You may have heard about studies linking sauna use to a variety of health benefits. But before you add sauna visits to your health regimen, you should know that the research has been limited and mostly comes from Finland.
In Finland saunas are part of the national culture. They're found in most homes and even offices. A typical Finnish sauna is a wood-paneled room with an electric heater containing rocks, over which you ladle water to increase the humidity. The temperature is usually at least 150°F.
Most of these Finnish studies have used data from the all-male study1. The data included, among many other things, how often middle-aged men used saunas over a two-decade period.
- One study2 found that Finnish men who most often used saunas had a reduced risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). The researchers think that saunas may reduce blood pressure by promoting relaxation and by improving blood vessel flexibility.
- This was supported by a clinical trial3. It found that middle-aged Finnish men and women had reductions in blood pressure and blood vessel stiffness after spending 30 minutes in a sauna. The measurements were taken only immediately after the sauna and then 30 minutes later. It’s not known how long such improvements persist.
- Two other Finnish studies from 2017 linked frequent sauna use (four or more times a week) to reduced risk of pneumonia4 or Alzheimer’s disease5.
- An analysis6 found that Finnish men who used saunas four to seven times a week over two decades had much lower cardiovascular and mortality rates than men who used them less often.
- A small Polish study7 found that young men who had 10 sauna visits over three weeks had modest reductions in total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL “bad”) cholesterol. There was no comparison group, however.
Sweating the details
Keep in mind that most of these were observational studies. That means they could only find links between sauna use and various health outcomes, not establish causality.
Therefore it may be something else about people who sit in saunas for hours every week that helps keep them healthy. In addition, most of the studies involved middle-aged Finnish men. So, it’s not known if the results would also occur in women, older or younger people, and those in other countries—or in people who use saunas less frequently than the Finns do.
Would steam rooms and hot tubs have the same potential benefits as saunas? That’s also unknown.
Use a sauna only if you find it relaxing and enjoyable, not as a health cure or as a substitute for exercise (wishful thinking!).
- If you’re a novice, start with short visits at moderate temperature.
- Drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol.
- Don’t use saunas, or at least check with your doctor beforehand, if you are:
- Have heart disease or another chronic condition
- Taking medication that may affect blood pressure
- If you become lightheaded, leave the sauna.
- Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study
- Francesco Zaccardi. American Journal of Hypertension, November, 2017.
- E. Lee. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, October, 2017.
- SK. Kunustor. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, September, 2017.
- T. Laukkanen. Age and Ageing, December, 2016.
- T. Laukkanen. JAMA Internal Medicine, April, 2015.
- D. Gryka. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, July, 2014.