Saunas: much more than just hot air?

In Nordic countries in particular, many regularly go to the sauna. Bathing in heat has been considered for centuries to have health-promoting effects.

Sauna sessions and their associated health outcomes

The sauna: an old Nordic tradition

In cold Scandinavia, people have been regularly going to the sauna, as their predecessors have also done for thousands of years. In Finland in particular, the passive heat of the sauna is regularly used. The heat is said to have a health-promoting effect, protecting against vascular diseases such as high blood pressure or other cardiovascular diseases, as well as reduce the risk of dementia and respiratory diseases. But can these effects actually be proven?

Is there evidence for the effects the sauna passive heat acclimation?

An increasing number of studies are looking into the question of whether the traditional health benefits of saunas can actually be proven and quantified. And the answer seems to be positive. 

A recent publication has summarised the results of several studies on the subject and comes to the conclusion that regular sauna use does indeed appear to have positive effects on health and chronic illnesses.

What can you achieve with regular sauna visits?

The vascular system seems to benefit the most from passive heat therapy. In one study, for example, systolic blood pressure was reduced by 8 mmHg within eight weeks in test subjects who regularly went to the sauna and were physically active.

Sauna bathing without additional sport also appears to be protective. The study authors even suggest that people who are unable to exercise sufficiently could use the sauna as an alternative to sport and exercise. Such is the benefit of sauna bathing on vascular health.

But that's not all: if a visit to the sauna is combined with sport or other physical activity, the protective effect of both is multiplied.

Why is sauna bathing so healthy?

Studies suggest that regular sauna visits offset the negative effects of chronic inflammatory processes,and  high blood pressure, and thus improve the outcomes of cardiovascular diseases, pneumonia, and COPD. Even a lower mortality rate is possible.

It is assumed that passive heat has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cytoprotective and stress-reducing effects. As a result, it improves immune functions for example, but also neuroendocrine processes, and cardiovascular health.

Take-away for medical practice

Regular sauna use appears to be associated with positive outcomes. The vascular system in particular probably benefits the most. Several studies suggest that the passive heat in the sauna improves cardiovascular health and also potentiates the effects of physical activity. For some patients, sauna bathing could be an alternative to sport if they are unable to exercise sufficiently or at all.

  1. Kunutsor SK, Laukkanen JA. Does the Combination of Finnish Sauna Bathing and Other Lifestyle Factors Confer Additional Health Benefits? A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clin Proc. 2023 Jun;98(6):915-926. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2023.01.008. PMID: 37270272.