The Health Benefits of Saunas
Saunas are a popular relaxation option and have many other health benefits besides. It’s safe for most people, according to an article in Harvard Health Publications, although it’s always wise to take some precautions.
People usually go into a sauna after swimming or a spa treatment. Its positive cardiovascular and muscular effects are indisputable but it isn’t suitable for everyone. OK, but what does the evidence reveal? When should you give it a miss?
Types of sauna
The traditional sauna consists of a room, usually with wooden walls and seats, in which there’s a furnace or hot stones that give off heat. This heat is usually dry and leaves a humidity level between 10 and 20%.
However, the humidity varies, depending on the country. For example, Turkish saunas tend to have a higher level compared to traditional Finnish saunas. In addition, there’s another difference in the heat supply.
- Wood can heat the room and produce high temperatures and low humidity levels
- An electric heater, usually connected to the floor, has the same effect as a wood-heated sauna
- An infrared sauna doesn’t heat the entire room, only the person’s body through infrared waves (this is because it reaches lower temperatures than the other two rooms but produces the same amount of sweat)
- Steam baths are different from saunas as the heat isn’t dry, but humid so you sweat due to the high level of humidity
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What is a sauna for?
Human beings are homeotherms. What that means is external temperature variation doesn’t usually affect us. Mainly because the body’s mechanisms allow us to maintain a stable internal temperature.
These mechanisms are evident when we’re inside a sauna as there’s an increase in the external temperature. The body responds as follows:
- There’s an increase in the diameter of the skin vessels that allows more blood flow in the skin and the blood can be more in contact with the outside. As a result, we can get rid of the heat.
- Small amounts of water and salts are expelled through the pores of the skin to cool the body — sweat. In addition, heat is removed by evaporation.
- The heart expels blood faster and skin blood flow increases.
- The level of steam increases and moistens the airways; thus, it dissipates heat.
As you can see, the main function of the sauna is to increase body heat so as to activate all these regulatory pathways. What’s the purpose though?
Health benefits of the sauna
Activating all the mechanisms explained above is relaxing and calms us down. This improves our blood circulation and provides relief to tense muscles, especially in the neck and head.
One can relax even more by meditating during sauna sessions. In addition, this state of calm lingers and helps you sleep better.
Do saunas improve cardiovascular health?
Studies reveal that the sauna may have a certain benefit in people with hypertension. This is due to the vasodilation produced in the body by the increased heat. In addition, they also show that it can improve the force with which the left ventricle of the heart expels blood in patients with chronic heart failure.
A study published in 2014 evaluated the relationship between saunas and their effect on the incidence of cardiovascular disease. However, we need further research to be able to clearly determine a relationship.
The aforementioned study, published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, studied 2315 middle-aged men from eastern Finland for nearly 20 years. They categorized the participants according to the frequency with which they went to the sauna and then evaluated whether they experienced any cardiovascular disorders during this period.
The study revealed that saunas are a protective factor against cardiovascular diseases of any type in the male population. However, the study emphasizes the need for further research on this subject. Moreover, it shouldn’t be the first-recourse in spite of its benefits.
Can saunas reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease?
The same study from Finland didn’t only look at cardiovascular disease, but also at the incidence of dementia in the 2315 male volunteers.
Men who went into a sauna two or three times a week reduced the risk of dementia by 22% and the risk of Alzheimer’s by 20%. However, those who went four to seven times a week for sessions had a nearly 65% lower risk of both neurodegenerative diseases.
Despite these conclusions, the reduction found by the study isn’t as significant as it may seem. This is because there may be other related elements. Patients with dementia don’t usually use saunas, for example.
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Other possible benefits of saunas
A review in the American Journal of Medicine describes the various benefits associated with saunas. However, it concludes that there’s a need for more research and trials before we can take any of these claims to heart.
- In conclusion, saunas lead to fluid expulsion but don’t dehydrate the skin. Also, they may be good for people with psoriasis but sweating may worsen the itching in those with atopic dermatitis.
- Saunas promote relaxation and the brain perceives less pain. Thus, they’re an adjuvant to soothe pain and joint mobility in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- In addition, saunas relieve the symptoms of patients with asthma and chronic bronchitis because they humidify the airways.
The risks of going into saunas
Saunas produce more benefits than risks in healthy people. However, those with a history of cardiovascular disease should consult their doctor first. OK, so what are the potential risks?
Excreting fluids profusely can dehydrate you. In fact, you may lose up to two cups of water in a sauna session. This can be bad for people with kidney problems who can’t control water loss. It is, therefore, essential to drink water before and after going into a sauna.
Alterations in pressure
Vasodilation decreases blood pressure so a sauna session could aggravate the condition of a person with uncontrolled baseline hypotension.
Also, your body may raise your blood pressure to stabilize if you go from the hot environment of the room into the cooler water of the pool. Thus, it can lead to transient hypertension that’ll lead to fainting.
Things to keep in mind about saunas
As you can see, there’s plenty of evidence to support some of the health benefits of saunas. Still, you must be cautious in order to prevent accidents or unwanted reactions. Get out of the sauna immediately if you feel dizzy or experience a headache.
Finally, people with a preexisting condition or those who are pregnant must consult a doctor before going to a sauna. This professional should be able to determine whether saunas are safe for them.