A stint in a sauna is not only pleasant and relaxing but may also improve health, according to the authors of a new, comprehensive literature review. Among the benefits they identified were a reduced risk for cardiovascular, neurocognitive, and pulmonary illnesses such as asthma and influenza; amelioration of pain conditions such as rheumatic diseases and headache; decreased risk for mortality; and an improved quality of life.
Overall, “the physiological responses produced by an ordinary sauna bath correspond to those produced by moderate or high intensity physical activity such as walking,” Jari A. Laukkanen, MD, PhD, from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, and colleagues write in an article published online July 31 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. In fact, the advantages of sauna bathing plus physical activity may be additive, they write.
The findings build on earlier research by the same authors linking sauna use to a decreased risk for stroke. In that study, there was an inverse relationship between frequency of weekly sauna visits and stroke rates per 1000 person-years for follow-up. The authors listed a variety of positive effects associated with sauna baths that might account for that finding, including lower blood pressure and improvements in lipid profiles, arterial stiffness, carotid intima-media thickness, and peripheral vascular resistance, as well as a reduced risk for hypertension, dementia, and cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
They confined the analysis to traditional Finnish sauna baths, as those have been the most widely studied to date. In a Finnish sauna, temperatures range from 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit, with 10-20% relative humidity. A bather will usually spend 5 t0 20 minutes in the sauna and follow it with a swim, a shower, or just a cooling-off period at room temperature, the authors explain. Finnish people typically have “a sauna bath at least once per week, with the average habitual frequency being 2 to 3 times a week.”
Many physiologic pathways have been implicated as possible mediators of sauna benefits, including reduced blood pressure, “improvement in endothelial function; reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation; beneficial modulation of the autonomic nervous system; positive alteration in levels of circulating vascular risk factors such as natriuretic peptides and lipids; hormonal changes, improved arterial stiffness, arterial compliance, and intima media thickness; and improvement in the cardiorespiratory system as well as cardiovascular function,” the authors write.
The growing body of evidence on the cardiovascular effects of sauna sessions, plus “the established role of physical activity” in maintaining good health suggests that both activities together may enhance health benefits even more, they add. “Indeed, we have recently shown that a combination of good fitness levels due to aerobic exercise and frequent sauna bathing confers more protection against the risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events.”
I’m convinced. Starting this week I will add a sauna between my weight lifting and swim on Thursday afternoons. I have to walk past the sauna to get to the pool anyway, why not spend 5-20 minutes in the “dry sauna”, and then cool off in the pool? I’ll let you know how it goes.
Source: July 31, 2018 National Institutes of Health
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