For many, a visit to the sauna is a relaxing way to wind down after a tough workout. However, interesting research is being done showing positive health benefits from regular sauna use. The University of Eastern Finland has done multiple research trials analyzing effects of sauna bathing on the cardiovascular system, and has found a correlation between regular sauna use and improved heart health.
The most recent effort by the University monitored 102 people immediately before and after a 30-minute sauna session, and published the results in both the Journal of Human Hypertension and the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. The results showed that participants’ systolic and diastolic blood pressure dropped by an average of seven points each. Heart rates also showed positive changes, as they increased to an average of 120 beats per minute during sauna use, similar to that during moderate exercise. This shows improvement in vascular compliance, which is a measure of the blood vessels’ ability to expand and contract under pressure.
A direct reason for the drop in blood pressure can only be hypothesized at this point, but the trains of thought all make sense. With an increase of body temperature by an average of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, blood vessels will expand and allow blood to flow easier. Sauna bathing also triggers sweating, which removes fluids from the body. Finally, there’s the reason why many people get in a sauna in the first place – to relax and relieve physical and mental stress, known contributors to hypertension.
Benefits of sauna bathing are being tested outside of heart health as well, however the research is still very new. Endurance during physical activity may be increased from sauna use by improving circulation and nutrient delivery to muscles, therefore reducing depletion of glycogen. This same principle also implies that sauna bathing may be relevant for healing injured muscles. Heat therapy, such as sauna use, has also been shown to increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which increases the growth of new brain cells and helps with survival of existing brain cells. This has hypothetical implications in the treatment of nervous system disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as prevention in late stage cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Finally, there have been studies done on flies and worms showing that brief exposure to high temperatures increases lifespan by up to 15%. Obviously, it is difficult to compare research done on flies to humans, but the suggestion remains exciting.
Any time you deliberately apply a type of physical stress to your body, caution must be taken. Make sure you stay hydrated before and after sauna bathing. I would also recommend starting out with only a few minutes at a time, allowing yourself to get used to the change in temperature. As always, be sure to speak with a health professional before starting any regimen involving any type of physical stress.
Yours in Health, Dr. Alex
Project Wellness Company Madison, WI