When looking for “health hacks,” many of us first turn to common sense. It’s a good first step to avoid things that are obviously bad for us and do obviously good things. We stop eating Cheetos and start eating more broccoli. But sometimes, what seems intuitive is incorrect. For instance, you would think that a sauna might be bad for a person with heart health concerns, but research has shown the opposite.
A sauna is a small, warm room designed to make you sweat for up to 30 minutes. They can be steamy or dry. You might expect the heat to put your body under unnecessary stress. But research using 1,688 people found the opposite. People who frequently used saunas were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease causes. And the longer and more often they were in saunas, the more likely they were to recover from heart attacks and strokes.
The research was performed in Finland, where saunas are a normal part of the culture and are frequently a social activity. They saw that people’s blood pressure was lower after visiting the sauna, and their arteries were less stiff.
A different study from Poland found that 10 sessions of 15 minutes in a sauna lowered cholesterol levels. The researchers compared the results to what you would see after a moderate workout.
“We do know that heat (from hot tubs, steam, saunas or even warm climates) has therapeutic benefits with regard to lowering blood pressure,” said Dr. Cindy Grines, chair of cardiology at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “Heat therapy is known to be beneficial for many different systems within our bodies. In fact, the reason one develops a fever is that heat allows the body to better fight the infection.”
New research out this month has linked saunas to longer, healthier lives with slower aging. They have found that men who use saunas two or three times a week have a 66 percent lower risk for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. They were also 40 percent less likely to die prematurely.
The studies don’t prove that the sauna is the cause of the benefits. Researchers who weren’t involved point out something else about saunas: you can’t use a cellphone in them. It could be that the root cause of the help isn’t the heat, but it’s that it gets you out of any form of technology. Even reading a paper is harder. Once you are in a sauna, you can have a conversation, but that’s all.
Saunas aren’t as common here as they are in Europe, but many gyms and the Y have them. When you use a sauna, you should be hydrated before and during. Pay attention to how you are feeling, and if you become dizzy. Stand up slowly when you leave and avoid alcohol beforehand. You shouldn’t stay in a sauna for more than 15-20 minutes, and you should gradually cool down afterward. You can speak to your doctor about if visiting a sauna is right for you. Talk through your options and find the closest sauna to you.