Want to live a long and healthy life? Studies show that you should spend more time in the sauna! For centuries, people have been touting the restorative properties and health benefits of saunas. Researchers like Setor Kunutsor have shown there’s some truth to these claims. Setor is a Research Fellow in the Translational Health Sciences Department of the Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol. He and his colleagues, have found strong links between sauna bathing and cardiovascular health, respiratory diseases, and memory diseases.
During his PhD studies in cardiovascular epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, Setor met Professor Jari Laukkanen, a visiting scientist from Finland. Jari invited Setor to work with him on a unique Finnish data, which turned into a very productive research collaboration. The dataset comes from Kuopio in eastern Finland, and contains over 20 years of data on thousands of individuals aged 42 to 60. The researchers collected standard medical information such as age, alcohol consumption, BMI, smoking status, and blood pressure, as well as some unique variables. They also collected information on physical activity, skiing habits, cross-country skiing habits, and—most importantly for Setor—sauna bathing habits. “You wouldn’t get these sorts of variables just anywhere,” Setor said. “I think it’s about the only cohort data set that’s has variables on sauna bathing.” When they explored this unique data set, they found that taking frequent saunas actually reduced the risk of several disease conditions. Over the past six years, they have come up with a number of novel and robust findings together on the health benefits of sauna bathing.
Setor and his Finnish colleagues did a study which showed that moderate to high-frequency sauna usage was associated with a lower risk of memory diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Using the Kuopio data set, they assessed the sauna bathing habits of over 2000 apparently healthy men between the ages of 42 and 60. These men were followed over a 20-year period, during which some of them developed dementia or Alzheimer’s. After adjusting their analysis for important factors like age, alcohol consumption, BMI, and resting heart rate, Setor and his colleagues found a very substantially reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia for people who took frequent saunas. The occurrence of memory diseases decreased as the frequency of sauna-taking increased; the fewest instances were recorded among those who took saunas 4-7 times per week.
The health benefits of sauna are truly wide-ranging, as Setor explains. “Sauna reduces the risk of mortality, sudden cardiac death, cardiovascular disease, and recently we’ve shown it reduces the risk of respiratory conditions like pneumonia and chronic obstructive lung disease,” he says. “Other studies have also shown that it reduces the incidence of common colds and improves muscular-skeletal conditions like arthritis and skin conditions like psoriasis.”
Next, they want to look at the mechanisms and pathways that cause sauna to have these health benefits. Several of the diseases they’ve studied are caused by inflammation and high oxidative stress, which studies by other research groups have shown that saunas reduce. Setor and his colleagues think that the fact that that saunas reduce inflammation and oxidative stress is what causes health benefits such as lower blood pressure and reduced risk of pneumonia and dementia. They plan to conduct more experiments to see if that’s the case. They also want to investigate if sauna has an effect on depression. There is some indication that other types of heat therapy like infrared or hot bath may reduce depression, but they want to see if traditional saunas alleviate symptoms.
As we enter into the coldest months of the year, Setor has a suggestion of how to beat the cold. “Now that winter is approaching I encourage people to take more sauna baths because this is the time when people develop high blood pressure, respiratory diseases, colds, and pneumonia. If you have a sauna, this is the time you have to indulge in it.” You should take Setor’s advice. Your heart may thank you for it.