk of high blood pressure. More than 1,600 Finnish men ages 42 to 60 participated for more than 20 years, with factors such as smoking and body mass index taken into consideration.

The findings correlate with a 2015 study of more than 2,300 Finnish men that showed a lower risk for a number of cardiovascular conditions, including heart failure and coronary heart disease. Between 1984 and 1985, the men filled out health questionnaires about their weekly sauna use.

The researchers followed up with them again in 2011. They found the men who spent more time in the sauna — both in frequency and duration of visits — had less risk for heart problems and a lower chance of mortality.

The correlation was strong even when researchers accounted for interacting factors, said senior author Jari Laukkanen, a cardiologist at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.

“More is better,” Laukkanen said about the participant's frequency of sauna sessions. “It seems that those who had more than four sauna sessions per week had a lowest risk, but also those with two to three sauna sessions may get some benefits.”

Not just for heart health

Regular time in a sauna seems to benefit the brain, too. Findings showed a correlation between frequent sauna use and a lowered risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. And in a 2018 study, researchers found that older adults who use a sauna at least four times a week were 60 percent less likely to suffer a stroke over the next 15 years, compared with people who only did so weekly.

The benefits don't end there. When exercise is combined with regular sauna use, it can lead to a longer life compared with exercise or saunas alone.

In the U.S., sauna use has never really gained mainstream popularity, although historically, indigenous peoples used sweat lodges to achieve the same effect. But in other parts of the world, particularly in Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, sauna use has remained a tradition. In Finland, where these studies were conducted, sauna bathing is considered the norm rather than the exception. In fact, of the 2,327 Finnish men initially contacted for the 2015 study, only 12 said they did not regularly use a sauna.

So how can sitting and sweating be good for you? Like exercise, sauna sessions can help increase your heart rate and get a good sweat on. In addition, many people find sauna use relaxing. This combination of benefits is what researchers say provides life-long benefits for the heart.

Before you head off in search of the closest sauna, keep a few things in mind. People who have low blood pressure or are dehydrated should not use a sauna. So check with your doctor before giving it a try, especially if you are pregnant.