Spending time in a dry sauna doesn’t just feel great, it may also be good for your heart.

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A trip to the sauna may help your heart, according to a new study. Getty Images

A new study from researchers at the University of Eastern Finland found that individuals reap major health benefits from sauna bathing, regardless of gender.

Previous studies had largely looked at the benefits in just men.

“We have found risk reduction for cardiovascular events in both men and women,” said Tanjaniina Laukkanen, MSc, first author of the study, “We didn’t have this information before.”

Laukkanen and her team published the results of their study in the journal BMC Medicine.

What the study found 

The researchers found that frequent sauna baths were associated with reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD) events (such as heart attack and stroke) and all-cause mortality. However, it is still unclear as to why saunas are associated with these health benefits.

Researchers utilized a prior population-based heart disease study in Finland, the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease (KIHD) Study as a basis for their work. Using the KIHD study, they looked at the occurrence of cardiovascular disease incidents among a cohort of 1,688 participants, both men and women, between the ages of 53 and 74.

Members of the group were initially examined between 1998 and 2001, with regular follow-up visits since then.

Participants were asked to report their sauna bathing habits, including how often (times per week), the duration of each sauna, and the temperature of the sauna room. Depending on sauna frequency, researchers divided participants into one of three groups: once per week, two to three times per week, and four to seven times per week.

A total of 181 fatal CVD events occurred during the roughly 15 years of follow-up — and the more frequent individuals used saunas, the less likely they were to die.

The lowest risk of CVD-related mortality was in the group that used saunas four to seven times per week. The group that only took one sauna bath per week had roughly four times as many deaths as the frequent users.

Those who also tended to take longer saunas (45 minutes or longer per session, compared to 15 minutes or less) also showed better outcomes in terms of CVD-related mortality.

“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, New York.

“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,” said Grines, who was unaffiliated with the study.

Additionally, the study does offer some challenges for an American audience. In Finland, sauna bathing is a widely used and culturally significant activity. The northern European nation is said to have as many saunas as television sets — some 3.3 million of them in a nation of just 5.5 million.

In the United States, you may find a dry sauna at a gym or day spa, but they certainly aren’t a common fixture for most households.

“The greatest benefit was observed in individuals who took very frequent saunas (four to seven per week), a frequency that Americans are unlikely to achieve,” said Grines.

Staying safe in the heat

Also in the United States, when entering a sauna, you’re likely to see a warning for individuals with heart problems. Saunas are generally safe, but individuals who have had a previous heart attack or other cardiovascular disease should discuss sauna bathing with their doctor.

Contrary to these warnings in the United States, as this and prior research suggest, saunas are actually likely beneficial to many individuals with heart problems.

For your safety, keep in mind the following recommendations when using a sauna:

  1. Don’t drink alcohol prior to or during use.
  2. Make sure to stay hydrated and bring water with you.
  3. The heat from a sauna can lower blood pressure, causing dizziness, especially upon standing up. Always stand up slowly and be aware of your surroundings.

Besides those caveats, sauna bathing can be a great way to relax and do something for your heart at the same time. And if you’re unsure how to incorporate a sauna routine into your lifestyle, Laukkanen offers some ideas:

“Sauna bathing is great relaxing habit after exercise. Just do sauna however it feels good and enjoyable,” Laukkanen said. “Drink enough water and if possible rise legs during sauna — it helps blood flow to brain. A short sauna time first. Cool down in room temperature and avoid extreme temperature changes.”

The bottom line

A new study from researchers at the University of Eastern Finland found that individuals reap major health benefits from sauna bathing, regardless of gender.

In the United States saunas are far less common than in Nordic countries, but experts say they can still provide health benefits.

While U.S. saunas have posted warnings for people with heart conditions, as this and prior research suggest, saunas are actually likely beneficial to many individuals with heart problems.