Sauna and Heart Health Benefits
Our journey on improving heart health and longevity is a difficult and complicated one. Even with all of the medical advancements, we don’t have all of the answers yet, but as we get more knowledgeable and as science continues to improve, we get closer to understanding this subject. Of course, many supplements, “hacks”, and routines are written constantly, but have limited or no scientific backing. Other things that we encounter, which have validity, are just not sustainable (even in short term). An example of this is recommending a plant based diet to inner city population. This fails as a solution for many reasons: lack of produce stores, limited transportation, cost of produce, shelf life etc... .Looking further into literature on the subject of longevity, we start to understand that its a much more complicated problem. We know that chronic diseases are a big cause of death, with heart disease leading the way; and as Dr. Peter Attia puts it “The key to living longer is delaying the onset of chronic disease.” Speaking broadly, we need to manipulate numerous components of health including (but not limited to): nutrition, physical activity, stress management, mindfulness, sleep, sense of purpose, and mental health.
A Study done by (Lauk-kanen) evaluated 2315 Finnish men over the course of 20.7 years, which showed that higher frequency and duration of sauna bathing were inversely and independently associated with risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality. In another prospective cohort study, 1628 men and women followed for 15 years, (Kunutsor) found that having regular sauna baths (4-7 sessions/wk) compared with 1 sauna session/wk was associated with an approximately 62% reduced risk of incident stroke.
So what happens when we are exposed to heat? Similarly to exercise, when you expose your body to stress (ex. heat), it has the mechanisms to help overcome/recover from the stress, which are beneficial to us from the longevity standpoint. We explain some of the key points in the recap below.
Sauna causes similar adaptation as low/moderate intensity exercise. Heart rate is shown to increase up to 150BPM in a sauna, which can lead to similar effects of aerobic exercise.
The more frequent use of the sauna (Finnish sauna specifically) the better. During the study it was found that men that used sauna 2-3 per week had lower all cause mortality by 24%, while men that used the sauna 4-7 times per week had lower all cause mortality by 40% (this is compared to men that used the sauna 1 time per week).
The beneficial effects of sauna baths on CVD and mortality may be mediated via reduction in blood pressure, improvement in endothelial function, reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation, beneficial modulation of the autonomic nervous system, improved lipid profile and arterial compliance.
Sauna bathing has been linked to an improvement in pain and symptoms associated with musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
The overall findings from studies do suggest that sauna bathing is safe for patients with stable CVD, such as those who have recovered from myocardial infarction and patients with stable angina pectoris or compensated heart failure.
Exposure to heat releases heat-shock proteins (HSP), responsible for preserving 3D structure of proteins and resisting stress. HSP have been shown to extend lifespan of flies and worms approximately 15%. (more in the video below).
FOX03 is a well known longevity gene, which is activated by heat stress (more in the video below).
Things to note:
Saunas used in the studies were set anywhere from 80-100 degrees Celsius.
These studies (and our article) is not intended to recommend sauna bathing as a routine remedy for the treatment or prevention of these conditions, including major CVDs. Check with your doctor prior to starting a sauna regiment.
Something to Think About
We need to consider how the entire study was completed and the context. There are many variable to heart disease including, nutrition, age, lifestyle, physical activity, stress etc. These variables were not kept constant over the 20 years of observation (it would be impossible). It is possible that the participants who used the sauna more were also more active and overall healthier. There may be a compounding effect and not just a single activity (sauna) to be the reason for the health benefits.