Your Weekly Checkup: The Benefits of a Sauna Bath

Studies show that a good steam might be just what the doctor ordered.

Sauna

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“Your Weekly Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.  

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In my memoir, Damn the Naysayers, I wrote about a trip to Vilnius in 1977 when our hosts greeted us with a hot sauna in which temperatures approached 150 degrees Fahrenheit and “an attendant poured cold water on hot coals, generating wet clouds of humid air that enveloped and almost suffocated us.” It turns out they may have known something we didn’t: a 30-minute sauna bath is apparently associated with a variety of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, improved blood vessel flexibility, and lowered risk of coronary disease, sudden cardiac death, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Sauna bathing also has been associated with a reduced risk of respiratory diseases and inflammatory markers.

Both the frequency and duration of the sauna bath exert important impact. Compared with men having one sauna bathing session per week, those having two to three sauna bathing sessions per week had a 22% reduction in fatal cardiovascular events, while those having four to seven sauna bathing sessions enjoyed a 63% reduction. Compared with men having a sauna bathing session lasting less than 11 minutes, those having sessions lasting more than 19 minutes had a 52% reduction in sudden cardiac death.

Sauna bathing may also alleviate pain and improve joint mobility in patients with arthritis. The sauna heat causes blood vessels to dilate and relax, so avoid drinking alcohol during the sauna since that would increase the risk of hypotension and its complications. Regular sauna therapy appears to be safe, providing multiple health benefits for regular users. Pregnant women early in pregnancy might need to be cautious because of evidence suggesting hyperthermia might harm a developing fetus.

While all the above benefits may exist as reported, I must emphasize that the published studies on sauna benefits are few, with several of the excellent reports described only by the group noted above. Critics raise the issue that such observational studies cannot establish causality and those individuals who regularly take sauna baths might have better outcomes because they might be in better health, live a healthier lifestyle, eat a heart-healthy diet, exercise, not smoke, and have more leisure time for soaking.

The authors’ rebuttal to those claims is that they observed “graded inverse associations with sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease events, which are the characteristics of a true inverse association between sauna bathing and outcomes,” and that they carefully adjusted for socioeconomic status, physical activity, and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Whatever the answer, there’s nothing quite like a good hot soak, and, as my grandmother might have said in her Russian accent, “It vuldn’t hoit.”

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