A Sauna is, according to Wikipedia:
“a small room or building designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions”
and the sauna, as we know it in the Western world, originated in Finnland. Indeed in the Middle Ages saunas had become very popular all across Europe, but the spread of syphilis in the 1500’s and the fear of this disease caused a large decline in the usage of saunas in all parts of Europe, except for Finnland where the disease did not take such a hold. And this in part is why we now tend to associate the sauna with Finnland.
So much for the history lesson, right!!.
What is exciting and encouraging for those of us who are dealing with blood pressure concerns, or those of us who want to avoid developing hypertension, is the fact saunas can in fact be part of a healthy treatment plan targeted at helping to control blood pressure.
The Goods on Saunas
Before delving into the effects of a sauna on blood pressure and the studies confirming such findings, it is important to establish that in the world of today there are several different kinds of saunas.
The original sauna consisted of a fireplace upon which large stones were placed and then water was thrown on to the stones to produce steam. Their use was very pragmatic, as the elevated temperature, or at least the impression the steam gave, enabled the home dwellers to remove their attire.
Things have come along way since those days, and nowadays there are several types of saunas.
- wet saunas
- dry saunas
- smoke saunas
- steam saunas
… and electric stove saunas seem to be the most widely favoured in many places, including fitness establishments, gyms, hotels and especially in the urban areas. The stones are heated and kept at a certain temperature using electric heating elements and a thermostat with a timer. Infrared saunas are also growing in popularity!
Do Saunas lower Blood Pressure?
Now lets have a look at the science and some research in order to answer this question.
First of all we have a study from …. where? Yes, you guessed it Finnland.
In this study researchers looked at the effects of sauna bathing on a group of Finns over a period of 25 years. And what they discovered was that people who followed a regular sauna bathing routine had a lower risk of developing high blood pressure. And the more often a week these test subjects had a sauna the better the outcome was!
For example, spending time in a steam room two or three times a week led to a drop in the risk of having hypertension by 24 percent. And those who visited four to seven times a week had risk factor of almost 50 percent lower.
How does this work?
The postulated reason that saunas have this blood pressure lowering impact is quite simple. The warmth of the sauna causes the blood vessels to relax and this increased elasticity of the vessels enables easier blood flow, which consequently reduces blood pressure.
Also, the increased demand on the cardiovascular system caused by the intense heat also helps to train and strengthen this system, which also leads to lower blood pressure as the heart learns to pump more efficiently. And this increase in heart work rate also helps to release Nitric Oxide which dilates blood vessels – very similar to exercising!
In addition to this, the amount of sweating caused by the intense heat acts had a diuretic effect. And diuretics are almost always the first type of blood pressure lowering medications a Doctor turns to in order to treat high blood pressure.
There are just a couple of caveats to be aware of in the Finnish study which further research needs to look into:
- The average temperature of the saunas in Finnland are generally higher than in other places, e.g. ranging from 80°C to 100°C (176 F – 212 F), so the effect may not be so great in saunas at lower temperatures.
- More study is needed on those who don’t follow such a regimented routine of regular sauna bathing to see if similar blood pressure lowering results can be found there too.
Infrared Saunas and Blood Pressure
What about people who actually deal with high blood pressure. Are saunas safe?
Well a further study (published in the Japanese Heart Journal in 2004) is worthy of mention in this respect. This involved test subjects, who had a health risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, sitting in an Infrared sauna for 15 minutes a day over a two week period. The heat generated by the infrared sources was set at 60°C (140F) – so quite a bit lower than in the Finnish study described above.
Results showed that the people who didn’t use the sauna had an average systolic (or upper) reading of 122 mmHg. Whereas, the people who did sit in the sauna had an average reading of 110 mmHg.
Excitingly, these results were duplicated in a German study using a similar approach with infrared sauna sessions in a group of men with hypertension who spent time in an infrared sauna two times each week for 3 months. At the end of the period the average BP readings dropped from 156/101 to 143/92!
Some Safety Tips
There are a couple of things to be aware of if you are planning on adding a regular trip to the sauna to help your blood pressure.
Firstly, remember to stay hydrated. The excessive perspiration will lead you to lose fluids quickly and this can become a problem. But this is easily avoided by drinking plenty of water before and after you session.
Do not overstay your visit. It is far better to go in for 10 minutes, come out, take a cool shower, and then return for another session rather than toughing out one long visit in the sauna.
Another factor to bear in mind is that saunas and drinking alcohol are incompatible!! You don’t want to be passing out in the sauna, as the potential heat exposure could be very dangerous to your health.
Avoid the temptation to jump into a cool swimming pool right after leaving the “heat room”. Again the shock to your system could be devastating, especially if your circulatory system is compromised in some way. The cool after-shower is always a better bet!!
Really, if you let common sense be your guide around using a sauna you will be fine!!
Summing it up
There are some risks inherent in the regular sauna bathing, and thus for anyone with a history of heart or kidney disease, or of passing out easily, it would be very important to first check with a Doctor before starting such a sauna regimen.
However, having said that, the advantages of adding saunas to your weekly routine certainly outweigh the risks for the majority of people, and could be a really good addition to a natural treatment plan for controlling and even lowering blood pressure.
As the authors of the Finnish study concluded:
“sauna bathing, an activity that promotes relaxation and well-being, may be a recommendable habit in the prevention of future hypertension.”
It will be interesting to watch out for more research into this subject in the future. So stay tuned!!
If you have had success using saunas to lower your BP I would love to hear about it. As always, any comments or questions about today’s blog are much welcomed below.