Monday, February 23, 2015

To Praise Saunas. Or Not?

A recent study from Finland suggests that saunas might have the ability to reduce mortality from heart disease:

A study from Finland found that men who use saunas frequently are less likely to die from heart disease. Men's risk was even lower when they visited saunas more often in a week, and when they spent longer periods of time in a sauna each session, the researchers reported.
The findings could cause cardiologists to reconsider commonly held concerns about exposing heart patients to the heat present in a sauna, said Dr. Paul Thompson, medical director of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., and a member of the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council.
"As a cardiologist, I have discouraged patients from using a sauna, from concerns over heat putting demands on a person's cardiovascular system," Thompson said. "Maybe we shouldn't be so restrictive with our patients."

I'd be careful about changing the recommendations too soon.  That's because the role of saunas in Finland is very different from someone in the US suddenly beginning to steam themselves regularly.

Saunas are a weekly custom in Finland.  Almost every single Finn has been in sauna thousands of times by the onset of middle age (and the men in the study were aged between 42 and 60).  The effects might be quite different for someone with no experience in löyly-taking suddenly beginning hour-long sessions of sweating.

I have not read the original study, so I assume that it controls for the initial health status of the men and how much exercise they take in general.  If not, the correlation could be caused by those factors:  Healthier men exercise more and take more saunas, too, and often the sauna is enjoyed after rigorous exercise.  I'm also pretty sure that the Finnish guidelines have also warned heart patients to abstain from sauna.

Still, the findings are thought-provoking.

I love sauna!  Love it, love it, love it.  When I'm in Finland I take one every night, and I miss it here (a hot bath is not a substitute, though I tried).  Some of my fondest childhood memories are running out into the snow bank with my sister to make naked snow angels and then back into the heat of the sauna.

The after-effect does feel quite a bit like having just had a good workout.  A singing of the happy cells of the body, if you like.