Should I have more saunas?

Research in Finland shows that regular saunas considerably decrease the risk of heart disease in men. Yet saunas in this country often warn those with a heart condition not to use them

Saunas usually have signs warning against their use by pregnant women, children and anyone with a heart condition. Yet in Finland, where there are 1.6m saunas for a population of five million, children often try them in infancy and almost everyone has at least one a week.

Last week, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine of 2,315 middle-aged men, who had been assessed for more than 20 years, concluded that saunas reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by up to 50%, and the risk of a sudden death (defined as within an hour of an acute change in symptoms) by up to 63%. The researchers allowed for factors such as existing heart disease, age (the average was 53), blood pressure, smoking and anything else that might increase risk.

Not surprisingly, the research was done in Finland. One of its authors, Dr Lari Laukkanen, said that the benefits of saunas outweighed any risks and that the more frequently people had them in the study (four to seven times a week), the more they seemed to be protected from heart disease. He says he is always surprised by health warnings in countries outside Finland, as in his opinion saunas are safe for most people except those with unstable angina, a recent heart attack or a narrowing of their aortic valve – or if you feel unwell.

People with stable heart disease should be OK, according to the research. Deaths in saunas are rare and usually associated with alcohol – people get hyperthermia because they’re too drunk to realise how hot they are. So is this enough for you to do as they do in Finland, and build one on to your house?

The solution

There is evidence that saunas are good for you, but this particular study was done only on men in Finland where saunas are dry and kept at 80 to 100C at the level of the bather’s face. The results wouldn’t necessarily be the same, for example, in women in Wales. But there is evidence that regular exposure to saunas increases the output of the heart, lowers blood pressure, improves tolerance to heat and may also improve breathing by increasing (among other things) the vital capacity – the maximum amount of air a person can exhale.

In Finland, pregnant women use saunas and there seems to be no increase in birth abnormalities, with it considered safe for all but high-risk pregnancies. Healthy Finnish children over the age of five cope with shorter sessions (five minutes) sitting on the lower, cooler benches. Saunas may also alleviate pain in rheumatological conditions. Sensible use is likely to do more good than harm but sweating heavily can make you feel faint so do get up slowly when leaving a sauna.

Powered by article was written by Luisa Dillner, for The Guardian on Sunday 1st March 2015 17.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010